Is Your Mindfulness Program Trauma-Sensitive? 3 reasons you need to know and 3 questions to ask.

It was a busy day in the week about 16 or 17  years ago. Emails were still clunky communication channels, which was good because the voicemail I was listening to carried all the emotions we miss in typescript. She was scared, she said. Having a hard time breathing. After a treatment program. Meditation. Mindfulness. Please call.

Back then, I wasn’t a fan of mindfulness-based programs – a seemingly new-fangled, somewhat New-Age-ish approach to treating mental health difficulties. There was little research to support it as a psychological treatment and, what seemed to me, a whole lot of blind enthusiasm for it. As a long-time meditator, I was also resistant to the idea of bringing something that was clearly a spiritual practice into a healthcare field with its clear rules against imposing religious or personal spiritual practices on our patients/clients.

When I met with the caller, I was ready for a story of incompetence and cult-like indoctrination by the people offering the program. It wasn’t that simple. The mindfulness program had been offered by someone with current training (training is very different now) and the meditations were within the range of what any professional trained in psychological approaches would use as relaxation response or calming breath strategies. And yet, the program had triggered something very distressing for her. From the first day of the program and until she left abruptly, she experienced panic attacks, a sense of being separate from the immediate environment, disembodied, and had nightmares. She didn’t inform the facilitator nor had there been any follow-up when she stopped attending the classes. When I asked, she described having been told in the second class, during a homework review when she disclosed her reaction to the Body Scan, that she simply had to “stay with it”. There were reassurances that “it will pass” and “just sitting with it” would resolve the feelings of anxiety.

This initial case became one of many over the years. Buddhist practitioners who had gone to silent retreats, mindfulness-seekers attending 8-week programs or short intense versions of the same, long-term meditators who suddenly found themselves in whirlpools of distressing emotional and physical experiences. They spoke of feeling like failures in their spiritual practices; angry and betrayed that something intended to relieve psychological distress had caused more suffering. They all had one question: Why were they not warned?

Why is knowing about adverse psychological experiences (APEs) important? Here are five reasons.

Reason 1: It’s not new.

That spiritual practices can lead to distress has been known for as long as spiritual practices have been around. My colleague, Jane Compson¹, discussed the different ways spiritual practitioners view these periods of intense distress.

(A) psychiatrist trained in Western allopathic medicine may judge that the distress is symptomatic of mental illness exacerbated by meditation, and suggest that the person stop meditating.  A Buddhist teacher, on the other hand, may understand the distress as a sign that the meditator is progressing through stages of insight towards liberation of suffering, and suggest more meditation or auxiliary practices as a way of moving through this stage.

She calls for a greater awareness of these APEs because their potential for harming the individual practitioner raises ethical issues of whether and how to offer meditation practices in any setting, spiritual or secular.

Reason 2: It can happen independently of experience or context.

Buddhist scholar/researcher Jared Lindahl, neuropsychologist Willoughby Britton and their colleagues² published what is likely the first in-depth examination of APEs among meditators. They reported that among Western Buddhist meditators

More than a quarter (29%) of practitioners first encountered challenges within their first year of practice, almost one half (45%) between 1±10 years of practice, and one quarter (25%) after more than 10 years of practice.

Challenges occurred during or immediately following a retreat for 43 practitioners (72%). The other 17 practitioners (28%) reported challenging experiences in the context of daily practice. About three-quarters (72%) of participants were regularly practicing within a meditation community or were working with a teacher (75%) when challenging experiences arose.

While we may think that spiritual practitioners experience a different context and intensity of meditation, Lindahl and colleagues point out that

…a number of participants also reported challenging or difficult experiences under similar conditions as MBIs, that is: in the context of daily practice; while meditating less than 1 hour per day, or within the first 50 hours of practice; and with an aim of health, well-being or stress-reduction. Some types of practice associated with challenging meditation experiences were in many cases not dissimilar from the primary components of MBIs.

Reason 3: Awareness of psychological and trauma history is important

More relevant to our discussion here, in Lindahl’s study 32% had a psychiatric history and 43% had a trauma history. They are careful to indicate that prior histories are not necessarily predictive or considered risk factors. At the same time, we know enough about the way psychological challenges, in particular, trauma, are processed that some caution is advisable.

