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When Mindfulness Hurts: Feeling Is the Key to Healing

Sad man leaning against wall

“You start watching your breath and all your problems are solved. It is not like that at all. You are working with the heart of your experiences, learning to turn towards them, and that is difficult and can be uncomfortable.” ~Ed Halliwell

Can mindfulness be bad for you?

I had been expecting it: Once you become a regular at it, mindfulness permeates all aspects of your life.

I only sit in meditation for twenty minutes daily (and a full hour on Sundays), but I carry its effects with me the rest of the time, elevated levels of awareness and all.

This is not to say that I constantly float on a blissful cloud. In fact, this sudden increase in mindfulness, even for someone used to deep introspection and resolutely committed to lucidity, comes at a certain cost. What I hadn’t expected was the actual weight of mindfulness.

Three months into the daily practice of mindful meditation, I had to admit that it was not solely eliciting the deep serenity I had hoped for. In fact, I realized that in some ways, I actually felt less happy than before.

I couldn’t precisely put my finger on it. All I knew was that things seemed heavier, more raw. How could that be? Wasn’t mindfulness supposed to help me transcend the vicissitudes of life? What was I doing wrong? Was I the only one in that odd situation?

I decided to do some research. It didn’t take long before I discovered evidence that mindfulness can indeed have “side effects.”

A quick online search showed me that I’m actually in very good company. Mindfulness, and the practice of meditation, has reportedly entailed significant “downsides” for a number of enthusiasts.

We come to mindfulness in the hope that it will constitute the path to peacefulness, often unaware that this path is paved with cracked and bumpy stones. Only after stepping onto that road do you realize how uncomfortable the process can be.

Just like therapy, meditating is difficult, sometimes painful.

The first and most obvious reason is that sitting still, quieting the mind, and focusing on the breath presents a real challenge. Many beginners and non-beginners complain of an overwhelming restlessness or, on the contrary, of an irresistible tendency to fall asleep (I belong to the latter category).

The second reason is that mindfulness has a way of annihilating our blissful ignorance. It offers an unexpected and unparalleled insight into our areas of vulnerability, the sides of us that we are not always prepared to welcome nonjudgmentally.

To get the most of it, one must recognize that the practice of mindfulness is dirty, hard work.

According to Willoughby Britton, a Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University Medical School, the downsides of mindfulness range from mild to severe, and can manifest in various ways—from unexpected anger and anxiety all the way to depression and psychosis.

Mindfulness can exacerbate a number of mental health conditions, bring back to the surface traumatic memories, or simply force you to deal with things that had conveniently been swept under the rug.

Whatever your initial levels of stability (or instability), a lot can emerge in the first stages of the regular practice of meditation. Ready or not, you have to deal with it. It is disconcerting at best. In my case, it was sometimes downright depressing.

Picture a handful of Band-Aids applied to different spots on your body. Each Band-Aid conveniently covers an injury that you’re happy to ignore (or so you think).

Mindfulness is like peeling off the Band-Aids, one by one. It hurts.

Then you discover what’s under them: A bad cut here. A big bruise there. The occasional infected wound. A few badly healed scars. Mindfulness makes it hard to ignore that you are, under all those Band-Aids, actually hurting, or at least not entirely recovered.

To add insult to the injury, mindfulness has a way of preventing you from applying new Band-Aids. Things that we considered pleasant, and that help us deal with life’s vagaries, lose their appeal once we become aware of their true purpose and associated costs.

We use, in our daily lives, an arsenal of strategies, often without knowing it: thinking patterns, daily habits, activities we view as pleasurable “add-ons,” such as eating, shopping, staring at a screen, and so on. We don’t perceive those “pursuits” as Band-Aids. Aren’t they the spice of life?

The regular practice of meditation and a more mindful approach to life, however, sheds some light on our dependence. Any behavior that resists modification might indicate an addiction, even if it was just to chocolate, new running shorts, or social media.

