Mind Clouds

Thoughts on mindfulness in daily life

Falling into the Well of Nothingness

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“Feel the hips and on the outbreath empty the hips, imagine they sink into the ground, emptying down into the earth, releasing, letting go any tensions, any emotions, anything stored that no longer needs to be there..” As I listened to Esther Eckhart during the final relaxation of this morning’s online yoga class I felt my body respond, the tension and holding all draining away. How good it felt to lie there, lighter and less enclosed by my experience. It wasn’t so much emptiness but more a silent fullness, like the peace in a classroom after all the noisy, clambering schoolkids have departed.
But an article I read yesterday addressed a potential pitfall in the practise of mindfulness, of experiencing a much less pleasant type of emptiness. A sensation described in Buddhist texts as “falling into the well of nothingness”. Entitled The Mindfulness Boom and its Modern Misconceptions (courtesy of a link in Wildmind’s latest newsletter), the article addresses the prevailing popular idea of mindfulness as a kind of stress relieving panacea for all ills. To quote from the article and the words of a British psychiatrist, Florian Ruths:
“Several studies show mindfulness can have unpleasant side effects,” he says. “Most of these are perfectly harmless, but when you experience them, you don’t necessarily know it.” The strongest and rarest of these, he says, are episodes of depersonalization, a sensation where, instead of being in your own life, you feel as if you were in a film, or as if the surrounding world wasn’t real. “Normally, it disappears in a few minutes,” he says. “Very rarely, it can last up to a few days. Our research will concentrate on this.”

Actually, Buddhist practitioners have been “researching” this for hundreds of years. It can even be seen as a positive, a sign that you’re letting go of old concepts of self and other, opening up to the potential for greater connection with the world around you. But it can be dangerous territory for some.

My own experience has been that this happens rarely but it can be most unnerving when it does. It usually comes on during a retreat as a result of all the extra time spent in meditation. It’s like the proverbial rug being pulled out from under your feet. There’s a profundity to the experience that’s undeniable but you can be left feeling somewhat shaken. I’ve often had to retreat into the comfort of the known for a while afterwards to recover.

What you need at these times is a guide or at least someone who understands roughly what you’re going through because they’ve been there too. And it does concern me that, with the way mindfulness is mainly delivered as a discrete 8 week course, there might not be the continuity of guidance that there is inΒ  the more traditional Buddhist settings where Sangha (community) is seen as essential. Though, I think this is starting to develop with more ongoing mindfulness drop in classes and one day or weekend retreats with access to the counsel of an experienced, genuine mindfulness teacher.

For me, as an aspiring mindfulness teacher, it’s something to think about carefully. So my humble advice to someone starting out with mindfulness – keep an open mind, don’t be alarmed if difficult feelings rear up, but do talk to a trustworthy mindfulness teacher about it and see if you can find a group of other mindfulness practitioners to link into and so find your own mindfulness sangha. I myself couldn’t survive without it.

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5 thoughts on “Falling into the Well of Nothingness

  1. So important to share these tips and experiences.

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  2. I really appreciate your inputs. I have had similar experiences of expansion and letting go of old concepts, which can absolutely feel unnerving. It is certainly something to be aware of so as not to allow the discomfort or uneasiness get in the way of the work or practice. And, I wanted to let you know that I nominated you for the One Lovely Blog Award. Feel free to decline; if you are happy to accept, please visit http://presencematters.wordpress.com/2014/10/13/one-lovely-blog-nomination/ for more information πŸ™‚

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    • Thanks so much. That means a lot as I enjoy following your blog and it has inspired me in beginning this one. Yes, it is an important point to not feel that there’s something wrong with that feeling of uneasiness and fear, but to listen to your body and be aware of the thoughts and feelings that come up.
      I would be very happy to accept the one lovely blog nomination but the link didn’t work 😦 I’d really appreciate it if you could let me know what I need to do to accept.

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  3. It worked! Thanks πŸ™‚

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