This is where things get really complicated. Many of us may not know that or don’t see ourselves as having experienced trauma. While I do get irritated when some authors equate the “trauma” of burnt toast to the level of aversive childhood experiences (ACEs) that lead to significant debilitation in adulthood, trauma is an historic reality for many of us. The challenge is when we are so functional that we, ourselves, no longer view our history as “traumatic”. We may well have rebounded from it in healthy ways and feel it is something in our past.

But the body knows the trauma differently.

This is where being trauma-informed as a mindfulness therapist and as a mindfulness consumer is very important. The following three questions may help to be trauma-informed and know if the program you are considering is trauma-sensitive.

Question 1: Is the program trauma-sensitive?

This is actually a pre-program question. Ask the facilitators if they are informed of the potential challenges someone with trauma may encounter. Practices such as the Body Scan can evoke reactions if the participant has a history of physical or sexual abuse. Meditations that drop into deep relaxation and open the field of awareness can be anxiety-provoking. What are the facilitators’ approaches should this happen – in the classroom or between classes?

Question 2: What do certain terms mean?

“Just sit with it” or “turn towards the distress” are typical suggestions when participants are feeling distressing sensations or emotions. For the most part, they are acceptable suggestions or invitations to develop distress tolerance. However, if the distress escalates quickly or becomes too intense, these are not the best first line of practice. Ask for clarity and expect responses that are in everyday language.

Question 3: What practices are being taught to help when APEs occur?

Every program is different however there should be a component of grounding practices, resetting the physiology (using the breath), and/or adaptations to typical approaches in meditation. Can you open your eyes if things get activating internally? Can you stand, step out of the room and return, or care for yourself in some way that respects your needs and those of other participants? Can you meet with the facilitator after the class or, if you need to, during the week?

Mindfulness programs can be very helpful and life-changing. Our role as facilitators is to ensure that these practices can change your life in the right direction. Our role as participant is to feel safe and supported as we go along this path of practice.

Recommended Book: Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for safe and transformative healing by David Treleaven, W.W. Norton & Company


  1. Compson, J.C. (2018). Adverse Meditation Experiences: Navigating Buddhist and Secular Frameworks for Addressing Them. Mindfulness, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-017-0878-8
  2. Lindahl et al., (2017). The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists. PLoS ONE 12(5): e0176239. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176239

Before you close your eyes: things to know about meditation

“Do you meditate?”

It’s a common question these days. Almost everyone I speak to has taken a mindfulness program or is looking for a place to learn how to meditate. It’s an exciting time as well because, as healthcare professionals, we’re finding ways to help people that seem to be making a difference in their lives. So, how can there be a problem with that?

None, if meditation is taken up with an understanding of what it is and how it works. And, more important, how it doesn’t work.

What we think meditation is

Most people want to feel free of the stresses in their lives and it’s a realistic desire. Jobs are demanding or lost; relationships are frayed; the world seems fragile with disasters and destruction; chronic illnesses are affecting so many people. Who wouldn’t want something for these turbulent moments that gives a few moments of peace? When we approach meditation with the agenda of feeling better,  it can feel good and for many of us, it may be enough to get us through the tough times.

But, is meditation just a practice of feel-good sayings or moments of by-passing reality?

What is meditation, really?

A Zen teacher said, “If all it takes to be enlightened is sitting, then frogs would be enlightened.”

If you’ve been meditating and still find yourself getting angry, frustrated, sad, or reactive, welcome to being human. The one thing meditation will not change is the natural responses we have to upsetting events in our life. Of course, the Catch-22 is that the more upset we feel in our lives, the harder it is to meditate because it’s all the same mind and mental habits.

The intent of meditation is to become aware of three patterns of reactivity:

Anger – I don’t want what I have
Clinging – I want what I don’t have
Confusion – I don’t know why things are going the way they are

If it’s happening in our everyday lives, it’s going to pop up in on the cushion as well. And, when it does, we start to feel meditation “isn’t working”. That’s when we may start avoiding or only sitting if it gives us good feelings like relaxation.

What keeps us from going back to the cushion?

In Buddhist psychology, there are five habit patterns that get in the way of changing our reactivities (and why we need to “meditate” throughout the day):

Desire for things that please us
It’s easy to see that if we really want to sleep in because the bed is so warm and cozy, we’re less likely to get out and get our butt on the cushion. that’s a low-level example, but I think we can see that many activities appear more desirable than sitting still – especially if sitting still brings up unpleasant thoughts and emotions!

