| INT. – A bookstore in Rishikesh, India – Afternoon |
I am with a yoga teacher from the west. She is browsing the shelves for herself, but then remembers that I, her student, am present. She hands me a book. “Here, this is good. You should read this and practice the exercises.”
The book she has handed me is on advanced breathing techniques.
While it is a good book, it is not a good book for me at this stage. Curiously, she has not asked me essential questions about my previous training, interests, and goals; so how does she know that this is appropriate for me? Simple answer: she does not know. She has not asked me the questions because this retreat she has organized is not for me or other participants. It is for herself.
And this book is not for me—not yet. What little I do know about advanced breathing techniques: they are powerful. One must proceed with proper training, adequate knowledge, and competent guidance. Otherwise, it could be dangerous. This book requires far more than the one-week yoga retreat can deliver or my current schedule will allow. So I ask: “Isn’t this advanced? Isn’t it important to do the basic training first?” She smirks, then sighs and concedes, “Yeah…”
Whereas spiritual masters have been warning their disciples for thousands of years about the dangers of playing with mystical states, the contemporary spiritual scene is like a candy store, where any casual spiritual “tourist” can sample the “goodies” that promise a variety of mystical highs.Mariana Caplan
Willoughby Britton Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University; she has researched and published papers on the “adverse effects” of mindfulness-related processes (MRPs). Focusing on the benefits and the drawbacks of mindfulness techniques, she teaches people “how to interact with spiritual or meditation systems.”
This is a vital role. Even as all kinds of meditation centers, yoga studios, spiritual retreats, and mindfulness apps have proliferated, at the same time inadequate guidance or even irresponsible, negligent, unethical, and harmful behaviors from those who are supposed to hold a safe space for students/clients has grown, often unchecked. And there is the glimmering idealism (in words and images) about the benefits of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness, mushrooming in media and pop culture, drawing more people in — while leaving out extremely important and sensitive aspects of these practices.
An expert on kundalini yoga, the psychotherapist Gurucharan S. Khalsa, Ph.D. wrote: “Scattered through scriptural, historical, and political writings are warnings for those who practice kundalini yoga. There were several reasons for these warnings. The matrix of energies that compose our body and mind operates by laws and is highly complex. A technology that enhances and releases those energies must be precise, and precisely managed. So there is a need for a teacher to guide or certify the teachings and how to use them.”
According to the spiritual teacher Stuart Perrin, “meditation practitioners should be well rooted in the third chakra when a dormant kundalini awakens. This keeps them from being turned into cosmic ash by kundalini’s powerful force.”
Clearly, students are well advised to seek a qualified teacher or guide and to prepare for the more advanced techniques and practices – but even with simple techniques, students may show up in a vulnerable state of mind and require attentive, careful guidance.
Meanwhile—the qualified teacher offering their presence, deep listening, compassion, and skills—this teacher who has done the personal work and can hold a safe space for students—is extremely rare and invaluable.
Instead, what we find in most instances is a practitioner of a technique engaged in some form and degree of projection and some level of competition with other practitioners or even with their students.
The psychologist John Welwood coined the term “spiritual bypassing” to describe a process he witnessed in his community. In an interview with Tina Fossella, he explained: “I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks. When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalize what I call premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it.”
Dr. Britton founded Cheetah House, an organization “to offer support to meditators in distress.” Reportedly, they had more than 20,000 people contacting them just in 2020. These include individual meditators and also people who teach or guide others in mindfulness-related processes.
Dr. Britton and colleagues also offer a 3-Day Meditation Safety Training for MBSR/CT teachers: First Do No Harm: Foundational Competencies for Working Skillfully with Meditation-Related Challenges. As more of the people choosing to guide students gain the awareness to approach their role ethically, with greater understanding of the responsibilities involved, the “mindfulness space” will be safer for everyone.
At Cheetah House, Britton heard a question formulated by people in a support group: “Is my practice serving me, or am I serving my practice?”
We may also ask: Is my teacher really a teacher with the intention of serving me, or actually a wounded child/student playing a teacher—seeking their own growth and power, and looking to extract attention and other personal gains from the dynamic we are in?
If you have found a true teacher – sincere and heartfelt congratulations. If you are gaining awareness that it is the latter scenario that you are in, then muster up the courage to move away from the unsupportive or harmful dynamic, with compassion for others and yourself. Nevertheless, be heartened. Your current task may be to develop more self-responsibility or other valuable qualities.
There are paths for self-study that have been signposted by responsible teachers and guides, careful to inform us of dangerous areas along with useful directions for mindfulness-related practices. For example, in the online video course Embracing the Shadow, teacher Charlie Morley directs us to a pre-practice reflection: “Is now the right time to explore this…? Do I feel stable enough to explore this…? Is the kindest thing I can do for myself right now to explore this…? [and] If not, give yourself more time and come back to the practices later.”
Warnings and reflection exercises are not to dissuade us from engaging in mindfulness practices; rather they serve to strengthen our resolve in being prepared, committed, and clear on our objectives. Intentional.
Remember, too that there are myriad ways to achieve and sustain wellness — including mindfulness practices and activities such as walking in nature and reading uplifting poetry.
“Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
It is a well-blended combination and a variety of techniques, tools, and activities—customized—that deliver the more gentle, authentic, effective and joyful developmental journey.❂
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Feature photo by cottonbro