A Window of Tolerance
Michael Nolden, Ed.D.
A common misperception of mindfulness is that it will benefit everyone. Certainly, emerging research over the past 15 years suggests mindfulness practices show positive effects on personal well-being for many people. Since the underlying premise of mindfulness practice is the quality of awareness arising in the here and now, with an open heart and open mind, personal aspirations of relief from meditation may or may not occur. More recent analysis cautions the potential for mindfulness as entry points for practitioners seeking emotional or mental relief. Some people, very-well intentioned, struggle in meditation practice. Their minds become flooded with unpleasant memories, or become aware of negative physiological sensations that prevent the experience of calm or mental stability in their sit.
Understanding trauma and its inherent neuro-physiological imprint is essential for mindfulness practice. Without this understanding, well-meaning students may experience unexpected difficulty with their sitting practice regardless of intent. Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for safe and transformative healing, by David A. Treleaven (2018) explores the usefulness, and cautions the effects of mindfulness meditation approaches for practitioner’s with trauma sensitive backgrounds. Trauma leaves a physiological mark (Damasio, 1994; Harris, 2018; Van der Kolk, 2014). This is often referenced through body awareness, mindful awareness and periods of rumination or emotional dysregulation. Mindfulness approaches which encourage students to just “stay with their breath” or “keep noticing what’s happening in your mind” may lead to feelings of emotional overwhelm. Mindfulness is an invitation to explore the inner working of our experience without the self-criticism and judgment which accompany our daily interactions. The paradox exists, that mindfulness is simple but complex.
Mindfulness meditation practice, whether individually inspired or in conjunction with a teacher, is best served by an open awareness of personal emotional tolerance. This refers to the emotional capacity of a person to be aware of difficult or traumatic experiences during meditation (Treleaven, 2018). Understanding one’s emotional tolerance is important for new and experienced mindfulness practitioners. This type of feedback provides a framework in order to distance or engage with traumatic experiences while practicing formal or informal mindfulness approaches. One of the key elements of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) reinforces the process of “change[s] in [a] patients’ relationship to their negative thoughts and feelings” (Segal, Williams & Teasdale, 2018, p. 36). Paradoxically, mindfulness may contribute to dysregulation and emotional imbalance creating an environment in which ignoring emotions are preferable to open awareness during meditation practice.
Investigating our personal “window of tolerance” (Treleaven, 2018) provides scaffolding during meditation practice that supports our intent. Treleaven explains this window as:
… “an internal zone of support for survivors and a starting point for all trauma-informed practice. It’s a way to help ensure people aren’t exceeding [sic] how much they can [emotionally] handle. When people are in their window, they’re more likely to feel stable, present and regulated. Unless survivors can stay in their window during mindfulness practice, they can simply end up recreating traumatic states” (p. 88).
This is an important point clarifying the utility of mindfulness to assuage difficult experience during meditation practice. Framing a ‘window of tolerance’ is a useful metaphor when engaged in the practice of RAIN, i.e., recognize, allow, investigate and nurture when engaged in difficult meditation experience.
Leaning into difficult experiences without exceeding our threshold of tolerance skillfully addresses trauma as a recurrent theme. For trauma sensitive practitioners, recognizing, allowing and investigating patterns of their thinking and recurrent emotions will likely continue to traumatize their experience without skilled trauma-sensitive instruction. Individual vulnerability plays a role in our meditative experience. As Treleaven suggests “safety is key to trauma sensitive practice” and “unless we feel some degree of safety, it becomes extremely difficult to self-regulate and stay in our window of tolerance” (p. 182). Since everyone experiences mindfulness in their unique fashion, inviting ourselves to dis-engage with practice is a mindful strategy when overwhelmed with persistent feelings that interfere with the flow of practice. Dis-engaging, knowing our limits is wise mindfulness if trauma presents a burden to practice. Trauma though, is ever present in the lives of many people, especially in socially marginalized groups that experience systemic oppression. This is either through racism, agism, sexism or out-right brutality sponsored by the state or others. Trauma is real and heavy in the lives of many. Insisting we stay in uncomfortable emotional zones by “just noticing our breath,” may prevent rather than promote a stable and calm inner experience. Mindfulness should be helpful, not traumatizing.
The main point gleaned in Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness is the fallacy that mindfulness meditation is helpful for everyone. However, the potential exists for this possibility. But the reality proves otherwise. Beginning mindfulness students are best served to be aware of difficult experiences in meditation. For mindfulness students with varying degree of trauma and recovery, they are well advised to be cognizant of potential difficulty surrounding seemingly benign instructions like, ‘pay attention to your breath.’ Thoughts, emotions, unpleasant physiological states, and memory rumination are natural and recurrent in our lives. When we sit on our cushion, sometimes they become overwhelming. These can be viewed as alert signals emanating from our body and mind. As Antonio Damasio (1994) points out, our body is a landscape by which we respond to our environment. Especially within the contours of our inner experience. It is important to remind anyone engaged in mindfulness practice, that they are in control at all times. This invitation and freedom to dis-engage from practice is useful, as it encourages autonomy in personal practice. In time, (often with a skilled teacher) mindfulness practice with gentle trauma-sensitive awareness, may prove effective in extending one’s widow of emotional tolerance, to be with and acknowledge the present moment for what it is: a moment.
Mindfulness is simple but complex. Simple in its application to daily experience but complex in its translation of well-being. Learning to hold and appreciate our personal window of tolerance, that each of us can emotionally handle at any given point, contributes valuable feedback in our mindful journey through space and time.
Disclaimer – This essay is not intended as psychotherapeutic advice or treatment guidelines. The reader should consult a medical / mental health professional if they are concerned about themes presented in this essay.
Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ error. Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Penguin Books.
Harris, N. B. (2018). The deepest well. Healing the long-term effects of childhood adversity. New York: Mariner – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Segal, Z., Williams, M., & Teasdale, J. (2018). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression. Second edition. New York: Guilford Press.
Treleaven, D. A. (2018). Trauma-sensitive mindfulness. Practices for safe and transformative healing. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score. Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Penguin Books.