Anger
It’s the same with feelings of anger; whether in the everyday activities of our lives or when we sit and the gates open, anger is a tough emotion to be a comfortable feeling. The problem is, if we’re practising anger throughout the day, it’s more likely to show up when we sit down and relax our mental control. So, watch for those moments of irritation when you’re off the cushion!

Sloth & torpor
I admit these are my favourite obstacles! Most days, by the time I get home, I’m wiped out – lethargy and laziness are my BFFs. If I try to sit when I feel this way, I just end up drifting off to sleep, which I rationalize as being one with the cosmic vastness. I also know that moment-by-moment, I’m likely practising sloth & torpor in my day as well. That means I need to pay attention to my procrastination and avoidance patterns.

Worry & agitation
These buddies are linked to needing an outcome that reassures us we’re doing the right thing. The problem is that there’s no “right thing” in most activities and our perfectionism pushes us to set unrealistic standards. Do a reality check: is what you’re aiming for really what’s needed.

Doubt
This obstacle is the foundation of the previous four. And, it’s a sneaky one! It shows up as perfectionist tendencies, reverse praise (You did so well the last time!), cautious behaviour and procrastination, and so much more. Learn what you go-to excuses are for not getting to something that needs doing. See which of the previous four obstacles are partnering up with doubt to bring you to a grinding halt.

Am I getting enlightened?

Let’s hope so! Be careful of the hype around meditation. It doesn’t cure everything (or anything, actually). However, it can become possible to develop a level of steadiness that makes things more understandable. It can become the pause in our interactions that allow us to make a better choice, or see how we get in our own way. The catch is that it takes practice – and avoiding the desire for and addiction to the quick-fix of relaxation is the first step.

If you want to practice, try our meditations here (in French here) or on Insight Timer.

Mindful Movements: Yes, you can be mindful even if you can’t sit still.

I am often told, “I know meditation is good for me, but I just can’t sit still!”  Well, here is some good news for all of you twitchy would-be meditators: sitting still is not the only way to meditate.  In fact, mindfulness meditation, which focuses greatly on the body, pairs extremely well with movement.

When we apply the three aspects of mindfulness identified by psychologist Shauna Shapiro—Intention, Attention, and Attitude—to physical activity, we are engaging in mindful practice. We can practice in the following way:

  • Start a physical activity by setting the Intention to bring the full focus of our awareness to the activity. Engage in the activity while keeping ourselves in the present moment.
  • Pay Attention to our breath and the bodily sensations that accompany the activity. Our mind will wander, and when it does, we can gently guide it back to the breath and the sensations.
  • Approach the activity with an Attitude of openness and curiosity. Instead of pushing ourselves to reach a particular goal or comparing our performance to others’ or our past performances, we can ask ourselves, “What happens when I move in this way?” and monitor our breath and our bodily sensations to receive the answer.

Practicing “mindful movements” provides us with the opportunity to increase our awareness of our bodies, improve our focus and practice non-judgmental awareness. Here are six ways to practice.

 

As our bodies only exist and move in the present moment, when we engage in focused, mindful movements, we necessarily enter the present moment. When our minds wander, guiding our attention back to the body and its movements brings us back to the present.

 

Mindful movements take us out of the “autopilot” mode and allow us to appreciate how much our bodies do for us without our conscious awareness. If you are standing still and rock back onto your heels, you will notice that your body automatically bends at the waist and your upper body leans forward to create a counterbalance to ensure that you do not fall backward.  It is amazing to realize that all of this occurs automatically, outside of our conscious awareness or control!  We also realize how many parts of our bodies work together to make even the simplest motions possible.  The basic action of rocking back on our heels engages nearly every part of our bodies!

Mindful movements practiced regularly provide excellent benchmarks that allow us to see where we are at on a particular day. One day we will be able to complete a particular movement without any difficulty and the next day the same movement will make us feel exhausted or make us realize that our balance is off.  Realizing where we are at on a particular day can lead to better decision-making. For example, if we notice that we feel particularly off-balance one day, we may wish to reconsider taking on particularly stressful tasks that day.

 

Mindful movements can provide a good opportunity to play at the edges of our comfort zones. For example, mindfully rocking back onto our heels and forward onto our toes allows us to watch how our breathing changes and our minds react when we are faced with the uncomfortable sensation of being off balance.  The more we become aware of how our bodies and minds react to stressful circumstances, the more skillful we can be in recognizing the symptoms of stress in the “real world” and, in turn, making good decisions regarding how to best manage this stress.

