Can Mindfulness & Meditation Work For Everyone?

Can Mindfulness & Meditation Work For Everyone?

The following is a conversation between Elikem Tamaklo & Will Ntim on the possible causes of social anxiety in humans, and the potential setbacks of mindfulness & meditation as tools for remedying afflictions relating to one’s mental health.

Will: Social anxiety seems to primarily be caused by fixations on what we perceive as people's attention on us, it also seems to be triggered by attempts to control people's impressions of us. Mindfulness and meditation can be great ways to combat this.

Eli: This could be true, but it seems like too much of a blanket diagnosis. There are biological/physiological chemical imbalances that cause social anxiety as well.

Will: Generally, all emotions stem from the chemical composition in our bodies. The message I’m attempting to get across is that mindfulness and meditation are very effective tools for ameliorating physiological chemical imbalances, more than we give it credit for, even in severe cases like you mentioned, and there is a lot of research that can be cited to back this up.

That being said, it seeming like a blanket diagnosis is understandable, my statement can be worded better to indicate that fixating on people’s attention on you, and trying to control impressions of you are just some causes of social anxiety that mindfulness and meditation can remedy, but definitely not the only cause.

Nonetheless, the point of that statement is that we shouldn’t downplay how much this practice can remedy social anxiety, regardless of its cause, and so limiting it to just those two scenarios could diminish the crux of the message.

mindfulness and meditation are very effective tools for ameliorating physiological chemical imbalances, more than we give it credit for, even in severe cases

Eli: Yeah, I totally get it and you’re right, but it’s more of the wording that’s the issue. If you could reflect that in what you initially said it might sound more fleshed out, but it’s probably difficult to capture all the nuances in just a couple sentences.

Also, chemical imbalance being a result of our emotions is a chicken-and-egg case; one causes the other but we can’t say which for sure.

Will: Yeah, it’s tricky to attempt to describe which comes first, because we’re technically always in an emotional state. Everyone alive is always experiencing a cocktail of chemicals at any given moment, and we perceive these different states as emotions. Calm and anxiety are both states relating to specific neurochemical conditions in our bodies, but colloquially there is a nominal range of emotion which when exceeded is typically classified as emotional or chemically imbalanced.

Furthermore, different events trigger these imbalances in our bodies, two of which were mentioned in my initial statement, but the triggers are quite subjective, and we typically define those imbalances with specific terms like stress, paranoia, anxiety et cetera. So although it might make sense to say the emotions come first, because we’re technically always experiencing some emotion, it would probably be more apt in this context to say that the imbalance is what generates these unwanted emotional states, or more accurately, the imbalance is the unwanted emotional state.

However, in this context it’s almost irrelevant which comes first, because the message is that regardless of how you ended up in that unwanted emotional state, you can work your way out of it with disciplined mindfulness & meditation.

It’s much easier said than done which is why it could come across as a blanket statement, but it’s a very real ability we all possess.

Will: Another nuance of the message is that mindfulness also involves being aware of the subjective triggers of unwanted emotion within ourselves, allowing us to circumvent them when they arise. For example if one can recognize that attempting to control other’s impressions of them causes them anxiety, they can subsequently decide to let go of that desire to control, in order to minimize, or avoid said anxiety completely.

Simply being aware of our triggers is powerful…

Will: In general I believe we are truly yet to discover the limits of our ability to rectify our emotional states with consistent mindfulness and meditation. From my observations, a large chunk of our society tends to downplay or simply overlook this profound power/ability, which is why I’m generally averse to any statement that implies that there is a limit.

It might be extremely tough to practice mindfulness and meditation, depending on realities such as one’s genetics and how deep one’s previous mental conditioning runs, among many other things, but with enough willpower it’s always possible to alter your inner state to your benefit.

Eli: Somehow I disagree epistemically with a few of these things. Social anxiety is super complex, someone on the Aspergers spectrum for example would not benefit from mindfulness in this way. Or a veteran with PTSD triggered social anxiety, or a postpartum depressed mother.

Will: I was generally of the same view till I started treating this as a serious practice in my life, and then began witnessing the results first hand. At this point I have little doubt about the reality of all of this, because I continue to observe the many benefits on a daily basis, but I want to avoid hinging the entire message on my anecdotal evidence.

In any case, I think it’s truly a profound ability us humans are capable of exercising. Being able to control our psyches and dictate the narrative going on in our minds is powerful, and even still I feel like there’s a lot more room for learning and growth in this direction.

