Misuses of Mindfulness

Stonehenge2Today there are few pockets of this country left untouched by mindfulness. Ask anyone you meet and it is likely they’ve heard of it, but many misunderstand what it means. Mindfulness is a way of living – a way of relating to inner experience and the world. In reaching the mainstream, there has been a tendency to turn it into nothing more than a strategy for self-improvement. With all the misinformation out there, it is no wonder that some of us are confused by what it really is and view it mainly as a tool for reaching our goals.

Mindfulness as Emotional Anesthesia
Many people stumble into mindfulness because they are dissatisfied, afraid or hurting in some way. They have rightly heard that the practices are correlated with improvements in health and wellbeing. But some have characterized them as feel good strategies – essentially ways to ignore, distract from, or get rid of painful emotions – to think positively or to get blissed out. Mindfulness is awareness of what is here now, regardless of whether it is wanted, unwanted, positive or negative, pleasant or unpleasant. So, when we engage in things that help us avoid unpleasant emotions that are already here, this may feel good temporarily, but it is not the practice of mindfulness.

Altogether, the idea of meditation is not to create states of ecstasy or absorption, but to experience being. – Chögyam Trungpa

Mindfulness as Performance Enhancer
Some sports professionals and CEOs are attracted to mindfulness in the hopes of becoming  winners. They may see it as a means for developing greater focus, speed, productivity, or efficiency in themselves, their athletes, or their employees. There is a kernel of truth in this because the practices are indeed correlated with increased concentration, processing speed, and flexibility in thinking. The problem is that mindfulness involves present moment awareness and when we are actively striving at getting somewhere other than where we already are, this is not the practice of mindfulness. We risk taking a skillful means of decreasing suffering and turning it into a bat with which to beat ourselves.

Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already. – Pema Chödrön

Mindfulness as Status Quo
Sometimes we turn to mindfulness because other strategies seem too hard or scary. In comparison, mindfulness seems so positive, so innocuous, so free from troublesome side effects or consequences. Maybe we’ve found ourselves in very difficult circumstances that are changeable, but we are reluctant to do so. This might include navigating an abusive, yet important relationship (i.e. with a boss, coach, family member or a partner), working long hours at a stressful job that pays really well, struggling with an addiction, or trying to meet unrealistic self-imposed expectations for success, beauty, fame or perfection. The underlying hope is to make ourselves more compliant so we can tolerate something harmful with less distress, so we don’t have to take meaningful action, make a difficult change, or let go of something we want. However, the practice of mindfulness involves an attitude of compassion – a willingness to acknowledge suffering in ourselves and others and to take action aimed at eliminating it. Resigning oneself to harmful changeable circumstances is not the practice of mindfulness.

You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf. – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Several of the attitudes of mindfulness are either missing from or directly opposed by these types of misappropriations of the practices. These include things like compassion, patience, non-striving, and acceptance. In addition, as we’ve moved away from the spiritual origins of mindfulness, we have lost some of the important fundamentals. For example, we forget or maybe we’ve never learned that dissatisfaction arises directly our of attachment, aversion and ignorance. So we think that clinging to certain qualities or outcomes and rejecting others by using mindfulness “techniques” will lead to happiness. Instead we generally find any relief we experience is short-lived at best.

Even when we “misuse” mindfulness, there are often unintended benefits if we persist through this initial disillusionment. Lots of people start a yoga practice to get in shape or lose weight, but they begin to appreciate the subtler benefits that arise. Others begin to practice meditation in order to reduce stress or become a better person, and instead there emerges a more skillful relationship with themselves and their environment. My own interest in mindfulness came from a desire to help clients for whom more traditional therapies were proving ineffective. In embodying the practices and attitudes as a therapist, I discovered powerful beneficial effects manifesting in my personal life. Regardless of how we come into the practice of mindfulness, its benefits unfold naturally given time. The main risk of “misuse” is that we may become disillusioned and prematurely stop practicing because it fails to meet our unrealistic expectations.

Life is a dance. Mindfulness is witnessing that dance. – Amit Ray

Mindfulness Myths: #5 Its a Cure-All

fluffycloudsIn this series, I discuss the most common myths I encounter about mindfulness through my work as a psychologist and mindfulness coach and I attempt to debunk them.

Myth #5: Mindfulness Will Cure What Ails You

With all of the hype in the media about mindfulness, it may be tempting to see it as a panacea – a cure for whatever ails you, a strategy for self-improvement, or a formula for getting what you want out of life. Unfortunately, this view often leads fledgling practitioners to disappointment, causing them to give up on the practices all together.

While mindfulness practices can indeed result in useful changes, it is a gradual evolution that unfolds in its own time by opening to and allowing what is rather than an effortful resistance to what is unwanted or straining toward what is wanted. Striving for results is a rejection of what is, and this is antithetical to the practice of mindfulness.

What many practitioners discover in time is that the things that tended to historically bother us, trip us up, or cause us distress us do not just magically disappear. Rather, we learn to relate to difficulty in new way. We discover on an experiential level (not just intellectually) that we are not the thoughts and emotions that compound our suffering – the assumptions, expectations, rumination, judgments, and worry that plague the untrained mind. Through a willingness to be with that which is unwanted, but is already here, we begin to decenter from it, becoming less personally identified with it.