I am now, more than ever, aware of my coping mechanisms, aware that rather than making life interesting, they mostly patch up an aspect of my existence that requires attention.

If I feel bored, tired, or stressed, no amount of sweets, sports gear, or Internet surfing will truly fill the void or fulfill the need.

Where I would mindlessly resolve to an old habit, this new knowledge stops me in my tracks. I pause, observe, notice the underlying emotion or sensation.

If I’m under work-related stress, such as a quickly approaching deadline, or a recalcitrant passage to translate, I will often have a sudden craving for sweets, or feel the pressing need to check my Facebook page. It’s not a coincidence, I know that now, but I needed mindfulness to realize it fully.

Now, instead of walking to the cupboard or opening a new tab in my browser, I stay put and take a deep breath. I skip the coping mechanism and refrain applying a new Band-Aid or replacing an old one.

Even my thought processes are modified. When certain situations repeatedly elicited the kind of stress that requires a Band-Aid, I was forced to reconsider, at least to a certain extent, the choices I had been making in various areas of my life: my career path, other types of commitments, and even some relationships. I realized I had too much on my plate and that I needed to respect my limits.

Accepting the fact that I indeed have limits was no small feat. Even if I have long been aware of some of my “rationalizations” and “compensations,” I have never faced life with such clarity, honesty, and courage. I am proud of it. I am also unsettled.

In spite of this, I am still fully committed to continue with my mindfulness practice. The cans of worms I am opening can be a handful, but I was carrying them anyway, and they were wearing me down. I choose to deal with them.

Things might feel very raw, but they also feel very real. I can already sense a new level of lightness and freedom on the other side of this demanding exercise.

I invite you to give it a try too. As we move along in our mindfulness practice, I trust that we can all find our own sweet spot, the place where an increased awareness meets a renewed sense of well-being.

For many, this will mean starting slow. When you incorporate mindful meditation into your life, don’t go for the three-day retreat right away. Not only will it be too demanding, it might even backfire.

Instead, simply find a quiet place where you can sit for at least five minutes, in silence, every day, and focus on the breath.

You may feel uncomfortable at first, as the feelings you formerly numbed or avoided emerge. Don’t let that deter you. If you embrace the discomfort, you’ll eventually gain the clarity needed to acknowledge and heal old wounds, break unhealthy patterns, and generally step onto the path to a more authentic life.

About Julie Saint-Mleux

When Julie is not busy peeling off her Band-Aids or contemplating the reasons why she put them on in the first place, she enjoys writing about health and wellness, and sharing slowly acquired (and often misplaced) pieces of wisdom. You can find her blog at happinessdishbestsavouredhot.blogspot.ca, and follow her on Facebook.

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  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    Haven’t logged in to Tiny Buddha in a while even though it has been one of the biggest life saviors for me in the past few years. Lately, it felt ‘comfortable/easier’ to avoid mindfulness readings. However, reading this has given me a new perspective (Now, just needs to remind myself of this more often, piece of cake..:P). Thank you for sharing your story! 🙂

  • Julie Saint-Mleux

    I am so glad it spoke to you! You are right, avoiding mindfulness can seem more comfortable… but the struggle is worth it! Good luck in your mindful endeavors!

  • Julie Saint-Mleux

    (Happiness Savouredhot) I am so glad it spoke to you! You are right, avoiding mindfulness can seem more comfortable… but the struggle is worth it! Good luck in your mindful endeavors!

  • Roy Jhciacb Cohen

    Complementary awareness. Something I deal with daily. Or, be careful what you wish NOT for…

    Very nice article…

  • Julie Saint-Mleux

    Something tells me you are a seasoned practitioner of mindfulness, Roy! It’s all in the balance.

  • ● LilyOnHerHair ●

    I can relate to this. While empowering, meditation can also be painful for the reasons described above.

  • Julie Saint-Mleux

    Have you found ways to overcome this? Or do you just push through and hope for the best?