Practicing mindful movements allows us the opportunity to appreciate impermanence. If we hold a squat for a while, we may notice a burning sensation in our thighs and accompanying thoughts like, “I can’t hold this any longer.  My thighs are killing me!  I am literally dying here!”  However, after coming out of the squat, we notice that not only have we survived but also that the sensation has passed within a few moments.  Practicing mindful movements on different days makes us aware that our physical and mental states vary widely from day-to-day.  This awareness allows us to appreciate that all things pass and change with time.

Mindful movements provide a good opportunity to practice non-judgmental awareness and self-compassion. As amazing as our bodies are, they have limits.  Often when we hit a limit, we feel frustrated with ourselves.  While this is a natural reaction, it is not usually logical or helpful.  After all, tipping over in a balance pose is not a catastrophe and says absolutely nothing about our worth.  Berating ourselves for tipping over is not likely to increase our balance!  Practicing how to meet the small disappointments that often accompany physical activity with openness, curiosity and kindness will make us more adept at adopting this type of attitude and make it more likely that we will be able to do so in regard to life’s larger disappointments.

Whew!  Who knew you could be practicing so much through the performance of some small, slow movements?!

While it is possible to apply Intention, Attention, and Attitude to a Zumba class or a run, it is usually easiest to start with a slower practice, like yoga, walking or gentle stretches and movements.  Approach your practice with curiosity and see what arises!

Please watch for a future post in which I will set out instructions for a simple series of mindful movements.

Heather Cross

Heather is a lawyer, yoga instructor, and a Trained Teacher in
Mindfulness-based Symptom Management
at the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic

Viewpoint Psychotherapy offers mindfulness workshops

Siobhan Nearey, Registered Psychotherapist and OMC-trained mindfulness teacher, has opened her private practice! Please visit Viewpoint Psychotherapy for information on the terrific workshops she will be offering.

 

DE-STRESS YOUR SPRING

Three one-hour talks with Siobhan Nearey, Registered Psychotherapist, about reducing your stress and putting the spring back into your step!

Special rate: All three talks for $60. Please email talks@vpt123.ca for discount code.

Please subscribe to our newsletter for more information on events.

So, What’s the Deal with Mindfulness?        Tues, Apr 4, 2017 @ 7:00 pm,  cost: $25               Buy Tickets

Wondering what’s up with mindfulness? Research indicates that it benefits our physical and mental well-being. But isn’t that just one more thing to squeeze into our busy lives?

Coping with Job Stress                                     Wed, Apr 12, 2017 @ 7:00 pm,  cost: $25                Buy Tickets

Are you stressed at work? Isn’t everyone? There’s no magic wand to change our workplaces into supportive and empowering spaces. So, how can you get your life back when work is running you down?

Taking Care of Yourself in a Busy World      Thu, Apr 20, 2017 @ 7:00 pm,  cost: $25             Buy Tickets

Do you find yourself taking care of others, but neglecting your own needs? Do you criticize yourself because you can’t get everything done? Come and learn some self-compassion and self-care techniques that will help you take care of you.

Location: 2487 Kaladar Ave, room 215 (sorry, no elevator)

Call or text: 613-700-4969     Email: talks@vpt123.ca

Special rate: All three talks for $60

Book Review: Make peace with your mind by Mark Coleman

Mark Coleman, mindfulness teacher and psychotherapist has gifted us a powerful set of directions that liberate from that most insidious part of ourselves: the inner critic. In Make Peace with Your Mind (New World Library), the inner critic is revealed in its history, purpose and misguided intentions and Coleman makes it completely accessible. So let me start with what I usually reserve for the last line:

Get this book.
Devour it.
Don’t apologize for stopping conversations, meals or entire relationships in order to consult it – mid-sentence, mid-thought, mid-kiss.

About the book

Make Peace with Your Mind is set up to encourage practice. Don’t be daunted by the thirty-one chapters. I timed them and each took about 15-20 mins to read. But I was impatient to get to the practice section so take at least 30 mins to savour the words. Then spend a goodly time with the practices. Some are written reflections, some require wandering out into your world. Either way, these are crucial. As I often say in the mindfulness groups I run: Practice is who you become. It may as well be someone you want to be.

