Meditation is all about calm, tranquility and emotional wellbeing, right? Actually, that's not the whole story. There is another side to this practice. Sooner or later we will bump up against deepening insights into the nature of ourselves and of the world as we perceive it.
Glimpses of insight can be joyfully liberating: a smile of realisation as outdated, limiting views of oneself fall away. However, moments of insight can also be disconcerting; even arising with a frisson of fear as we begin to recognise that neither the world, nor ourselves, are quite what we thought they were. On occasions when we feel unnerved or disorientated, we may worry that we are 'doing it wrong'.
In the Buddhist tradition - the main source of secular mindfulness - the intention is to be open to such insights. In this context, mindfulness is at its most transformative when we do see that things are not quite as we imagine them to be; when a sense of certainty about the world falls away and we are left re-assessing our assumptions and beliefs.
In this context, feeling unsettled can be a sign that the practice is working as intended, though there is an important proviso here. Moments of insight are best assimilated when we are calm and emotionally stable.
The theory goes that first of all we develop the tranquility that comes with a steady focus, for example on the breath or on body sensations. On the basis of this we can then inquire into the nature of our experience, perhaps seeing into deeper truths. This suggests a linear progression which is a helpful model to have in mind. However, real-life experience is often rather less tidy. It is not unusual for people who are fairly new to meditation to have strong insights, a phenomenon known as 'beginners mind'. Such insights can often be profound and inspiring, but may also be disorientating. The guidance here is to reconnect with soothing qualities in the breath and body, to help calm any adrenaline or anxious thoughts that may arise. It can also help to talk to an experienced meditation teacher.
On both mindfulness and compassion courses, we systematically learn the art of 'turning towards the difficult', starting with minor experiences of physical or emotional discomfort, but gradually training ourselves to open, in a spirit of curiosity and kindness, to more difficult feelings and thoughts. We learn to gently explore difficult experiences both in the context of longer periods of formal meditation and also in short 'informal' practices designed to be integrated into our daily lives, such as the 3-Step Breathing Space or the Self-Compassion Break.
In addition to core practices intended to cultivate a calm mind and body, both courses include themes intended to deliberately challenge and loosen our assumptions and unexamined beliefs. I have witnessed many moments of insight when participants consider that thoughts aren’t facts during Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy courses. The compassion practices presented on the Mindfulness-based Compassionate Living course, invite us to look at ourselves and others from the perspective that we are, all of us, subject to the suffering that arises from unhelpful reactions and limited understanding: a perspective that moves us away from knee-jerk judgments of right and wrong. These practices open the way to a more nuanced perspective that may challenge our particular prejudices, tribal loyalties and assumptions about others.
My own, somewhat unconscious belief that “the way I see the world is the right way" has been partially eroded through doing these practices over the years, but still makes regular appearances! Old habits die hard, as the saying goes, and progress on this path is mostly gradual. But insights - including the ones that shake us up - may be key to the positive transformation offered by mindfulness and compassion practice.