Today 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