Will: Regarding cases like Aspergers, I’m generally of the view that if one’s mental faculty is handicapped in such a way that they cannot wield their mind as competently as someone who isn’t handicapped in the same way, then yes, I imagine it would be difficult for them to take advantage of mindfulness in the same way, but I still wouldn’t rule it out completely.

The ability to wield consciousness in this way is a seemingly unique aspect of the average human being. Our genetic structure has provisions that allow us to be aware and mindful in extreme ways that aren’t typically observed in other creatures, at least not yet, even creatures with genetic structures that differ from ours by less than 1%.

Given that reality, if the aspects of a person’s genetic structure that guide neurological and psychological development differ significantly from the average human, which is what happens in cases like Aspergers, I imagine it would be natural for their ability to practice mindfulness in the same way to also differ significantly, for better or for worse.

Will: At the risk of sounding derogatory, I’d even go on to say that at the point of significant deviation in neurological and psychological development, one’s mental faculty is simply no longer comparable to the average human being, and expectations should be adjusted accordingly across the board, not just in relation to mindfulness and meditation.

But as prevalent as these cases may be, they are still nowhere near the norm, and those individuals can still live full lives.

In post-trauma afflictions, such as PTSD, it would be a much more tasking endeavor to heal one’s mind using mindfulness and meditation, because the roots of the trauma could be very deep, and someone attempting this would have their work cut out for them, because it would be tougher to override their current state and get their mind into a healthier place. But again, even in situations such as those, I’m still inclined to say that although it would be very very tough, it still isn’t impossible.

In fact there are many accounts from former war veterans with PTSD who began taking mindfulness as a serious practice and have reported incredible results, similar accounts and studies can be cited for depression.

Will: For the most part there’s still a lot we don’t know about all of this. The brain is still the least understood part of our anatomy, but what we do know, and continue to discover about mindfulness and meditation is quite incredible and far-reaching.

Eli: Its definitely not impossible to heal most of these afflictions with mindfulness practices, in addition to following the work of Sam Harris and the like, I have seen the direct benefits of such in my life. But therein lies the problem, even as the average person, we’re still in a bubble of sorts, and the privilege afforded to you cannot compare to someone who struggles everyday to just survive. So abstracting these conclusions from your personal experience, a rare one at that, is really not the norm.

To further elucidate, a friend of mine told me she was raped by her uncle when she was very young. Now, more than ever before, this memory haunts her to the point where she can’t even sleep. Needless to say this affects her whole life, and that is something I’ll never be able to relate to, let alone establish the efficacy of mindfulness in healing it. Healing is possible alright, but in some cases taking that pill, or one of the many other therapeutic options, seems like the most convenient option.

Eli: PTSD victims for example do benefit from a myriad of therapies, mindfulness included. But one key thing to understand is that it’s easier to do this when you’re not living everyday in peril. Some people’s very lives are a battle everyday. Post-war PTSD patients for example, are finally at a place in their lives where the events that caused the situation have ostensibly ended and healing can begin.

In another case, when someone is working four jobs just to pay rent or feed their family, and still struggling, the negative events are an everyday reality that’s hard to escape.

Eli: This takes me back to the conversation we had in college about survival and thriving, and how the fact that we had zero worries about surviving made our ability to thrive very significant, by giving us a sort of head start.

I’m just saying we shouldn’t weigh our personal successes with mindfulness too heavy in endearing the practice, you should recognize that the overwhelming majority of people aren’t in our situation.

when someone is working four jobs just to pay rent or feed their family, and still struggling, the negative events are an everyday reality that’s hard to escape.

Will: I generally agree with you, my life experiences have probably made it more conducive for this kind of practice. Mindfulness and meditation are contemplative practices, and you need time on your hands, and your primary needs taken care of before you can even find the space to be contemplative at a high level.

This is why I wouldn’t hinge my entire premise on my experiences alone. It’s good enough evidence for me personally, but unreasonable for me to expect others receive it the same way. Even so, we can’t ignore the many individuals who aren’t as fortunate as I’ve been, and have been through some of the most traumatic experiences, akin to your friend’s experience, yet were still able to use this practice to overcome.

