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The limits of mindfulness

When meditation make things worse

Is meditation helpful? According to a growing body of research, the answer seems to be yes. In my Rosen Method Bodywork practice, a touch therapy for adults aimed at enhancing body sense awareness in the service of well-being, I have encountered a substantial number of clients for whom meditation is not helpful. These people are highly skilled at focusing on their body sense but they get trapped in unwanted awareness of pain, discomfort, and suffering. How does this happen? Does it mean that some people should not be meditating?

Mindfulness meditation is the ability to stay focused one's feelings and sensations, whether positive or negative, in a non-reactive and non-evaluative manner. Mindfulness is the practice of sitting quietly and either (1) simply noticing sensations and thoughts without holding on to them, or (2) training oneself to stay focused on particular emotions or body sensations (like breathing), whether pleasant or unpleasant. Mindfulness can also occur in standing and movement meditations such as Tai Chi, Yoga, and the martial arts.

When meditations are oriented to increasing body sense awareness, research shows that it is helpful in increasing relaxation, reducing of pain, and enhancing well-being. Mindfulness meditation has produced these effects in general and in treatments for sleep disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, cancer, headache, depression, and stress reduction. It is also useful in helping people prepare for and recover from medical interventions. These effects are supported by parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation) activation, reduced of muscle tension, and a lowering of stress hormones

So, the meditators who come to see me for Rosen Bodywork are already primed to develop their body sense and they are highly receptive to the use of Rosen Method's "listening-receptive" form of touch, a touch that is meant to focus awareness rather than to fix an ache. The problem is that their body sense has become "too much" for them. They feel overwhelmed with their own personal suffering, with physical and emotional pain. They are lost and not able to find guidance within their own meditation community.

David Treleavan, a specialist in spirituality and health, has suggested that "sustained attention to the body can lead to a dissociative, or freeze, response" that he has named "contemplative dissociation." This typically occurs when the present moment of body sense awareness touches old physical or psychological wounds that have never been resolved. The result is that one gets stuck in the pain and can't get out. Using more psychological language, this is a form of rumination or somatization focused on pain and dysphoric feelings.

Research on people with lower back and neck-shoulder pain as well as tension-type headaches shows that the muscles around the site of the pain tense up as a way of suppressing the pain (think of squeezing your arm or leg if it gets bumped) but that only works for a short time. People often find they can't ignore the pain, which further increases muscle tension and avoidance, the so-called "pain-stress-pain" cycle (see my article on this topic, starting on p. 57 in this link). Eventually, the person may begin to distrust the body and to feel despair, hopelessness, and grief, as well as higher sympathetic nervous system activation under stress and hypersensitivity in the area of the pain.

There is only one way out of these states: get some help. People who are suffering in this way need a professional who is trained to recognize somatic states of entrapment, a therapist who can guide the person back into a more balanced and healthy state of body sense awareness and a more productive contemplative practice. Meditators whose practice leads them to their own places of discomfort, and others who are in such distress, may seek psychotherapy. Because meditators have also experienced the healing effects of mindful awareness of body sense, they may feel drawn to somatic awareness practices that are designed to integrate both mind and body, practices such as Rosen Method Bodywork, Body Psychotherapy, and Somatic Experiencing.

Unlike other touch therapies, Rosen Method Bodywork allows clients to experience and integrate all of the domains of body sense including sensory feelings, breathing, movement, emotions, history, and life concerns. Unlike other forms of psychotherapy, Body Psychotherapy allows people to attend to both somatic and psychological states without using touch. Somatic Experiencing helps people to attend to how trauma is held in the body, and to find ways to alleviate its ongoing unpleasant effects.

All of three of these approaches are excellent complementary practices for the alleviation of problems that arise in contemplative disciplines because, like meditation, they foster body sense. The key to helping people with somatic cycles of painful entrapment is to help them locate and feel corresponding sources of comfort and pleasure in the body. Practitioners' hands, voices, and presence provide a bridge to a more balanced and healthy way to be embodied in the world. The pain is not marginalized in this work. It does, however, lessen and become placed into a larger perspective of wholeness and wellness.

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