Some weeks ago, I was waiting on a train platform in south London after a round of tests at the hospital. It seemed like half of the city was waiting there with me, including a woman reading a giant, dog-eared paperback titled MINDFULNESS.
When the train barreled into the station and its doors shushed open, the woman wedged herself to the front of the line of waiting commuters, shoved onto the train without waiting to let those leaving filter out of the car first. She elbowed fellow passengers out of the way and scuttled into one of the seats reserved for pregnant people and the elderly, all while keeping her eyes glued to the text of MINDFULNESS.
I’m tempted to say I couldn’t believe it, but I could only believe it too well. Just a few days prior, I walked passed a group of adults deep in conversation about “mindfulness” who were apparently unaware that a small child walking with them was staggering out into oncoming traffic. Mindfulness, if the way it’s deployed by my fellow Londoners is to be believed, is the practice of being so fascinated with your own wellbeing that other people cease to be a consideration.
I know, I know. The half-meditation, half-behavior adjustment technique that is “mindfulness”—when it’s practiced by people who don’t make commuting a full-contact sport or allow their kids to shamble out in front of delivery vehicles—is supposed to make us better, calmer, happier, more contented people, and what few studies exist on the practice seem pretty appealing. So when I found myself in the stress trifecta of a chaotic workweek, a health crisis du jour, and an impending visit from my overseas in-laws, I was tempted enough to give it a brief, slightly ill-willed try. Or, rather, a retry.
You see, I’ve never liked meditating. Early on in my diagnosis and treatment for myasthenia gravis, I took up various medical practitioners’ recommendations that I give meditation a go to reduce the stress that comes along with so much change and uncertainty. I sat dutifully on my little cushion, set a timer, closed my eyes, and hated every moment of it.
I had all of the common complaints: meditating was boring, I couldn’t focus, and that boredom and lack of focus frustrated me. But there was something else: the obsession with “the breath.” I was supposed to feel the breath, follow the breath, notice the breath—I didn’t want to do any of those things. My ability to breathe had deteriorated along with my muscle strength, and paying additional attention to the sensation my weakening in-and-out of air was a reminder that, in my neurologist’s words, “that’s how patients die.” In the end, I gave up meditating in favor of taking a good nap now and then.
So when I downloaded a goofy-looking mindfulness app to my phone to take another crack at the whole business of meditation, it felt less like an innocuous idea than a potentially unpleasant one. Yet when life involves so many medical tests with so much stressful poking and prodding and frightening results, there was something nice in the idea of achieving more calm in the face of the scary and difficult. Maybe I could make it work this time.
I clicked the app open and listened to the little beach soundscape, synthetic gulls crying over a manufactured ocean. I obediently closed my eyes, sat in the prescribed position, and followed along with a guided meditation in which a chipper narrator encouraged me to “scan” my body.
This wasn’t a promising start. Any kind of “scan” of my body is something I try to avoid. As the narrator encouraged me to “notice” the body from the head downward, I had the opportunity to feel, in higher-than-desirable definition, my neck slumping under my skull’s weight, my stomach chugging along with the first of five sets of medication for the day, my arm aching from too many needle-sticks in one week, my knee twisted from losing my balance.
Next, the narrator told me to observe the sensations of the body without judgment, experiencing the body without any emotional response to what I was feeling.
That didn’t seem like the kind of thing I was willing to do. If “feeling the breath” and “scanning the body” were unappealing, then this non-judgment business was a deal-breaker. Sure, a bit of dust tickling the end of a nose or the sensation of a lumpy cushion under one’s butt are experiences we can observe without feeling one way or another about them. But what happens when the body you bring to this exercise experiences objectively bad sensations—sensations like pain?
I shut down the app and didn’t open it again. If this was what mindfulness was all about, then it wasn’t for me. It was for healthy people.
For some time, I’d be unsettled by this idea that it’s somehow helpful and wise not to judge what happens in the body, even when what’s happening involves suffering. Surely I was missing something. I read as much as I could, looking for some suitable explanation for this idea that so many others assent to but that I couldn’t sign on for.
Finally, I found a statement approximating a defense in a text called Coming to Our Senses. Its mindfulness mega-star author John Kabat-Zinn has this to say:
“We speak of awareness…as perhaps naturally ‘uncoupling’ the sensory dimension of the experience of pain from the emotional and cognitive dimensions of pain. In the process, the intensity of the sensations themselves can subside. In any event, they may come to be seen as less onerous, less debilitating.”
Ah, there it was. Another iteration of the tired—and dangerous—idea that we can think our way out of what hurts and bootstrap ourselves out of what debilitates.
We didn’t need mindfulness meditation to give us this notion. Culturally, we are already a disaster when it comes to dealing with people who suffer: we equate a need for pain management with drug abuse and push legislation to make necessary treatments harder for patients to obtain. We tell people to throw out their medication in favor of exercise, as though clinical depression or multiple sclerosis could be sorted out with a good squat-thrust or two. We tell others that losing weight or drinking foul-smelling juices will cure cancer or halt Parkinson’s, all medical evidence to the contrary. We assume that pain and human suffering are for the weak, the slothful, the lazy. In short, we do little but judge, blame, and scold people when they are at their most vulnerable. And now we have Kabat-Zinn and the mindfulness movement to tell us that debilitating conditions can be “less debilitating” if we would just quit having emotions about them.
Maybe I’m an outlier; there may well be plenty of sick folks who take comfort in mindfulness. But I believe that it’s fundamentally dangerous to treat human suffering as value-neutral, and I refuse to take part in a practice that promotes thinking, breathing, and scanning one’s way out of illness or disability.
Perhaps what we need is a little less mindfulness—less eager willingness to “uncouple” the mind from the body—and a little more empathy for other human beings. What would happen if we invested less time in contemplating our own internal states and more time in creating an inclusive, compassionate culture? Or if, instead of suspending judgment about suffering itself, we tried instead to suspend judgment about people who suffer? Of course, there’s no iPhone app for that, and no easy-to-market lunchtime seminar or coffee table book. But something tells me that, even without the slick packaging, it’s worth a shot anyway.
Kelly Davio is the Poetry Editor of Tahoma Literary Review. Her debut poetry collection, Burn This House, was published by Red Hen Press in 2013. Her work has appeared in venues including Best New Poets, The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Toast. A long-time Seattleite, she now lives in London, England.
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