Living on the edge: When mindfulness is not enough
I'm a big fan of mindfulness. It is a part of my daily personal and professional practice.
There is building evidence about how helpful mindfulness can be for anxiety, depression and the difficulties we can all experience as we try to manage and regulate our powerful human emotions. But I heard a story the other day which illustrated so clearly that, sometimes, mindfulness is not enough.
Sometimes we need something practical in the moment to help us reclaim our autonomy and our sense of control; something that will quickly bring us back from the edge of despair.
The story, about Buddhism and compassion, was related by Buddhist teacher and author Dr Jack Kornfield. He recounts:
A poet and teacher of these practices named Oriah Mountain Dreamer writes about teaching a meditation and mindfulness seminar in Canada. At the end of the day, Isabelle, a small, thin woman in an oversized parka came up to her and said:
“Can I do this meditation on my own?” I said, “Yes, you can – although many people find it helpful to establish a practice with the help of a group. It’s hard to keep the discipline going on your own.”
“But what will it get me? I mean, what will I get if I do this every day?” Her tone took on a kind of whining quality and I felt my irritation rising. “How fast will it work? I mean, will I feel a difference after a week? How will I know that it’s working?”
This was exactly the kind of thing I detested: the quest for the quick fix, the desire for guaranteed outcomes – the simple answer: Do this and you get that. Plus, my children were waiting for me and I wanted to go home.
Meditation is more of a process
I took a deep breath, looked directly at Isabelle, set my knapsack down on the floor and tried to slow down my words thinking that maybe if I spoke slower, I would feel more patient.
“Well, meditation is more a process than a goal-oriented activity. It can help you become more aware of what is going on within and around you and reduce stress. My best advice is to try it and just be patient with yourself.”
…I picked up my bag and started to button my coat. I really did have to leave, and I wanted to get out of there while I was feeling virtuous for not snapping her head off.
But as I started to move, Isabelle suddenly reached out and grabbed my arm with surprising strength. “But – but what I want to know,” she said, her voice rising in a crescendo that bordered on real panic, “is will it help me find God? If I meditate, will I have an experience of someone or somebody out there listening, somebody with me?”
A wave of desperation swept out from her through me and I was surprised to find my eyes filling with tears.
This woman wasn’t looking for an easy answer or a guaranteed formula because she was lazy. She didn’t want a simple plan because she was unable or unwilling to think critically about what would work. She wanted something she knew would work and work quickly because she was hanging on by her fingernails. She wanted something that would work in a week because she was afraid that she simply wasn’t going to make it through months or years.
I put my hand gently over Isabelle’s where she gripped my arm. “It’s okay, Isabelle. We all feel desperate at times. Nobody does it all by themselves. We all need help.”
Teetering on the edge
Although I have never met her, my heart went out to Isabelle, and reminded me how close to the edge I had been 25 years ago, as my spiralling, downward journey into post natal depression took hold.
In the middle of my despair, I did not have the capacity to explore meditation as a solution to something which, to me in that moment, felt life threatening. Since then, I have often encountered a new client so anxious they can hardly sit still, or so depressed they barely have the energy to speak, let alone meditate.
Mindfulness is a powerful tool, a philosophy and a way of life too. Practised regularly, it is also an excellent way to stabilise emotion and prevent crisis. But those teetering on the edge of despair right now, may not have the luxury of time, energy, or the desire to ‘just be patient’.
Reach out for help
If you feel you are on the edge, it is important that you find someone helpful to talk to; someone with the practical and/or the professional skills to really support you.
It is the most natural thing in the world for one human being to reach out to another for help and support. Our brains are social organs. We stay sane by connecting with each other and don’t do well when we isolate ourselves, either physically or emotionally.
The first step to getting the support you need might be to ‘be more real’ and admit that you are not coping. None of us is perfect. We do not always need to be ‘the rock’ others cling to and it is no vanity to take care of our own well-being; to ensure we get our needs met.
If you are ‘teetering on the edge’, you might want to start by reading an article I wrote a little while ago, which explains how emotional hijacking can be truly life threatening. Then, give yourself permission to reach out to someone else for help, so you can start the process of reclaiming control of your life and your emotional health.
Then, perhaps you can begin to explore the wonderful benefits of mindfulness meditation.