  • ● LilyOnHerHair ●

    I push through and take time to sleep and not think much.

  • jaggerandrea

    This was very helpful to me; as I’ve been practicing for a while now, I see how important it is to live with the discomfort rather than try to push it away in so many ways…I know it’s worth it. I am already “checking” myself more often, and feeling the benefits that come later. Thank you.

  • Julie Saint-Mleux

    Very well said! Discomfort is an integral part of mindfulness, and benefits do come later sometimes.

  • Lewis Barham

    When tuning into my feelings and intuition about a particular problem I’m experiencing I get filled with this complete sense of powerlessness, helplessness and endlessness with no light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve been trying to stay with the uncomfortableness of this experience greeting it with Love and Acceptance, but being completely at peace with the discomfort doesn’t let it pass and be replaced for me. What am I doing wrong? Should I be focussing on the experience from a positive perspective, not from within it, as this attracts more of it? Surely saying something whilst holding the feeling in consciousness like “I love and accept your presence in my life, but now it is time to pass freely with ease for my highest good and ultimate joy”.

  • Julie Saint-Mleux

    Accepting the feelings non-judgmentally is a step in the right direction, for sure. I like your last sentence, as it encompasses both acceptance AND the realization that you would be better off without that “particular problem” in your life. If it becomes overwhelming to manage on your own, perhaps counselling could help? Wishing you well.

  • Lewis Barham

    I personally find counselling too traumatic as it invokes too much uncomfortableness all at once. As opposed to acknowledging, accepting and releasing. Counsellors go so deep into the problem they extrapolate it into your consciousness making me feel bogged down by all the memory. I think the optimum solution is releasing the uncomfortableness by getting your mind tuned into moving on. This takes positivity, gratitude and respect for yourself, not to re-traumatise by reliving it in your mind. Just through accepting and acknowledging a thought/feeling’s presence without judgement we can begin to let our subconscious process it automatically. Thank you 🙂

  • Katie

    such a great article and i’ve experienced much of the same but always thought i was the one out of the ordinary! it is great to hear that others have had similar experiences and that it can be depressing when you’re out of that “ignorance is bliss” stage…now it truly makes sense but i would not go back! thank you for sharing your insights and experience 🙂

  • Julie Saint-Mleux

    This is exactly why I wrote the article: so that, hopefully, less people will feel dumbfounded when they – painfully – discover the downsides of mindfulness. 🙂

  • y3shuA imMANu3l

    “The human form, which we know as men, women and children, are not the real Man, but merely ever-changing aggregations of matter, endowed with an ever-changing consciousness, unsubstantial although living illusions, doomed to perish when the Spirit retires to its home, to rest from its labor; while the substantial, indivisible, and incorruptible Spirit is the real Man, although invisible to the perception of mortals.”

  • M.

    I often go on retreats. People think it’s all relaxed and smooth, while in fact I experience great pains and emotions of my past. I go along because I no longer want to run away from it, because I too deserve the bliss and love that I for years could not feel. Doing this already blessed my life in many, many ways. But it’s not an easy, evergreen state. It’s awakening.

  • Mahesh Sahu

    I started yoga and meditation classes around one year back and I am quite regular. I found initial phase quite beneficial and seems quite enjoyable. But now a days seems more laborious and feels irritating to sit on meditation. Now I am trying to more focus on feeling and sensations. Hopefully this will make me more authentic and blissful in long run.
    Thanks for sharing this article.

  • Julie Saint-Mleux

    Interesting! I have had the same experience: at first it was enjoyable, then it became difficult. It must be a sign that we are making progress and climbing up the mindfulness ladder! 🙂

  • Julie Saint-Mleux

    You are so right. Retreats are not a vacation if you do them well. But the benefits are worth the effort.

  • Dr. J

    I learned about a strange law in physics, Lenz’s Law. Basically, when an electric current is moving in one direction and the poles are reversed to make the current move in the other direction there is a measurable resistance to the change. I don’t think they know why, but it sure applies to making changes in our behaviors. Nice article!

