'Self Help and Harming Others: self-medication, meditation, and isolation.'/ Kelly Herbison
"I watched the seasoned meditators remove material markers of identity, slipping into plain clothing and removing the jewellery which sat across their bodies."
Kelly Herbinson's piece critiques the often overlooked aspects of the mindfulness craze. By reflecting her time spent on a meditation retreat, Kelly balances the equanimity achieved through practicing mindfulness with the inhuman detachment the movement can elicit in us. Her account provides a considered judgement of a phenomenon which is quickly and at times, without self-reflection, becoming popularised in the West.
"Self-help has always been something that I’ve been tempted by. I find comfort in ritual and control, busying myself to regulate moods and find prosperity. When I caught wind of the mindfulness phenomenon, I was enthralled by the prospect of reaching the summit of the self-help journey. The first summer holidays after finishing high school, I drove out to a meditation retreat about two hours out of Melbourne. Knowing that I had ten days of silence and loneliness ahead, I had prepared (what I considered) a stellar mixtape with music that reminded me of those I was going to miss. As I approached the facility, I nervously skipped each song, trying to find the perfect one to fill myself with and find comfort in over the next ten days. Upon arrival, I handed over my keys and phone in an envelope to one of the staff – to be stored away out of sight, and if you were lucky, out of mind. We were allowed to talk to one another until we took the oath of silence later that evening. “Why did you decide to do this?”, everyone asked one another. Stories of bitter divorce, creative stagnation, and middle-aged overwhelm were passed around. What could an eighteen-year-old possibly have to offer here? I sipped on the first of many time-wasting green teas and nodded along, my presence there feeling premature. I watched the seasoned meditators remove material markers of identity, slipping into plain clothing and removing the jewellery which sat across their bodies.
For the sake of this piece, I’ll be using the term mindfulness to refer to the process of becoming aware of your thoughts – where they come from, why they are being triggered, and what purposes they might serve. In general, mindfulness allows people to become conscious of their behaviours and gives them the opportunity to challenge destructive habits of mind. The candlelit calmness of mindful inner peace seems all the more tempting when we are faced with adversity in our external world. For me, mindfulness was a number of mottos and obligations that I had precariously stacked to keep myself on track. On mornings that unfurled with the twang of anxiety, I would take the cross-legged position and feel the nausea swirl around my spine, watching quietly as my breath regained its vigour.
At the retreat, meditations allowed me to confront and stir aspects of my mind that had always loomed but had never been addressed. With each breath the downtrodden mental paths were reclaimed. I would busy myself every waking moment when I wasn’t meditating – finding pleasure in small things like figuring out that if you swap the ‘e’ and the ‘a’ in meditation hall you get ‘maditation hell’. After some sittings, I would smile to myself, feeling as if I were on ecstasy. During other sittings, I would be overwhelmed: by tears of frustration about my aching body, the annoying voice which guided us, the fact that the hall was in the blaring Australian sun in the middle of summer with no air conditioning. Through meditation, I was encouraged to mute these sensations and drain them of their emotional voltage. The goal was absolute equanimity.
At the end of the eighth day, mid-way through my socks-and-sandal-shuffle around the walking track, I left early due to heightened anxieties about my mental wellbeing (completely unrelated to the socks-and-sandals). To get permission to leave, I had to confide these anxieties to the woman who was guiding the meditation. She looked at me, mid-breakdown, with an expressionless gaze. She was unscathed by the unpredictability of my chaotic and undisciplined mind and encouraged me to push on. She said that these emotional responses were coming up so that they could be treated and relieved of their power. In her detached self-assurance and disinterest in my issues, I was reminded of how my own plight for mindfulness had dislodged me from my social reality.
For me, when I was able to become equanimous, I was safe. Through discipline I asserted mental infrastructure that protected me from old thoughts. I felt a manic sense of power over myself, and disturbingly, over others. I was mentally isolated, worryingly self-assured, and emphatically unrelatable. I worried that listening to friends’ problems could ignite a kind of self-indulgence within me and cause me to spiral back into old habits. I had become the kind of person who suggested that friends try meditation when they confided their emotional troubles. In attempting to rupture the impenetrable ego, I had become the most self-indulgent and cynical I had ever been – a far cry from where I thought mindfulness would take me.
This is not to say that mindfulness creates self-indulgence, but the repercussions of mindful practises certainly exacerbated a sense of distance between myself and others. I am convinced that there are things which we must become worked up about. There are problems whose severity can only be gauged through the emotional response we have to them. Perhaps one day I will return to the retreat with the kind of patience and diligence required to wake up for 4am meditations and sittings of strong determination. But for now, equanimity just will not do – I need the habits of mind to take hold of me, so I can know what I must work to change. I need the silver on my fingers so that I can feel the pain of a clenched fist."