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bombabird

Getting stuck as a passive observer

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I wasn't sure which category to post this in, and choose trauma since it relates to disassociation, which I know can be a pitfall of certain mindfulness teachings. I want to bring up the topic of how becoming a "passive observer" of one's life and oneself can lead to constant self-monitoring, disconnection and withdrawl, and the question of how to avoid this, mitigate this? Running a google search will bring up countless accounts of those who have been harmed by mindfulness (in my opinion, by the way mindfulness was presented to them) in serious ways, such as disassociation, depersonalization, excessive self-monitoring, and feeling less engaged in life and more of a bystander watching themselves and life from the sidelines. I really want to address this pitfall of certain mindfulness teachings, of language used, and how it is presented, and I'm hoping to open up a conversation here about this importance and how best to go about it so that mindfulness is less likely to trigger or lead to disassociation/dis-connection, and so that it does what I believe it should, which is to make us more intimate with ourselves (which means relating to our experience, not disconnecting from it) and lead to engaging in the world in a freer way, coming more into direct contact with what IS, and being less separated from the world by over attachment to mental activity, and transforming how relate to our experience of reality by loosening resistance to what IS by cultivating acceptance, grace, befriending, and self-compassion.

 

Here is a quote that I found very relevant:

"It is possible for someone who goes overboard with mindfulness to end up becoming isolated from other people because they up being just a passive observer who has totally lost the ability to "lose themselves" in what they are doing."

This has been my experience at times and I am passionate about asking the question - how can we teach mindfulness in a way that is less likely to lead to this outcome?

 

 

 

Edited by bombabird
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@bombabird - Thank you so much for bringing this to light! It is a really important topic that isn't talked about too often, and I think it fits in quite well with the topic of trauma.

I think you are absolutely right in saying that there are pitfalls, or gaps, in certain teachings that can lead to confusion, disconnection, and even re-traumatization. In fact, I came across a book a few weeks ago (Sean sent it out in one of his Mindfulness Exercises emails) that address this topic. Though I haven't read it yet, it's on my list. The book is called Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness by David A. Treleaven. The author himself experienced secondary trauma during and after a silent retreat and so committed himself to exploring the topic.

I think first and foremost, it's really important for teachers to be careful with their words and to remember that everyone coming into a class, workshop, or retreat has a different background, level of understanding, experiences, etc. A lot of people come to mindfulness by way of life challenges, and so the words we use cannot be taken lightly.

I think it's also important that teachers are balanced within themselves and in their perspectives. Spiritual concepts and understandings must be balanced with down-to-earth ones, especially when working in a group setting. When working one on one, I think it's easier to gauge where a person is at - but even this requires intuition and the ability to see what a specific moment needs rather than what a mindfulness concept might dictate.

Hope those thoughts make sense! Let me know what you think.

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Thanks for your thoughtful reply! It was really valuable, and I agree completely with your comments about language used and the risk of re-traumatization, and language specifically is something that I'm interested in exploring and coming up with different language that can help with dis-association, dis-connection.  I will definitely check out that book you referenced!

 
A few related questions based on my own pitfalls with mindfulness, is about the ways in which mindfulness can cause division for some,  both inner and outer - for example if one is watching or observing their thoughts throughout the day, then attention is primarily focused on one's thoughts and inner experience. But what happens when one is for example, in conversation, or wants to actively fully engage in an activity without having an inner witness witnessing thoughts, etc. which seems to be the opposite of flow where we're fully absorbed in the present with no sense of self? (curious about the relationship between flow states and being on "autopilot")
 
How can we, for example, attend to what someone else is saying while also observing our thoughts, speech, etc.? 
 
And how can one mitigate the risk of mindfulness leading to excessive self consciousness, where self awareness (a good thing) spills over into watching oneself from the outside, being hyper-conscious of everything we are saying and doing to that point that we are overly attuned to ourselves and not the world around us?
 
How might one alter their approach to mindfulness if this watching of one's inner experience is causing division between them and their surroundings, relationships, etc.?
 
I know that's several questions, but wanted to put them out there and curious what your experience may have revealed about any of this 🙂
 
Thanks so much for engaging!!
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These are all wonderful questions and insights. Thank you for posing them @bombabird. Here are some of my thoughts about some of what you've brought up. I'm curious what other members might add as well!

1) We can also be mindful of even that witnesser of the thoughts - not just mindful of the thoughts themselves. As you said, it can be difficult to fully engage in an activity when we're hyper aware of our inner world. That hyper awareness (or hyper watching) is something to be observed and brought under a softer, more compassionate light. We can also inquire into whether or not there might be an attachment to the 'witnesser', softly unraveling why that may be the case (if it is the case). Hyper awareness can also be laced with negative self-talk and self-judgment, so this too needs to be lovingly held.

2) I also think that it needs to be highlighted that mindfulness is not only an inner process - it's something that can (and must) occur when we are active in the external world as well. So for instance, are we being mindful if, while someone is sharing their feelings with us, we are paying more attention to our own inner dialogue than to their words? An example of this for me: I have often caught myself, while in conversation with my partner or someone else, pre-formulating my response to their words. In these moments when I become aware of this, I remind myself that to be mindful in this moment means to hear rather than to think or to respond. 

3) And, to help bridge any perceived gap with the outer world, I think nature observation is hugely important. This is a less 'formal' mindfulness practice, but for me it has brought a deep sense of peace and interconnectedness with the world around me. I think loving-kindness/metta meditations can help with this too. 

