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The Trouble with Mindfulness

Someone called me the other day to enquire about my upcoming Quiet Mind workshop. He had some experience, and asked, “So how is your meditation different from everyone else’s? What sets it apart?”

“Well,” I said, “it’s stressful.”

Stressful?” His voice petered out.

 

Face your demons with equanimity

 

As the word hung in the air, I flashed back to the nineteen-sixties and the celebrities who’d learned ‘being in the moment’ from grinning Indian gurus. It wasn’t just that I wanted to fit into the Now generation. The idea really hit a nerve.

I’d been trying to live according to how things
should be, and had ignored how they actually were

I wasn’t giving the present moment its due, and I knew it. I was on auto-pilot, in flight from bad feelings. Instead of facing my sense of isolation I churned out rationalizations about why I didn’t care about other people, how I could manage without love, why no one would understand anyway. I convinced myself I was okay alone, that I preferred it that way, that I wasn’t in pain. I glossed over the past and spun the future before it even had a chance to impact me.

I’d been trying to live according to how things should be, and had ignored how they actually were. If I could learn this ‘being in the moment,’ I realized, things might change. I just had to train my mind.

So I hitchhiked to India, shaved my head and joined the ranks of the faithful. I was going to wake up and smell the roses.

Or is it the coffee? Whatever. I just knew I wanted more, much more. I was primed to believe the hype about the present moment being miraculous. The story went like this: unlike rehashed memories and future worries, the present moment isn’t inside your head — it’s real. Tied up with your thoughts, you’re oblivious to the roses. Or, without that shot of coffee, you’re asleep to the joys of life, right? It’s all about paying attention to what’s actually going on instead of to the chatter in your head. With this nifty formula I meant to leave behind all prevarication, justification, rationalization and agonizing.

I wasn’t the only one who craved peace of mind. Thousands of us then have turned into millions today practicing mindfulness, many at the prescription of their physicians. A ten day course in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teaches you all you need to know — or so they say.

The trouble is, there’s more to changing your stress response than technique. It also requires context. That’s why many give up. Peace of mind may be the long-term goal, but getting down to it and creating a life-changing practice takes time, effort — and gumption.

The present moment presents us not only with roses and coffee but also excrement, the worst of it from within. Fight your demons and they fight right back, increasing stress instead of quieting it. Yet turn away and they grow into habitual thoughts that magnify the subconscious chatter. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Mindfulness requires a light touch, neither fighting nor turning away but gently lying down with your demons, understanding how they shape your outlook on life and learning what triggers them.

There’s no magic. It’s quite scientific. It’s a gathering of data in real time: being attentive to the ‘here and now’ while reading this article; while getting mad at your neighbor, while doing something you hate that has to be done anyway. And, most difficult of all, while indulging in that familiar inner dialog we call the story of ‘me.’

Are you searching for tranquility, or for a tranquillizer?

‘Spiritual’ people often think that negative states of mind are a problem, that hate must be turned into love, frustration into joy. This is valiant but misguided. Reality is sometimes so simple that we just miss it. Anger, frustration and regret are appropriate responses to many situations. Indulging in them doesn’t help and neither does flight, but taking a step back and seeing them in context does. Resist the urge to escape and you see what you’re really dealing with.

Are you searching for tranquility, or for a tranquillizer? Sharp, effective mindfulness begins with acceptance of your emotions, not judgement of them. Only then is change possible.

Those who want to feel good now miss this subtle difference. Their desire to change their feelings is the same old urge to flee, just another subconscious craving for things to be other than they are. Actually, it’s worse: believing they’re on a special path to freedom, they’re even more blinkered than the rest of us.

We can’t control our feelings but we can mold our thoughts. We do that most easily in patterns of past and future, and that’s why our heads fill up so easily with distraction.

So, mindfulness is not an isolated activity in a quiet room. It’s a fully-engaged approach to life. It deals with what we know, not what we wish; with what is presented to us in each and any moment. It’s not easy, but it is profoundly rewarding.

If you take up mindfulness in order to find peace, that’s probably what it’ll seem like — at first. However, that’s just a trick of the expectant mind. Getting past that illusion is stressful: you have to face stuff you don’t want to face. The fact that it feels bad doesn’t mean you’ve got it wrong. It means you’re stepping out of your comfort zone, bypassing your default responses and adding space for creative experience.

 

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10 responses to “The Trouble with Mindfulness”

  1. The trouble with mindfulness

    […] […]

  2. Tim

    You raise some interesting issues here! And some issues that are not going to disappear – they strike me as issues to be addressed and worked with by each one of us as we engage in our search.

    I suspect that all of us who are drawn into a spiritual quest are looking for peace, joy, the end suffering and all that: and I suppose we think of that in the way open to us – which will, no doubt, be full of the characteristics of Dukkha as described by the Buddha (wanting, not wanting and seeing the world though our own personal delusional glasses). It seems to me that it is only though engaging in the practice that we begin to explore an alternative approach – one in which suffering and happiness remain, but with us engaging with/holding them differently. Loosing our delusional (manic) optimism is evidence of our engagement with the path maturing – maybe it is relevant to remember that none of those who left, full of optimism, with Moses for the Promised Land made it there: but their heirs (with a different state of mind) got there. It is hard to loose our naive hopes and to face the necessary losses of life without falling into despair or resignation.

