I am a yoga teacher who takes her work with students very seriously. And, today, reading Melanie McDonagh’s article “Don’t chill out – it won’t do you or society any good” really disturbed me.
Why? Because she clearly took no time to research the field she was so heavily criticising or back her claim with any form of facts, whilst simultaneously dismissing a field validated by extensive scientific research and centuries of practice. She hides behind the biography of a writer and his legitimacy to back up her claim. So what does she say? That meditation and mindfulness can lead to passivity and acceptance of things that are bad for individuals and society, such as family issues, rubbish working conditions, bad politics. Not exactly small ones, and were she to be right, no one in their right mind should even do so much as consider advocating those practices, much less do them. Reminds me of what one would hear in the 60s: “The world is going to hell because of these long haired hippies!”.
Her piece is problematic from the start because she wrongly assumed meditation and mindfulness to be about clearing the mind of thought. Even if often packaged under that promise, and if some teachers tell students to do just that, this is a misconception. Both techniques are actually quite the opposite.
Mindfulness and meditation are about becoming aware of the thoughts we have, their effects on our emotions, actions and words, and their transience. And being conscious of what is in the given moment, inside and outside of us. This awareness then gives us the possibility to choose how to react, what thoughts to entertain and which to let go of. It can make us more conscious individuals who engage from a real place of choice, with calm and an ability to discriminate between what pulls our triggers and makes us act blindly, and what we really believe in. It has been scientifically shown to impact us beneficially, and to help significantly reduce the impact of conditions like depression and anxiety (as these articles by The New Scientist state). The practice of meditation is neither always pleasant nor comfortable in what it reveals about one’s mind, and that is why it is best to be undertaken under expert guidance. Sounds tough, so you might ask why do I practise it? I do so because I want to be a better person. One who truly understands herself and acts, speaks and thinks in accordance with values I have chosen.
I believe that meditation and mindfulness practised with integrity can greatly help us feel better and improve as individuals and as a society. But our culture tends to seek quick fixes, which meditation or mindfulness are not. And what sells is the promise of an easy and fast solution, leading to the vulgarisation of yoga and related practices. This translates into the ever increasing tendency of the yoga business to invent products to sell, which seem to have less and less to do with well being and health, and more and more with stardom or profit. And I also fear that many of the businesses offering such courses to their employees do so more to hide the damage that competitive and stressful work environments create.
To avoid such misconceptions, we as, practitioners of meditation/mindfulness/yoga, should exercise more constructive criticism within our community, and foster a more honest dialogue about what these techniques truly are to avoid the possibility of such misconceptions.