Will: Funny enough, many of the most devout and well regarded contemporary practitioners of mindfulness and meditation are people who went through some of the darkest experiences life can offer, people who were essentially on the brink of calling it quits on life and were pushed to indulged in mindfulness and meditation as a sort of last resort, viewing it as their only remaining option for overcoming their suffering without ending their lives.

Eckhart Tolle for example, regarded as a pioneer and somewhat leader in contemporary mindfulness and meditation, often talks about how he was on the brink of suicide before turning to it, and cites it as the thing that essentially saved his life.

There’s actually a substantial amount of evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, indicating that people who have been through some of the worst and most traumatic experiences possible can still find immense healing through mindfulness and meditation.

Many of the most devout and well regarded practitioners of mindfulness and meditation are people who went through some of the darkest experiences life can offer

Will: I myself got introduced to it at a relatively low point in my life, much lower than now where I can find the time to be more contemplative and explore these concepts at a higher level. Considering I’ve always had my basic needs taken care of, and still needed mindfulness to overcome certain things, you could even allude that simply having one’s basic needs taken care of doesn’t guarantee a healthy mind, or even an increased capacity for mindfulness.

Many seemingly successful individuals with their primary needs taken care of in spades, still continue to struggle with their mental health, and many of such successful people have even taken their own lives as a result. Even so, it would certainly be disingenuous on my part to not recognize that being free of basic needs can provide an advantage, so to speak. Yet I wouldn’t overestimate that advantage, as there are many individuals who’s lives are nowhere near as privileged and comfortable as ours, yet are still able to achieve equanimity through mindfulness and meditation.

It’s all quite subjective.

Will: And regarding the different degrees of traumatic events, and how they relate to the feasibility of mindfulness as a method for overcoming said trauma, I generally try to avoid comparing the effects of specific traumatic events on individuals, because people react to things in different ways. The kind of event that might trigger PTSD or anxiety in an otherwise healthy person, might realistically not have the same effect on another person of similar health.

Suffering is quite subjective, which is why mindfulness is effective because it’s a practice that involves you detangling, and integrating, all your subjective fears.

Will: To be honest the idea of detaching from one’s suffering, and reclaiming the power over one’s mind, which is essentially what mindfulness and meditation leads to, is a much more alluring concept when you’re at rock bottom, because it quite literally involves you saying ‘fuck it’ to many things by letting go of attachments and practicing radical self-compassion, but since many of us are so fond of our attachments and find it difficult loving ourselves, getting to that point involves an inner revolution of sorts, and not everyone might have the willpower to do that immediately, which is understandable.

The kind of event that might trigger PTSD or anxiety in an otherwise healthy person, might realistically not have the same effect on another person of similar health.

Will: To be clear, I don’t want to downplay the difficulty and discipline involved in this at all. It is literally an attempt at overriding years of trauma and subconscious conditioning, and a traumatized and conditioned mind will definitely try to resist this liberation. I feel like that’s something that unfortunately gets lost when commonly discussing mindfulness and meditation, the actual discipline involved.

Distilling these concepts into a few sentences probably makes it come off like a supposedly easy and airy-fairy practice, like “Hey if you just try this mindfulness and meditation thing all your problems will be solved overnight, doesn’t matter if you’re traumatized from war or abuse.” … nah (Laughs). In most cases it won’t be that simple.

Even for someone like myself, who’s been fortunate enough to have my basic needs taken care of, and also be afforded the time to be contemplative, getting to this point of equanimity hasn’t been a walk in the park, and has actually demanded a lot more of me than I initially estimated.

Will: Depending on where you’re coming from it won’t be easy. The reality is that one’s previous conditioning and experiences dictates the work they’ll have cut out for them in overcoming that conditioning or trauma via mindfulness and meditation.

From where I’m standing as long as one doesn’t suffer from significant neurological and psychological deviation from the average human, which essentially makes them handicapped in comparison when judged by conventional metrics, then it should be possible to practice and use mindfulness and meditation to heal one’s mind. Just don’t expect it to be a breeze if there’s a history of serious trauma and toxic conditioning.

That being said, as with any medical condition, the combo of mindfulness and meditation is just one of many methods that can be applied, and naturally results may vary due to a myriad of factors. The intensity of one’s past traumatic experiences is one of those factors, but could simply mean that one needs to increase the dosage of their mindfulness and meditation practice, so to speak, in order to match what’s required to overcome their trauma, analogous to how many of the drugs taken to combat depression and other psychological conditions are prescribed differently depending on the severity of the patient’s affliction.


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