Safety, inclusion and community in mindfulness

by Alice Hobday

inclusivity alice.png

This article highlights some of the key issues, insights and research emerging within the field of mindfulness. Specifically, attention is focused around safety, inclusion and community.

I see these three topics vitally important given the rapid spread of mindfulness practice and facilitation from traditional meditation settings into schools, hospitals, counselling rooms, yoga studios, apps, etc. I will be drawing on recent research, my own practice insights as a facilitator and a practitioner, and the insights of professional voices in the field such as David Trelevan and Larry Yang.

Having some time away from teaching (yoga, meditation and mindfulness) always offers a little extra space to reflect, and the break I have recently taken is my longest ever since beginning to teach over 7 years ago.

Over the last few weeks in my return, I have had some truly inspiring and exciting conversations with individuals genuinely committed to working in and for community. These conversations have centred around holding safe and compassionate space, being inclusive and mindfully aware and how to extend the benefits of our personal ‘self-development’ or ‘spiritual’ practices beyond our individual selves.

In a modern context, and in a time when ‘wellness’ is commodified and sold to us in an unachievable container, I feel there is a responsibility of facilitators to carefully consider what we offer in the ‘wellness’ space, how we offer it and why. This is a big topic, and we will only scratch the surface here, however, it’s an important conversation to be having, even if all we come to is food for thought.

The benefits mindfulness have been well documented over recent years, across many forums, and it is clear that the practice is a valuable and powerful resource to many in today’s society, myself included. As more and more people come to the practice, and more and more facilitators emerge, I believe it is essential to broaden the current conversation to include the broader spectrum of potential practitioners and their experiences, ensuring safety is at the forefront of the offering.

Safe(r) Spaces in mindfulness

As facilitators, when we invite practitioners to pay attention to their internal environment, it is likely that we will meet discomfort, we know this, and this is regularly talked about in mindfulness circles. What is often not recognised is that this discomfort might be much higher, even unmanageable for some.

And in the case of an individual recovering from trauma or living with mental ill health, simply being in one’s own body can feel unsafe, so paying closer attention to this ‘discomfort’ can actually exacerbate the symptoms.

“This can include flashbacks, heightened emotional arousal, and dissociation — meaning a disconnect between one’s thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. While meditation might appear to be a safe and innocuous practice, it can thrust trauma survivors* directly into the heart of wounds that require more than mindful awareness to heal. By raking their attention over injuries that are often internal and unseen, trauma survivors can end disoriented, distressed, and humiliated for somehow making things worse” David David Treleaven, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness

So how do we make spaces and practices safe(r)? When it comes to safety, I think it is important to move in deeper than intention or lip service. Our actions and behaviour become particularly important. Invitation and the opportunity for choice become vital, creating a space where others are genuinely comfortable to adjust if they need to. Additionally, as facilitators, having an understanding of the neurophysiology of trauma or and an awareness of mental health challenges is in my opinion, crucial.

Inclusion in mindfulness

Part of the endeavour for safer offerings and environments is the understanding of potential barriers to this. One of the major ones is exclusivity. One way this comes forward is in the general lack of diversity in most yoga and mindfulness spaces, this means that anyone from a non-dominant culture will be receiving the teachings and information through the interpretation of the dominant culture, and this view may be less relevant or useful to anyone outside the dominant culture.

As Larry Yang discusses in his book Awakening Together, everyone feels safer in a community of shared culture and identity, and although it is probably unlikely to expect at this stage, with the current systematic framework, that existing spaces can be truly diversified, what can be curated is culture-specific spaces to offer everyone the same opportunity for community and inclusion as the dominant culture receives automatically.

“To deny nondominant cultures the same sense of intimacy and safety that those of the dominant culture enjoy, at the very least, simply continues a pattern of cultural unconsciousness and insensitivity. At worst, it aggravates a pattern of oppression that denies those outside the dominant culture the ability to be fully who they feel themselves to be.”
–Larry Yang, Awakening Together

Community in mindfulness

In Buddhism community (Sangha) is recognised and held at the same esteem as the teachings (Dharma) and the symbol of enlightenment itself (Buddha). As we practice together and build relationships together, there can be an opportunity to acknowledge the strength in spending time with like-minded individuals who share common interests, however, for members of the dominant culture, I believe it is not enough to stop there. When spending so much time with a focus on ourselves (which is a truly valuable endeavour), it is important not to forget our contributions towards societal growth and change.

Alice is the co-founder of Melbourne based not for profit State of Being. An organisation dedicated to the delivery of high-quality, research-informed mindfulness and yoga-based wellbeing programs as part of the service landscape for people and communities who, due to structural, systemic and personal barriers, tend to be most marginalised from mainstream services.

You can learn more about this organisation at www.stateofbeing.org.au

Phoebe Faulkner