Reading Coleman’s perceptive insights into the inner critic – who it really is, how it came to be, how it is embedded in our mind and body – is like turning towards an aspect of ourselves with which we are deeply intimate yet see through blurred eyes. He begins with a big sky view inviting us to see the breadth and depth of this inner process in a way that is, at the same time, immense and safe. After sketching out “The Big Picture” (the first section), he dives into the intricate nature of the inner critic: Self-judgment and How to Work with the Critic. Then ironically, it gets tough: Love and Compassion for ourselves. How can we learn to love ourselves after years and years of being gaslit into no longer trusting our experience of who we truly are. But it’s only when we can connect with ourselves without the filters of fear and anxiety that we can also reach out to others and offer them the same safety through love. Coleman walks us through these stages of understanding and steps to freedom with kind attention and a gentle nudge.

Who’s afraid of the inner critic?

One of the first practices in this book invites us to take a few moments observing people (while sitting in a public place) and noticing all their faults. Then we are asked to notice what we feel internally. Then we observe people and look for their goodness and again, notice what we feel. It doesn’t take a stretch to see that the former leaves us feeling rather negative and the latter feeling good. Coleman points out that this latter feeling is really where he – and any of us – would prefer to be. Subtly, he also frames it as a choice we have – and, I would add one we made routinely without awareness.

Becoming aware of our inner voice that is harsh and critical can be a challenging and somewhat scary journey. After all, that process of singling out missteps, mistakes and misdemeanors is one way we believe we stay honest and can be motivated to try, try harder, try hardest of everyone. It’s an age-old training, likely hard-wired as a survival strategy, keeping us in social herds and adhering to their rules. Of course, over time, these self-judgments can become derogatory commentaries that run like a 24-hour transmission from some personal hell radio. But it’s all we know.

The practices invite us to hack these sound waves. First and what I really resonated with in this book, is that we are all the same in having a mantra of self-deprecation (he calls it the “not enough” mantra) and we are all unique in what that is in its specifics. Mine is the “I never try hard enough.” That inevitably gets me on the train to “the Rideau Street Bridge where I’ll be homeless, living in a cardboard box!”

Coleman populates his book with examples offered by people he’s trained or treated. My favourite is the image offered by someone who spoke of having an entire boardroom in her head. Being intensely averse to sitting on boards, I can see that my own boardroom is crowded with nay-sayers, scowlers, nit-pickers and ghostly figures of failures past. After reading this section, I decided to dissolve this board of mis-directors and turn the room into a meditation space!

Finally, my favourite quote in the book:

(T)he fact that something is true does not justify the critic’s using it as ammunition to undermine our self-worth.

It complements Hafiz.

“Fear is the cheapest room in the house.
I would like to see you living
In better conditions.”

About the author

Mark Coleman is a mindfulness and meditation teacher in the Insight tradition. He teaches at Spirit Rock in California and, with Martin Aylward, offers a year-long program that trains mindfulness teachers. He is an executive coach and a master teacher for the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute developed by Google. His previous book, Awake in the Wild: Mindfulness in nature as a path of self-discovery, brings the practice of mindfulness into nature.

5 Essentials to Help Your Mindfulness Practice

At the start of our Mindfulness Based Symptom Management (MBSM) program, I ask the participants what they think mindfulness is. They usually say some version of “Being in the Now” or “The Present Moment”.  I ask again at the end of the eight weeks and typically they say, “It’s being aware” or “It’s knowing that everything changes – and that’s ok” or “It’s seeing what’s going on and letting it teach you.”

An academic, scholarly definition of mindfulness is a practice of attention that makes us more aware of our inner and outer experiences so that we can make wise choices and learn from the results. That may seem a lot to try to fit into two hours a week for eight weeks but somehow it does get across. Mindfulness is a practice of developing a discerning mind. And while it sounds simple, it isn’t easy.

Here are five essentials about mindfulness you may find helpful in your practice.

You’re always practicing something; it may as well be something healthy. There’s no getting around this; your brain is constantly taking information in from your inner and outer contact with the environment. When you get angry at every car that cuts you off on the highway, you’re pulling together an inner and outer set of experiences that ends with a reaction. That pattern, reinforced everyday, becomes your go-to action when you feel unfairly treated or threatened. How about building a different set of endpoint responses to those triggers?


The mind is shameless. Beginning practitioners get really upset when they first sit down and try to still the mind. It gets quite overwhelming: breathe, pay attention to the breath, come back when you wander, treat thoughts like clouds. That’s a lot of doing for a non-doing practice. It helps to see that the nature of the mind is to be active. And that it’s quite indiscriminate in where it lands or flits to next. The difficulty is not that the mind is like a drunk monkey that’s been stung by a bee. It’s that we get upset at that poor monkey and try to wrestle it to the ground. Like the nursery rhyme says: Leave it alone and it will come home.

