What mindfulness isn't

"This is not about becoming a lazy, lobotomised, meditative vegetable, this is about understanding how activity comes out of stillness – activity is imbedded in stillness." - John Kabat-Zinn. 

Most of us recognise that mindfulness isn’t about being busy, rushing around and never taking a moment for ourselves. However, there may be more subtle ways in which we can get the wrong end of the stick with what exactly mindfulness is. Perhaps we have a perception of mindfulness as about moving around very slowly, or chewing our food 26 times.

 Mindfulness is not intended to be the following:

  • A means of numbing ourselves to our feelings.
  • Emptying our minds of everything.
  • Goal-oriented.
  • A form of self-punishment.
  • Necessary to go very, very slowly.
  • Overwhelming.

Like many ancient practices which have been adapted for modern-day use with our society, there is a danger of the essence of mindfulness being lost in translation. People may misuse it to play into an existing tendency they may have of self-flagellation, perfectionism, repression of feelings, superiority or the need to please others. However, it doesn’t come with any of these qualities pre-inbuilt. In fact, it is offering us an opportunity to see ourselves more clearly with all our faults, but it is not initially asking us to change that self.

A colleague told me of a female client who was using mindful meditation to numb her feelings at being treated badly by her partner. Her motivation was all about changing herself in an attempt to control his unkindness. Her spiritual leaning towards forgiveness further exacerbated this stance. There were some realities in her circumstances she didn’t want to wake up to.

Mindfulness, at its heart is a call to:

  • Pay attention.
  • Be aware of the present moment.
  • Come out of automatic pilot.
  • Wake up to our lives.
  • Take time to be with ourselves.

The effects can be powerful. As Jack Kornfield says, when we look carefully at our inner workings from the first time, our response is often, "Yuck!".

Ultimately, we may see the beauty we have been missing too. A man who’d taken the same route to work for decades, starting using a mindfulness method developed by Andy Puddlecombe, founder of Headspace (the phone app), by playing a mindfulness recording to accompany his regular walk. He walked the same route he had followed for years, but using mindfulness techniques of focusing on the present moment, that walk was transformed by the fact that for the first time he actually saw it. This realisation moved the man to tears. 

The same change as this man experienced in his walk can be experienced with the people in our lives. Can we really take in our partner and our family members or friends when we say hello and goodbye to them; notice them afresh? Can we really listen to our friends when they tell us their troubles without wondering, "What can this person do for me?".

There have been recent news items about the American Military using mindfulness. It is being used to treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Researchers have looked at the outcome and found that indeed, accepting our emotional pain appears to actually help alleviate that pain.

As Thich Nhat Hanh says, "In suffering there are non-suffering elements".

However, we may need to pull our heads out of the sand, otherwise known as drink, drugs, social media, television, workaholism or gambling etc, to appreciate the healing nature of the present moment. John Kabat-Zinn admits that we will occasionally need to zone out, but if we can make this a conscious decision rather than a permanent habit, it is for our good. For the rest of the time, now is the perfect moment to wake up.

Don’t give yourself a hard time about mindfulness, doing it wrong or not doing it - that isn’t the idea. But if you are giving yourself a hard time, notice that you are: that’s the first step.

“I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.

I am lost... I am helpless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.

I fall in again.
I can't believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn't my fault.

It still takes me a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is there.
I still fall in. It's a habit.
My eyes are open.

I know where I am.
It is my fault. I get out immediately.
Walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
I walk down another street.”

Portia Nelson - "There's a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery".

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