  • Julie Saint-Mleux

    There is also the law of inertia… once you are started in a direction, it requires strength to move in another direction! And if you are not moving at all, a lot of strength to get going too!

  • iBme

    Such a good article! It is so rare, yet so important to address the difficult aspects of a mindfulness practice. It is not about always feeling good or getting rid of negative thoughts, but gaining strength to peek under the band-aids (and eventually pulling them off). Well said!

  • Julie Saint-Mleux

    I like the way you put it: “gaining strength” as opposed to “getting rid of negative thoughts”. In the long run, the benefits of mindfulness are worth the hard work!

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    Wishing you the same! 🙂

  • Focus on your heart center instead of your breath. Enter the emotion; feel it in your body. This is the process of transmuting emotional pain into peace and wisdom. I have a guided meditation on my website if you’re interested. It’s free. It’s called the feeling awareness meditation. It’s very powerful.

  • NastjaHa

    Dear Julie, thank u very much for this article. I found it very helpful. May I ask how do u fight the irresistible wish to fall asleep during meditation?

  • Julie Saint-Mleux

    Falling asleep has been the biggest hurdle for me. On those days when I feel like falling asleep, I sometimes resolves to meditating with my eyes opened, or, if I can, while in movement (e.g. while walking in nature).

  • Thank you for writing this article. I’ve struggled with this as well. Sometimes, we learn some bitter truths about our own behavior as part of our journey to become self-aware. But, I have found that confronting those truths greatly improves empathy for others when I find them doing the same!

  • Julie Saint-Mleux

    You are absolutely right about the empathy part. Once you discover your own shortcomings and acknowledge them, you understand the same ones better in others!

  • Supriya Rao

    Thanks. I was just about to give up on meditation as it seems to be making me tired and bitter nowadays. When I started, I experienced limitless happiness, and now its the other way round. Your article is going to make me continue my practice no matter what.

  • Julie Saint-Mleux

    Please continue! You will reap the benefits for sure.

  • Thanks Julie, you’ve inspired me to blog about my own similar experiences with self-awareness. It’s so easy to judge ourselves when our efforts are not immediately rewarded with happiness!

  • Juliana P.

    I really appreciate you writing this. I’ve been going through my personal journey for a few months now and there are times when I feel so overwhelmed by the emotions and realizations that come up. It’s very comforting to know others are experiencing the same.
    Thank you so much.

  • Yes being mindful is not always pleasant. Life is not always pleasant, is just that we are so addicted to bliss, and bliss is so great. However there is a great side effect we get from being mindful. Emotions, specially toxic emotions don’t have such as hold on us anymore, since we became so used to seeing things as they are we just see emotions as passing clouds and nothing more…there are other good things too.

  • d

    i wish someone would address the fact that for some people ( eg those who have an extreme level of inner chaos from severe childhood trauma) meditation can be harmful, as going inside leads only to intolerable terror and pain. this was my experience for my whole life (meditation actually made me suicidal). it wasn’t until now, at the age of 65 (after finally finding competent psychological help at the age of 60) that the chaos and terror has decreased enough for me to start to benefit from very short periods of meditation.

  • Mariaelena Saracino

    What shall I think when I focus on my breath? I would like to start meditating..

  • Preeti

    This is a great post and thank u so much for letting me know this i am now 24 and suffered a lot in past two years 1 year back i had a breakup and totaly broken any how i saved me from that but i feel i am lonely from in and often now i feel so anxious and depressed so i think i have to do meditation to clean my toxic thoughts and habits i started meditation breathing practice but i became restless, hopeless,more anxious often crying ,feeling more hurt and sleepless so i think that what i did wrong in meditation so i started writing journal but same as that i feel exactly same as before with meditation practice now i am hopeless and can’t able to think what i do to heal me because i need it i also want to be happy live my life fully pls anybody help me