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I think I mentally go down a rabbithole sometimes with things like witnessing the witnessing and overcomplicating it all.  I also find myself thinking about mindfulness and questioning whether I'm being mindful in the moment and then of course that can keep me stuck in my thoughts too.

I really resonate with mindfulness not being just internal - being mindful of the outside world, sort of like an outwardly turned mindfulness rather than turning our attention back into ourselves all of the time. 

I do find when trying to listen mindfully how often I am focused on my own thoughts, and what I want to stay, and there's a fear that if I don't hold what I want to say in mind that I will forget it! 

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I can completely understand that rabbit hole sensation... and it brings to mind another thought:

That is, that what we need in any moment changes throughout our lives. So, for a period of time, mindfulness practices that involve self-inquiry might be well-suited; however, if at any point that starts to bring imbalance, we might focus on 'outward-oriented' mindfulness practices like nature walks, mindful journaling, drawing, dancing, yoga, tai chi, etc. 

Then, when we feel rooted in our physical experience, we might like to dive back into the intangible realm.

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I think this is an important topic as well. As a psychologist, I specialized in working with individuals with trauma, and many were on the spectrum of dissociative disorders. I learned various grounding techniques when I saw that they were dissociating, such as asking them to name 5 things they saw, 3 scents in the air, 5 sounds they could hear, the taste in their mouth, 3 things they could feel, and getting them in their body. I did use mindfulness with these clients, but was very aware of their body language and level of awareness. Some people with dissociative identity disorder can benefit more from guided meditation that is very direct, where you go along with them, because silence can be an invitation for other parts to take over. For others on the dissociation spectrum, I found it helpful to explain that mediation is not about quieting the mind or stopping thoughts, but rather about creating space between the thoughts- not to get lost, but to provide some quite so they can be more in tune with their bodies. I always told clients to raise their hand or give me some kind of signal if they felt uncomfortable or became anxious and we could stop at any time. I didn't do longer meditations, which helped, although sometimes they were able to build up to longer meditations and found it extremely helpful. Progressive muscle relaxation meditation was very helpful too. Yoga is a great technique because it gets a person in their body and increases body-mind-spirit connection. Thanks for raising this issue!

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I love your insights into this Jo! I too find the prompt to locate and name a number of things occurring in the present moment, especially sensations within the body to be super helpful. I do it with myself often, and I'm always surprised how simple yet effective it is for coming back into the body and gaining a stronger sense of solidity. 

I also really appreciate how you say it's about increasing space between thoughts rather than attempting to distance from thoughts.  I like how this emphasizes a slowing down of frantic, high-paced thoughts, (which no one is exempt from) 🙂 rather than getting rid of them.

I sometimes like to say that meditation is really about returning to what's already here, and learning to be with our experience more and more, i.e. re-associating. And that eventually it helps us to find that middle way place between dissociation and drowning in our experience.  And of course this increased ability to be with ourselves, rather than cut off or fused with what's arising, is transformative for all of us, not just those who are clinically dissociative!

 

Thanks again for your wisdom!

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Thank you for your comments! I agree with you about meditation being about returning to what's already here- rather then the 'stuff' of life and the veils of illusion we create to get through life. You're exactly right- there is a middle way between dissociation (which does serve a purpose at times) and drowning in our experience. And being present with ourselves can be scary, but is ultimately rewarding and, as you said, transforming! Wonderful insights!

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I can relate.  After breaking my ankle and foot I have a real hard time with mindfulness.  What else can I do just sitting and doing nothing but think and have thoughts.  It was crazy.  So between pain and trying to release the pain all day long, being exhausted by it.  Being present was a must then.

Now the healing.  I am stuck in the present.  Doing what I actually can do because of the injury is another thing.  Day by day.  I have learned that thinking about what to do and doing it are two different things.  Being in flow you just do what you know to do.  

Laundry needs done do it.  Not well it can wait another day.  Follow through in the moment is important to me at this point.  Otherwise procrastination enters and the TV really helps with that.  lol.  I find it a useful tool if I get frustrated from not being "able" to do things.  A continuous work in progress.  

Mindfulness is being in the moment and flowing with it.  Instead of creating millions of lists, etc.  I love not living by a list as I had to do most my life.  

 

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I really like what you brought up - that balance between BEING and DOING - sometimes the "just be" instruction gets over-emphasized to the deficit of taking action, which isn't the point in my opinion, rather as you said, mindfulness needs to be practiced in such a way that it becomes a powerful tool not just for taking time out of our hectic busyness to pause, and just be with what's arising, which is a HUGE part of it, but also for taking skillful action, gaining clarity, focus, clearing out some of the chaos in the mind so that we have more power to put towards engaging in our lives in productive, meaningful ways. I've seen how mindfulness/meditation can take people to the opposite extreme of running around like a decapitated chicken -- extreme inertia, inactivity, passivity, even sloth! So even with practices meant to bring balance, we must find a balance in how we use them 🙂 Here's to burning that to-do list, not by avoiding the tasks, but by (mindfully) getting sh*t done!

Edited by bombabird
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Thanks for sharing this reflection @bombabird. I absolutely agree - 'being' should inform and inspire our 'doing', not leave us from taking any action at all. Often, authentic presence highlights where we need more movement and thoughtful action, exposing where we are avoiding things out of fear, self-doubt, etc. I'm born in Libra and have always resonated with the notion of 'balance' 🙂

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