Since Jon Kabat-Zinn opened the ‘western world’ doors to Mindfulness, this topic has seen an exponential increase in visibility to the point that it has become a mainstream ‘phenomenon’.
Large Corporations are bringing in Mindfulness experts, Schools are introducing Mindfulness during detention classes, sport teams are using it as well!
Mindfulness seems to be the biggest treatment of the moment for everything, from anxiety to eating disorders, from lack of productivity to burnout.
Many public figures are tweeting, posting and promoting their amazing results, highlighting how much are they feeling and performing better because of it.
There’s a lot of pressure on people to do it and do it right, so their life will be an explosion of happiness.
And this is the problem. The purpose of Mindfulness is not to make you feel better. This is a marketing strategy to appeal the masses.
Truth be told, we are to a point where Mindfulness has been so watered down (a whole concept reduced to a few quotes and some Buddha’s pictures), that I wonder if it’s still connected to its roots.
Nowadays it seems reduced to the axiom
MINDFULNESS WILL MAKE YOU FEEL AH-MAH-ZING, IF YOU’RE NOT HAPPY, YOU’RE NOT DOING IT RIGHT.
In this sense I’m not surprised to see articles and academic publications (Perspectives on Psychological Science and Psychology today, just to name some…) on how Mindfulness is not the miracle people were waiting for, but on the contrary, it’s a dangerous practice that holds on a system that shames people for not being mindful in the right way. Although, it’s worth to point out that, while some article is addressing the misinterpretation of the core principle of Mindfulness, some of them are simply trying to disproof Mindfulness based on wrong assumptions and interpretations.
The purpose of this post, is to help you understand the expectation and the principles of a mindful way of living, debunking some the myths and urban legends associated to this practice.
1. Living in the present moment means stops planning and dreaming.
Mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment, without judgement.
To live in the present does not mean ‘let’s just care about what I’m doing now, with no care of what’s gonna come after of what has been in the past’.
The concept of present needs to be put into perspective, needs context.
The point is that we, as human beings, can’t help but being ‘emotional time travellers’. Our mind keeps remembering things from the past and making plans, dreams and hope about the future. This is not only normal, but beneficial. Without forward thinking there wouldn’t be scientific discoveries, arts, progress. Without remembering the past we would not learn any lessons, and we would keep making the same mistakes.
The problems starts to arise when we loose ourselves in the past and the future, to a point where, even if we physically live in the present, our mind is constantly fixated onto something we can’t change (the past) or onto something we don’t know for sure yet (the future), or when we daydream to seek refuge for a present experience that we don’t particularly enjoy.
If you are in a boring meeting and your mind starts to wander, to think about your lunch, your next vacation, or thinking about the movie you saw last night… you’ll end up into missing important informations to do your job, and you’ll suffer from the consequences…
And how man times you have been frustrated, sad, angry because things were not going according to your plans?
Let’s say it’s Sunday evening, your friends invite you to an evening together. Sure, why not? It’s going to be a relaxing and joyful moment with people you love, you deserve this after a long week of work!
And there you are, with your friends, sipping a drink on a terrace, a warm breeze is blowing softly, it’s sunset and everyone is laughing.
It’s a calm and serene moment, isn’t it? But, suddenly you realise tomorrow it’s Monday, you start thinking of all the things you need to do, you start wondering of how many emails will fill your laptop as soon as you opens it, oh… emails…. I will have to answer the email of that annoying Jon Doe that is asking me to fix an unfixable problem… why this guy needs to bother me? My manager will be upset with me if I can’t fix it, and he doesn’t understand a thing of my job, how can I explain that some things are impossible? AAARRRGGGHHHHHHHH!
In a split second, you are lost in a train of thoughts, your attention is fully devoted to this chain reaction of disasters and negative feelings. You stop notice the beautiful landscape, the laughters of your loved ones, the sweet taste of your drink… the gathering comes to an end and you are even more tired and worried that you were before.
Living in the present moment means being aware of what we will have to do tomorrow, but bring our attention to the now, it’s about becoming an observer of yourself and make conscious decision and choices about how you want to engage your life.
2. Mindfulness bring happiness
This is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) misconceptions about Mindfulness.
The idea of 'Mindful life = Happiness' causes a great amount of people to feel that Mindfulness doesn’t work for them, they they are doing it wrong, reinforcing the idea that 'their life sucks and there’s nothing you can do about it'.
But let’s think for a second. Mindfulness means being AWARE, it doesn’t mean to be happy. Sometimes life is happy, sometimes life is painful. Thant’s how it is. Some moments are terrible and you don’t feel good.
It means experiencing the present moment, whatever it is, without judging it nor trying to escape from it.
“And why on Earth would I want to experience discomfort and stress?” You might ask. “Why I shouldn’t feel the need to escape in my mind when I’m stressed or overwhelmed?’
Well, distraction is one of the coping mechanism we have as humans to defend ourselves from what we perceive as a threat to our life and well being, along with suppression and challenging.
The problem with distraction is that the relief is only temporary. As long as the distraction is gone, the threat often resurface.
Let’s say you are working on a project that have a tight deadline. The lack of time or resources will stress you and sure, nobody wants to feel stressed right?
Often in such cases, our automatic behaviour lead us to space out, by start thinking of something else, or doing something else. Going out for a cigarette or a coffee… Or maybe play some video games, or reading a book…
And I’m sure you’re going to feel better, you’re so focused on how to destroy Diablo or occupied by planning your next vacation, that you’re not gonna be bothered by your deadline.
But once you’re done with it, your deadline is still going to be there, only closer.
If you’re sitting with a friend who’s in pain and you suffer for him, and your mind start to think about the last movie you saw because it’s automatically shielding from the discomfort you’re feeling… you might not be in pain or worried for some time, but are you really being there for your friend?
Once again, the need to distract ourselves, to flee from negative emotions, it’s only human, noticing this need it’s mindful.
By being mindful you can still decide to be in the present moment or flee, but whatever you choose it’s going to be an aware and conscious decision.
Allowing us to experience and be aware of the moment that causes discomfort will also teach us that those moments are not permanent.
3. Mindfulness is for taking a time-out from life, quieting the mind and reducing stress.
The western concept of Mindfulness has been introduced at first with the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program.
It’s an effective program that still provide great results, but the name is just for marketing.
The goal of Mindfulness is not (only) to reduce stress, but more to work on our inner processes to switch some automatic behaviour to conscious awareness, in order to open our mental, physical and emotional processes to operate in this world with compassion toward others and ourselves.
We are used to our routines. Routines are safe. Routines gives us certainty.
But routines are Automatic behaviours (mainly referred to automatic thoughts processes, in this context) and such behaviours have become so prominent in our daily life that experiencing awareness and consciousness is perceived as a ‘time-off’ from our lives…which kinda falls into the ‘irony’ bucket in my mind.
If anything, Mindfulness is stop surviving on automatisms and start living our lives, which can be achieved by experiencing the now and making conscious choices.
This is the ultimate goal of being mindful, and I’m not going to lie.
It’s not easy to change automatic behaviours and routines took us a life to build.
It’s not easy to find the courage to leave the safe space of our routines, especially now that you know that the promise is not to live in an endless state of happiness and joy, but to experience life for what it is, but it’s worth the effort.