In mindfulness practice we are often encouraged to observe our thoughts and let them float by. It’s a way of disengaging from unhelpful or hurtful thoughts.
But when Ruby Wax went to Cape Town to teach mindfulness to young girls who had been badly abused, she sensed that “the last thing they wanted to do was observe their thoughts,” she writes in The Guardian. “Mindfulness, in my opinion, isn’t appropriate for severe trauma. When the trauma is resolved, or has eased off, you can try it. Otherwise, it can reopen the wound.”
Her solution? “I decided to change tack and asked if any of them had ever had a makeover. They hadn’t, but excitement ricocheted through the room. I came back the next day with my makeup.”
Later, “They all took selfies and I could tell they didn’t just look but felt beautiful, maybe for the first time.”
The lesson for me as a mindfulness teacher isn’t to bring a makeup kit but to remember that observing thoughts can be too painful for some people. The same, I believe, can apply to observing the breath or, indeed, to observing the body.
But in mindfulness we return again and again to the moment and the moment includes many things: the feeling of your feet against your shoes, a breeze on your face, walking, city or country sounds, scents, beautiful images, physical work and many more.
As teachers especially we need to approach mindfulness with flexibility and with respect for the unknown experiences of the people in front of us.
Ruby Wax’s latest book is How to be Human; The Manual.