Is seeking wellness making us ill?

First published on Alt Magazine

At the Battle of Ideas 2015, run by the Institute of Ideas, I went to a talk entitled ‘Mindfulness: empty minds for an empty society?’ I was expecting to hear the usual criticisms as to how mindfulness is just a way of justifying not thinking, an over marketed money making scam, is a by product of a society that has ‘created’ illnesses such as ADHD and dyslexia to justify disruptive or lazy behaviour, the assertion that individuals should just pull themselves up, or, as Dennis Hayes said, a way of the establishment manipulating individuals to become ‘anti human…solipsistic….zombies.’ And I did, and to some degree, some of the time, some of those criticisms ring true.

There is something wrong if we feel unable to cope with life, but it’s not necessarily that there is something wrong with us in a physical or fundamental sense, just that we do not have the tools or resources to manage.

I left still very much convinced that mindfulness as the practice of paying attention, on purpose, moment by moment and without judgement, nicely explained by Dr Tamara Russell, is something that offers value and support for individuals and society as a whole. Learning how to be with oneself and regulate emotions is a valuable skill and experience. But there was one point raised that really did make me think. What is our culture of wellness doing to us? A gentleman in the audience spoke of how his employees were asking for yoga and meditation at work to help make them ‘well’ – but he didn’t see them as ‘ill.’ Quite the contrary, he believed them to be bright, capable, interesting and thriving people. Is our focus on making ourselves well convincing us that we are ill? Is the drive to become better reinforcing the idea that we are somehow inadequate?

The focus on wellness puts the onus on each of us to create a healthy and balanced life. There’s nothing wrong with that, but some people are more able than others, through the resources available to them. The poor, sick or depressed are somehow posited as inadequate for not living a flourishing life. If illness, or being unwell, is posited as an individual problem that can be remedied through mindfulness, this removes the onus on changing social structures that perpetuate the causes of that illness; the fast paced life, stressful working environments, and lack of community support. There is something wrong if we feel unable to cope with life, but it’s not necessarily that there is something wrong with us in a physical or fundamental sense, just that we do not have the tools or resources to manage. It’s an unintended consequence that many end up feeling that they just don’t measure up to the standards that the wellness industry – because it is an industry – demand.

The 1 in 4 statistic from MIND’s Time To Change campaign is often bandied about, but the danger of everyone thinking that they know someone with or themselves have a mental health concern undermines the experience of those severely debilitated by illness. The person who responds to a decade long battle with anorexia with the comment, ‘oh I once didn’t eat biscuits for a week after I split up with my boyfriend’; the flippant comments about being ‘so OCD’ with no knowledge as to the restrictive and suffocating nature of the illness;’ or the belief that someone’s depression that means they can’t get out of bed is cured by a cup of coffee and a stretch – after all, you feel sad as well.

Generally speaking throughout history people have been considered healthy, or well, and then they fall ill, before being treated and becoming well once again. This changing presentation of wellness (or cult as it has been called on numerous occasions) suggests that being unwell is the default position, and that through hard graft we rise up to enlightened wellness. The well/ill, happy/unhappy and good/bad dualism becomes laden with moralising, which is what industry and advertising thrive on. If we believe that we are inadequate we are more likely to be depressed, stressed and unhappy – and thus need to seek out their help to change things.

It’s not mindfulness that is the problem, but the way that an industry has grown up around it that preys on insecurities. I still love mindfulness. I find it bloody hard, but the idea of being here, in my body and the world, right now, observing the vicissitudes of life but not becoming overwhelmed by them, is one that appeals and I can see has huge benefits. But I think it’s worth considering the danger of putting ourselves in the position of ill people who must become well, and who are failing if we are not zenned out, lithe and glowing individuals.

Perhaps it is about getting back to the root – we’re all human, and mindfulness, true mindfulness, lets us accept that.

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