Why We Practice Mindfulness in Groups
Human being are essentially social beings that in most cases need interaction with other human beings in order to be able to function optimally. Originally we lived in large tribal groups where all our social interactions were met within the tribal community. As time passed and humans began to settle more in one place we saw villages and towns spring up. It was the norm to have all of your extended family around you and again for the human need for social connection to be met within these types of community. With the advent of motorised transport people became much more free to be able to live in different areas from their family and often their friends. This could then mean that they had less access to support and community. Add to this the advent of social media and what we are seeing is even more of a break down of social communities. Human beings are becoming more isolated as these types of communities are becoming less common. And as a result of this we have begun to see a huge increase in mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and addictive processes. Connecting with other human beings helps us feel ‘part of’ the human race and can significantly help with a wide variety of mental health conditions. I include substance misuse as a mental health condition as we now know that the neural pathways of the brain are altered when we continue to use a substance that triggers the excessive release of dopamine. One of the main characteristics of chronic, prolonged substance misuse is that the user begins to become more and more isolated. I work primarily with people who have problems with substance misuse or other behavioural addictions. Encouraging this cohort of people to work within groups can be a vital part of their recovery as very often it is their first step towards feeling part of the human race again. Gabor Mate, one of the leading lights in addiction research states that in its simplest form that ‘the antidote to addiction is connection’. Gabor Mate – In the Realm of the Hungry Ghost – 2009. Mindfulness practiced in a group can help an awareness grow that ‘we are in this together’ thus motivating individuals to keep on practicing as they feel they are not alone, that they are more connected and thus less isolated. When mindful inquiry is practiced in groups it can again allow the individual to feel less alone and more connected when they are able to hear and identify with others experiences and feelings. Hearing other people express their feelings and experiences can also allow other perspectives to enter into the consciousness thus challenging negative beliefs that the individual is in some way less than everyone else. Another of the characteristics of addiction is that many who suffer with the condition also suffer with deep rooted shame, often believing that they are inherently flawed. Mindful inquiry within the group can often help them to challenge this belief by hearing others share their own feelings and judgement of these feelings. When we connect on this deep level – hearing another human being judge themselves so harshly we are often able to have compassion for that person. If we are able through the meditative practice to be able to direct this same compassion towards ourselves we can start to break down the shame cycle. Donald McCown, co-author of Teaching Mindfulness: A Practical Guide for Clinicians and Educators has made the point that participants of mindfulness groups see it as a group activity and that’s one reason they want to come back. He states that
‘They have a group to bring back their experiences to, which takes them out of the echo chamber of their own minds. A mind which is often clouded with self doubt and recriminations’. One of the main benefits of group meditation is hearing other people’s struggles with their practice. Hearing another person share that they feel like they are rubbish at it too can again alleviate that feeling of shame and allow the individual to recognise they are not the only ones who are not perfect. McCown also states that facilitators need to be able to facilitate discussion and discovery not simply serve as the person who has all the answers. Group participants discovering their own answers is often much more beneficial. It is also of great importance to be able to sit with not knowing all the answers – being able to sit with discomfort and understanding ‘it’s ok to not be ok’ is a whole lot easier when you know through the group experience that you are not on your own with feeling this. Addiction is, in most situations, about an individual not being able to sit with discomfort. The substance or behaviour is very often their solution to their problem of being able to sit with difficult feelings and emotions. Ultimately the substance/behaviour becomes a bigger problem in its own right thus leaving the person with two problems – the substance/behaviour and their inability to self soothe. They have to learn to sit with uncomfortableness without ‘numbing’. Mindfulness enables them to begin to learn how to be more present in the moment without preference. Being a member of a group where other people also struggle with being able to sit with discomfort again makes the participant feel less alone, less anxious and less weird thus providing an environment where change can begin to occur.
Often mindful groups take place in neutral surroundings away from the distractions of the individual’s home setting thus allowing the mind to be able to settle more readily. Also if you struggle with feeling distracted it can be very beneficial to practice in a group where you can pick up on the energy frequencies within the group. Calm energy from others may allow the individual to feel more centred. There have been many studies done on the benefits of meditation in communities with the findings often coming back that the ripple effect of the calming properties of group mindfulness can effect whole communities reducing violence and aggression. The group can collectively unify to have a common goal – even if it’s just to be more relaxed.