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Expanding Your Reach By Choosing a Niche, with Sean Fargo

You may have been told that trauma lives in the body until we’re willing to feel it. Research shows, however, that it is counter-productive to turn toward this pain before we feel resourced, safe and supported. So, how are we to know when to apply the gas in our practice, versus when to hit the brakes?  

In this episode, we hear from mindfulness and meditation researcher, Dr. Willoughby Britton. She shares helpful advice you can apply today to bring more trauma sensitivity to your practice and teaching. Her research into the adverse effects of meditation (Episode #047) has helped her understand how meditation guides can help people feel more empowered in their practice. 

This talk is a brief excerpt from Dr. Willoughby Britton’s guest teacher presentation to those enrolled in our Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program. Learn more about this unique, online, self-paced certification program at

What You’ll Learn in This Episode:

  • Why ‘no pain, no gain’ does not apply to meditation
  • Which common meditation cues are unhelpful
  • Why it’s best to let change move at its own pace
  • Why more is not always better
  • How to offer choices when guiding meditation
  • How staying open to feedback helps teachers grow
  • Why the physical meditation space matters
  • Why there’s no single best way to meditate

Show Notes & Quotes:

The “no pain, no gain” fallacy

Many of the unhelpful messages we hear regarding meditation practice come from the ‘no pain, no gain’ fallacy. These cues assume that worsening is expected before positive results manifest. There is, however, little empirical data to support this idea. What’s more, when meditation does get difficult, intervening is a far greater predictor of positive outcomes than non-responding. 

“Less than 10% of deteriorations result in positive treatment response. So, very few people who get worse, actually, does it turn out to be a really good thing. And instead, people who have really positive experiences with treatment, that’s what predicts treatment response. [...]  I was also taught to, you know, ‘Don’t intervene, non-fixing, don’t try to make anything better, just accept it,’ and the data suggests that under certain circumstances, intervening is actually better than just letting it play out.”  

Common unhelpful meditation cues

Although well-meaning, many meditation guides are unaware of their use of unhelpful cues. In Willoughby’s experience, the most common unhelpful cues include the direction to ‘turn toward what’s difficult,’ the reminder that ‘the only way out is through’ or that ‘suffering is caused by resistance.’ No particular phrase is bad or good, but these cues can feel dismissive and may even be harmful.

“In general, these are the subtle messages that often limit choice. The idea that saying, ‘Yes: confronting, facing, accepting, turning towards, not judging, that’s all good and everything else is bad.’ Like, saying no is avoidance, resistance, turning away and being reactive. Kind of like the gas, going forward, turning on the gas is good and the brake is bad. And I think that it’s much more nuanced than that. And we often send these signals, and there are ways to talk differently that give it a little bit more choice.”

Letting change happen on its own time

Jon Kabat-Zinn, known for popularizing secular mindfulness and meditation in the West, uses the metaphor of the caterpillar and butterfly to remind us that change happens on its own time. Once the caterpillar enters the chrysalis, there’s no rushing the process. Any effort to force it or speed it up will cause damage and prevent transformation. Other mindfulness researchers are addressing this in their own way.

“We’re seeing some new models now that, actually, resistance can be seen as a form of inner wisdom. And Willem Kuyken, who’s one of the ambassadors of MBCT now uses a term that he calls protective awareness and Trish Magyari now uses the term behavioral compassion. So those are new ways of appraising or languaging the choice to opt out of something, or not do something or say no, or to honor that feeling of your own boundaries”

Why more is not better

When it comes to the metaphor of applying the gas versus the brake, both students and teachers agree that defaulting to the gas pedal is a problem. Quite often, ‘more’ is not ‘better.’ Willoughby reminds teachers to think of the inverted U-shaped curve and the benefits of the middle way. We can offer the gas and the brakes as options when it comes to stillness versus movement, a tight versus narrow focus, and much more.