All suffering is caused by my identifying myself with something, whether that something is within me or outside of me. – Anthony de Mello

Difficult thoughts and emotions still arise and we remain aware of them, but they no longer take a leading role in our experience. With practice we get better at witnessing and observing phenomena, rather than getting caught up and swept away by thoughts and emotions. The associated feeling tone may become less intense, reactivity decreases, and space is created for more skillful responding (or non-responding). The subtle consequences of this new way of being reinforce the practice through the creation of a beneficial cycle. We gain the courage needed to face ever-greater difficulty with equanimity. Self-compassion increases as we better understand our habits and patterns. Wisdom grows as we see things more clearly, free from the veil of a biased narrative.

People who struggle with various human afflictions will not be cured by the practice of mindfulness, but they may find they can cope more effectively and experience less suffering. When we approach the practices with a beginner’s mind, momentarily setting aside our dreams and goals, the fruits of our efforts ripen, even without undue interference on our parts.

It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them. – Aldous Huxley, Island

Mindfulness Myths

iStock_000004769172_Medium.jpgMindfulness might be considered a household word these days and in its dissemination, it has been mischaracterized in a number of ways. It is a state of being that can be cultivated with practice, involving purposeful, yet gentle and compassionate, sustained attention to present moment experience. By cultivating mindfulness, we begin to see things more clearly, making space for wise responding.

Although it sounds simple, it isn’t easy and this is where much of the confusion arises. In this series, I discuss the most common myths I encounter about mindfulness through my work as a psychologist and mindfulness coach and I attempt to debunk them. Click the following links to clear the air around mindfulness and its practices:

  1. Its Pure Bliss – mindfulness allows us to be open to and learn from all experience, not just the pleasant stuff.
  2. Its Selfish – the practices cultivate compassion for self AND others.
  3. Its All Woo – there is a growing body of scientific research supporting the benefits of mindfulness.
  4. Its a Quick Fix – the practices take time, patience and persistence to develop.
  5. Its a Cure-All – although the practices can be quite helpful, they are not a panacea.

One becomes like that which is in one’s mind – this is the everlasting secret. – Raimon Panikkar

Mindfulness Myths: #4 It’s a Quick Fix

rainbow2Mindfulness has nearly become a household word, yet many of us only have only a surface understanding of its meaning and practices. In this series, I discuss the most common myths I encounter about mindfulness through my work as a psychologist and mindfulness coach and I attempt to debunk them.

Myth #4: A Little Meditation Will Cure All That Ails You

Researchers are discovering a number of benefits that appear to be correlated with mindfulness practices. In fact, many of these benefits can be seen in a relatively short period of time and with surprisingly limited exposure. However, mindfulness practices are called practices because for most people they require consistent, repeated use over time in order to develop. They are not a cure, but a new way of relating to experience. It just so happens that this new way of being, over time, often brings with it a decrease in suffering.

From time to time I encounter clients who are frustrated with or disappointed by a perceived lack of progress after a relatively short period of practice (such as an 8-week course). They have some important goals in mind and they feel they have not yet achieved them. As human beings, it is habitual for us to create expectations, measure ourselves by comparison, and strive for results. However, when we apply these conditioned ways of doing things to our mindfulness practice, we miss the point.

Mindfulness is about being rather than doing. It requires a beginner’s mind, which means letting go, as best we can, of preconceived notions and expectations. It also requires non-judgment, or curious observation rather than grasping after what is wanted and rejecting what is unwanted. We are just allowing things to be as they are and learning from what we encounter. In striving for an impressive result, we miss the subtleties of our experience. The benefits of a mindfulness practice can be quite subtle – I like to say it happens “millimeter by millimeter” and is easily missed. However, the subtlest of changes are often the most profound and lasting.

You once told me
You wanted to find
Yourself in the world –
And I told you to
First apply within,
To discover the world
within you.

You once told me
You wanted to save
The world from all its wars –
And I told you to
First save yourself
From the world,
And all the wars
You put yourself
Suzy Kassem, Apply Within

Mindfulness Myths: #1 Its Pure Bliss

DangerLike anything that gains popularity and is consumed solely through the (often) superficial lens of the mass media, mindfulness has been mischaracterized and misunderstood. In this series, I will attempt to address some of the most common myths that I encounter around the practices.

Myth #1: The purpose of mindfulness is to relax & stop thinking.

Many new practitioners feel concern or frustration when they do not achieve relaxation, a sense of peacefulness, or a mind free of thoughts when they meditate or try any of the other mindfulness practices. In fact, there are some that are so attached to experiencing “bliss” that they quickly become discouraged and give up.

The real goal of mindfulness is liberation from suffering. By consistently directing bare attention to phenomena we gain insight into reality and free ourselves from the conditioning and habits that color our experiences.

To end internal human suffering, we must see through delusion and awaken to the nature of awareness, not just pacify the mind. – Robert Epstein

Many times we do indeed feel relaxed during practice and our minds become relatively still. At other times the mind is full of incessant chatter. Striving to “empty” it gets us nowhere. In addition, some of what we encounter in practice can be uncomfortable, unpleasant or unwanted. We may experience boredom, anxiety, restlessness, or sensations of pain in the body. Not all phenomena are peace inducing and insisting on bliss will only add to our suffering.

Instead, we set an intention to be open to and present with what is, whether pleasant or unpleasant, wanted or unwanted. We develop insight into and a new relationship with our thoughts, feelings, and urges to action. Over time we are freed from the grasping and aversion that initially drove our behavior and caused much of our suffering.

The take away: Don’t be discouraged when you encounter difficulty in your mindfulness practice. When it happens, it doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong. Instead, try to cultivate patiencebeginner’s mind and a spirit of friendly curiosity so that you can see it more clearly and relate to it with greater wisdom.