 

 It’s all about the BEST – that’s Body-Emotions-Sensations-Thinking. In other words, it’s not just about thoughts. We tend to give our thinking brain a place of honour and trust every thought we have. Sometimes you may hear “Thoughts are not facts” as a way of unhooking from that belief in the supremacy of cognitions. In fact, the body takes the lead in how we become aware of an experience. Sensations inform the brain. Our past experiences with clusters of sensations provide us with a language that we call emotions. Thinking is a latecomer to the scene, trying to make some sense out of the clusters, looking for causes that explain their presence. Essentially, it’s easier to calm the body than to talk yourself out of a feeling you’re caught in (try yelling at someone to calm down). Practice paying attention to your body, listen closely to see if you can catch the early signals of an arising sensation that builds to a label (emotion).  Use the breath to soothe the sensation in the body.


Give up hope. That sounds a bit harsh, doesn’t it? Hope keeps us going so why give it up? Sometimes, as T.S. Elliot wrote, we “hope for the wrong thing.” Because we suffer, we want to stop suffering.  But when we think in this all-or-nothing way, we’re setting up expectations that can only disappoint us. So, it’s not that we should be pessimistic or inhabit an Eeyore mind. It’s about taking small steps and assessing how it’s working. Don’t expect to sit rock-solid still; that’s not the point anyway. See what minimal shift is necessary to bring some ease or relief. Stay with just this breath; don’t worry about the remaining thousand to get done before the meditation ends. Take just this step, eat just this mouthful, stay just here.

 

Be kind and cultivate skillful laziness. It’s good investment when you’re kind to yourself. The biggest fear is that if we cut ourselves some slack, we will become lazy, useless lumps on the sofa. Mindfulness is really skillfully being lazy. When we practice, we’re attending to the right and minimum dose required to see a change. It’s called a Just Noticeable Difference or JND. What’s the least intervention needed to see a shift in mood, behaviour, thinking pattern? Now listen to your inner critic. It’s likely going on a rant about how risky this laziness thing is! How are you ever going to get things done, get ahead, be successful? The inner critic is thinking in extreme terms: you must always be going at full tilt and success must come now. Skillful laziness is really skillful investment of our resources for the best outcome. What is possible in this moment, given these conditions?

 

Bonus essential 

Mindfulness is a No Fail Zone. Even when you think you aren’t practising, you are –

because you noticed you aren’t.

5 Essentials JPEG version for download

Book Review: Siddhartha’s Brain by James Kingsland

sid-brainSiddhartha’s Brain, written by science journalist James Kingsland, opens with what would be a somewhat shocking quote from Ajahn Amaro, a Buddhist monastic in the UK.

We are all mentally ill.

While this should not quite raise the eyebrows of mental health professionals, it is a rather bald (apologies to Ajahn Amaro!) statement to make in public. However, it does set the tone of Kingsland’s book which takes, by turns, an unflinching look at the state of the mindfulness industry today and the roots of its conception in Buddhist teachings. Kingsland presents his work imaginatively. Using the development of the Buddha, Siddhartha, from pampered and protected prince to a teacher of the Eightfold Path to liberation from suffering, he weaves what we know of Siddhartha’s quest and practice into what we know of the results of our current pursuit of liberation through mindfulness. And, it begins with acknowledging that we are all mentally ill.

In this insightful book interlacing the current findings of brain function, mental states, and mental health with the teachings of Buddhist psychology, Kingsland is a craftsman in making neuroscience accessible and presenting it through the lens of contemplative practices. Using the story of Siddhartha Gautama’s own journey to enlightenment, he draws a rich landscape of the merging of Eastern contemplative practice, Western psychology, and contemporary mindfulness.

As a device to introduce us to the roots of contemporary mindfulness and place the history and progress of the Western approach to knowing the mind in that historical context, Kingsland has done a much better job than most writers. Siddhartha’s Brain doesn’t fall into a polemic of modern science or a contemplative holier-than-thou pit; that is refreshing. The writing is crisp and clear, quiet and confident. It invites examination of concepts not by attempting to convince but by introducing perspectives that are easily testable by the reader. Of course, that is in essence the basic teaching of the Buddha: ehi passiko – come and see (for yourself).