“The visual system, closing the eyes or fixing the gaze, gas. Opening the eyes or moving the eyes around? That can be a way of regulating. [...]  Duration should be pretty obvious. A longer duration is going to increase the intensity. You want to take it down a notch? Lower the dose, take shorter meditations and take breaks. And then in terms of where your focus is, internal body focus will increase your arousal through somatosensory amplification and if you want to downregulate that, just look to external objects outside of the body.”

The benefits of offering choices

Placing our attention on the most intense bodily sensations or mandating complete stillness in the body tends to be hyper- or hypo-arousing for those with a past history of trauma. An easy thing we can do to empower practitioners is to remind them of their agency and offer them choices. We can remind people it’s ok to open their eyes or move the body, and we can also offer a choice of different meditation anchors.  

“Teach breath awareness, teach all the different things but give them choices. Yoga has done a really good job in this. I remember when I first started doing yoga like, ‘This is how you do the practices,’ and I came back 20 years later and there were like 5 variations of each thing. It was like, ‘If your hips are tight you do it this way and put your foot here.’ And same idea, ‘We’re going to do concentration practice but you’re going to get 6 options for an anchor.’ And then once they have lots of different practices you can say, ‘Ok we’re going to do ‘a practice’ now and you get to choose.’” 

Using feedback to grow as a teacher

It’s not just trauma survivors who may struggle with the way meditation is taught, but anyone who is in a disempowered position. In any teacher-student relationship, the student is by default disempowered. It can be challenging for them to advocate for their needs. So, when someone in such a position does feel uncomfortable, they may not mention it unless explicitly given a safe opportunity to do so. 

“The way that we teach meditation, or the way that we have taught meditation isn’t working, and a lot of times we don’t know that. This is pretty standard, basic. This particular teacher has been teaching this exact same way for 20 years, and he still doesn’t know that there’s a problem. So, we really need that safe channel of feedback to understand that just because things have been done a certain way for a long time doesn’t mean that they’re ok. We can still do better.”

Bringing awareness to physical mediation spaces

One way to bring awareness to power structures is to get curious about the space in which you’re teaching meditation. For example, an in-person class where chairs or cushions are arranged in a circle ahead of time removes choice. It can be anxiety-provoking for some to meditate with others sitting behind them, or shoulder-to-shoulder in a circle. On Zoom, we can play with cameras on or off, or even the distance with which we sit next to the camera.

“Do they have to make eye contact with people? Or do they have a choice? [...] And so the amount of eye contact, you can play with that. I’m just learning how people can titrate their own arousal in a group setting, because often it’s a group setting and the implicit social pressure that gets us into trouble. We often sell ourselves out and we attend to the expectations of others rather than our own needs. So it’s really important to practice (offering choice) in a group setting where these social pressures are present.

Remembering there’s no best way to meditate

Prioritizing agency and choice helps us remember there’s no one way to meditate that will work for everyone, all the time. While certain trauma-sensitive cues may be a good place to start, there’s no replacement for checking in with your clients or students and asking them how they feel.

“Everybody wants to know, ‘What’s the safe practice and what’s the good one and what’s the bad one?’ and it just doesn’t work that way. Every time I give those modifications, everybody takes them too seriously, and it might be the complete opposite for someone else. Like every time I say, ‘Be careful of breath awareness,’ there are people who are like, ‘Well I have a trauma history and I love breath awareness, it’s my favorite.’ So, you really just have to keep asking the person, ‘How is that for you? And you’re allowed to change.’”

Additional Resources:

Willoughby Britton

About Willoughby Britton:

Dr. Willoughby Britton is a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Brown University’s medical school. She is the Director of Brown’s Clinical and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory which investigates the psychophysiological and neurocognitive effects of meditation and mindfulness-based interventions for mood and anxiety disorders. She is specifically interested in which practices are best or worst suited for which types of people or conditions and why. 

Dr. Britton is the founder of Cheetah House, which provides support to those experiencing meditation-related difficulties, trains meditation providers in understanding and treating meditation’s adverse effects and empowers people to make informed decisions about the role of meditation in their lives. 

Willoughby is a licensed clinical psychologist and as a clinician has been trained as an instructor in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and has taught mindfulness to both clinical and non-clinical populations, and in federally-funded clinical trials.

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