    With that in mind, it seems to me that all spiritual paths have to manage the tension between ‘the good news’ (salvation, the path out of suffering) and the tough message (that we must all take up our crosses, acknowledge the first noble truth etc).

    Some teachings seem to emphasise one perspective more than the other. Maybe that is in part due to how they choose to ‘sell’ their ‘product’ – or maybe it has grown out of the experience of how different teachers have most skilfully addressed their own and others’ different needs. (Perhaps those with especially troubled backgrounds respond better to hearing the good news, rather than focussing, still more, on the reality of suffering).

    Buddhism (as a whole) is often thought of as being negative or pessimistic due to its emphasis on dukkha/suffering. But, in truth, the Four Noble Truths include both sides of the coin – the fact of suffering and the way out.

    Within Buddhism, I am told that the Theravada tradition seems to focus more on the first noble truth and can seem somewhat dour, whilst the Mayahana (and Tibetan?) approaches appear more upbeat. That said, I note that Thich Nhat Hanh who seems, at first glance, very positive with his talk of ‘this moment – wonderful moment’ very soon turns our attention to recognising our suffering (so as to heal or transform it).

    Despite many losses, of all sorts, my own hope continues to spring eternal – and I fully expect much of it to be misplaced and disappointed – but maybe, as I loose more hopes, dreams, cherished beliefs etc I will find a full-hearted acceptance of the way life really is and a greater sense of peace, acceptance and well-being. Time flies, so I should find out soon enough!

  3. Mark Knickelbine

    “A ten day course in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teaches you all you need to know — or so they say.”

    Stephen, thanks for the post. As a practitioner in the mindfulness-based “tradition”, I’d like to caution against a very common misrepresentation of MBSR and the other mindfulness-based approaches — i.e., that it’s technique only, and technique used as a palliative against psychological symptoms.

    First off, the standard MBSR course is not ten days, but eight weeks, during which students are urged to engage in formal practice for at least 45 minutes a day. More importantly however, no decent MBSR teacher would encourage you to think you had “got it all” even after eight weeks. Mindfulness is presented very much as you discuss in this article — as a lifelong comittment that calls us to face our demons and get to know them intimately. In the mindfulness community with which I practice, many of our activities are focused on observing how craving and aversion arise in our experience and learning to be with the difficult sensations and emotions that arise with them so we have a better chance of seeing the wisdom that’s within them. And this is not just an introspective process, but one that is imbedded in our relationships with and behavior toward other people.

    While I study traditional Buddhist texts, I have found MBSR to be the most crucial aspect of my practice, because it moves so decisively away from doctrine and theory and teaches mindfulness as a life skill to bring to every moment of awareness. There is this tendency in discussions of Western Buddhism to speak about MBSR as some kind of “dharma lite”, and it’s truly not.

  4. lee

    It’s a common problem for lay-novitiate to conflate no-self with self-abnegation. A broad misapprehension of core concepts feed this — erroneous interpretations such as escaping from suffering, emptiness as annihilism or the Taoist Void, Hindu Yogic eternalism and/or perpetualism, ersatz piety of interconnectiveness reminiscent of platitudinous flower children, and the new wave of anti-theists indulging in an intellectualized Dharma.

    Unfortunately most Buddhist primers contribute to confusion of what the heart of Buddhism really is. Think about the challenge of ingesting the four noble truths or the eightfold path. Those are important statements, no doubt, but they can prove confusing, even daunting, when first encountered. For a noumenal system whose heart and soul is the attainment of access to direct experience, the statement “Suffering has an end” sounds like an escape clause, inviting a theistic suborning of identity, in pursuit of amelioration and surrender.

  5. patrick mccurry

    I enjoyed your post because I thought you described very clearly the risks that mindfulness can be misunderstood as a way of escaping ‘negative’ feelings and gaining ‘positive’ ones. As you say, it is about experiencing these feelings without letting them take us over.

  6. Firas S

    A lovely article. The content is so true. I suspect it is a wide spread phenomenon these days hearing of people who either provide or seek peacefulness and love, where both are nothing but a scam.

  7. lamb-O

    “I wasn’t giving the present moment its due, and I knew it. I was on auto-pilot, in flight from bad feelings. Instead of facing my sense of isolation I churned out rationalizations about why I didn’t care about other people, how I could manage without love, why no one would understand anyway. I convinced myself I was okay alone, that I preferred it that way, that I wasn’t in pain. I glossed over the past and spun the future before it even had a chance to impact me.

    I’d been trying to live according to how things should be, and had ignored how they actually were. If I could learn this ‘being in the moment,’ I realized, things might change. I just had to train my mind.”

    Well, story of my life. From then on, I chose differently and became a sort of an irate ascetic. Wow.

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