Kingsland makes the important point – as have many Buddhist teachers – that one does not have to be Buddhist to meditate or benefit from the practice. In fact, one of the enjoyable aspects of Siddhartha’s Brain is a broader bandwidth than just a Buddhist social and political transmission of wisdom. Kingsland draws from evolution science, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy, weaving them together  with ease. Most poignant for me was his examination of the early beginnings of meditation through the stories of Herbert Benson and the Transcendental Meditation practitioners of Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Benson’s downfall in the community of psychology is a sad part of our collective history and Kingsland’s insight into Benson’s work – that the foundation of all meditation is the evocation of the relaxation response – is a validation of Benson’s valuable work.

I particularly recommend Chapters Three and Four for their lucid descriptions of the roots (The Cloud of Unknowing) and rationale (The Second Dart) for meditation and practice (and a more universal presentation than just a Buddhist one). It’s a bit more of a slog in Chapter Five (The Man Who Disappeared) only because the idea of a “self” that is not fixed in any one definition or role is still alien to our Western senses. Even in psychology today the discussion of identity is a confounding mess with terms like self-esteem, self-image, existential self, categorical self – all of which rests on a concept of a separate(d), individuated entity. Chapter Five will challenge your notions of these variegated and rarefied selves but also introduce you to the social neuroscience that actually supports the observation that there is no fixed unity called a “Self”. As Kingsland puts it:

Thus, from moment to moment, each of us is no more than a unique blend of spices, a homemade garam masala. (p. 101)

My favourite part of the book is the running theme of the Default Mode Network (DMN), a concept gaining much traction in the neuroscience of mindfulness to explain the fluid state of connection/disconnection that can lead to rumination as well as creativity. Kingsland’s description of how the DMN plays a role as our “Self app” that “(posts) repetitive messages of a personal nature on the screen” is a brilliant image of what happens when we wander down those “dark neighbourhoods” noted by the writer Anne Lamott as places she “never goes alone”.

Kingsland continues in Chapter Ten (Wonderful and Marvelous):

The marvel is that we can learn to control at will the signals that determine which track we take at any particular moment. By honing our powers of attention and emotion regulation through mindfulness practice, we can, if we wish, restrict the time we spend in self-focused, narrative mode of thinking that can lead to anxiety and depression. We can choose to take the scenic route, favouring a more experiential mode of being in which we are not held captive by our thoughts but rather treat them as transient mental events. (p. 235)

Now, I do have two quibbles – not with the book itself but the information offered from two sources. First, (p. 249) when inquiring into the frequently made claim that meditation can trigger unstable mind states, researcher Britta Hölzel is quoted as saying (somewhat flat-footedly) that “I (Hölzel) have never seen any major problems like that in our classes.” This is a common statement I hear from researchers and teachers of various mindfulness-based programs, which while true evades the question itself. In fact, we have, at the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic, had many applicants to our program who want to learn mindfulness and are fearful because previous experiences have resulted in intense mental distress, including dissociation, depersonalization, and profound anxiety. Whereas it is quite likely that in Hölzel’s experience there have not been such occurrences, it does not therefore mean this is not an area to be sensitive about as clinicians and to investigate further as researchers. Ottawa psychologist Nicola Wright and colleagues have written about adapting mindfulness for vulnerable populations and it does behoove us to acknowledge this as a necessary direction for future research and definitely for caution.

Second, Ajhan Amaro, who seems to have been a delightful guide and teacher for Kingsland, wrote an important response to our target article in Mindfulness (journal). He calls for a need to include ethics explicitly as a core component of mindfulness programs. I do respect the stance taken by MBSR developers that the cultivation of ethical action is inherent in its programming (see discussion on p. 269 of Siddhartha’s Brain). However, a statement of presumed fact is not a substantiated fact nor does it address whether the outcome is in the desired direction. Given that no therapeutic intervention is values-neutral, the examination of how mindfulness can become weaponized (see my earlier blog post) is important. After all, we are collectively responsible to examine if mindfulness training does give rise to skillful action and ultimately compassion for ourselves and all others.

Kingsland has done well in this book to translate complex concepts into accessible knowledge and convey ancient wisdom with a gentle, inviting voice. If you are at all fascinated by how and why our brains and being are the way they are, read this book. If you are curious about how meditation and mindfulness practices can help with the everyday struggles of just being human, read this book.