Rethinking Mindfulness

Unless you've been hiding under a large rock (or perhaps meditating on one), you're probably a bit sick of hearing about mindfulness by now. From colouring books to apps to breathing exercises, we've reached mindfulness saturation.

Mindfulness has become the poster-child for our fight against the stresses of modern life. Hard day at work? You should try mindfulness. Kids testing your patience? Do some breathing exercises. Got anxiety or depression? Focus on the present and watch your worries melt away. 

Those are some mighty big promises. It's no wonder then that so many of us find mindfulness to be so underwhelming. 

"I just sat quietly for 10 minutes and I don't feel any better. What gives?!?" 
Rethinking Mindfulness: Control, Awareness and Choice.

Rethinking Mindfulness: Control, Awareness and Choice.

And how many of us have worked with clients, particularly people with a mental illness or longstanding pain, who have tried mindfulness or breathing exercises and think it's all a big crock? 

So... is mindfulness a sham? 

Do you see a trend in the way we've been using (and abusing) mindfulness? 

  • "I should try mindfulness to reduce my stress"
  • "Will these breathing exercises make me less anxious?"
  • "My [insert well-meaning person with an opinion here] said that meditation would help my pain"

We've been using mindfulness as a control strategy [1], which is not its intended purpose. 

Mindfulness is not about eliminating painful thoughts, feelings or sensations. It's not about "focusing on something else" (like your body parts, or your breathing) and it's not about positive thinking and willpower. 

It's actually the opposite. 

Mindfulness practice requires us to make room for the uncomfortable stuff instead of struggling against it.

In a nutshell, being mindful is about being present to all that's happening around (and within) ourselves. And the goal is to do this without judgement and without getting too attached to whatever thought, feeling or sensation we notice. 

This concept sounds simple enough but it's really, really hard

Our minds have evolved to tune into the thoughts and feelings that trouble us. The brain is like the ultimate threat detection device and it wants to hold tightly onto potential threats and do something about it because that's what used to keep us alive. 

By contrast, mindfulness asks us to hold stressful thoughts, feelings and sensations lightly.

Your brain does not want to let go of pain, or worry, or stress. So when we use mindfulness as a way to control, minimise or avoid those things, we're often left feeling disappointed because we're fighting against a biologically hard-wired response. Some people even feel more stressed after mindfulness meditation than before they started! [2]

So our approach to mindfulness might need to shift a little bit. Mindfulness, by definition, is not about dropping or letting go of the painful stuff. It's about holding it lightly and making room for it. 

So why bother making room?

Two reasons:

1. Control is kind of an illusion anyway:

Have you noticed how hard it is to not think about something? Seriously. Whatever you do, don't think about penguins right now. Don't think about their adorable little feet or their cute white bellies. 

How'd you do? 

Unless you have superhuman levels of control, you probably just thought about penguins. And even if you did manage to not think about them, imagine trying to keep up that level of control for the rest of the day without being totally consumed by not. thinking. about. penguins. which brings me to point #2...

2. Control comes at a cost. 

When we make "mindfulness" about gaining control or getting relief, whatever we're trying to avoid or minimise often gets louder. It consumes our field of vision and demands attention. In white-knuckling our way through painful experiences, we miss out on opportunities to engage in the stuff that matters to us. We become mindless. 

In being mindful, really mindful, we make room for the uncomfortable stuff so that we have the energy to notice and choose (if we wish) to do the things that we care about. 

Is there something you care about enough that you would choose it, even if the pain or discomfort came along for the ride as well?

Mindfulness does not promise control or relief. Mindfulness offers choice.

Could be a useful discussion to have with our clients who have said that breathing exercises don't work or that they just hate the idea of mindfulness. What are they hoping to get out of it in the first place?

Still not convinced that mindfulness can help us do more of what matters by creating room to move? Then give this resource a spin:

3 mindfulness exercises for people who hate mindfulness:

Struggle with Mindfulness?

No zen meditations here.

Try these 3 exercises to ease into mindfulness & being present.

I like spam less than I like meditating. None of that here. Powered by ConvertKit

References and further reading:

[1] Dr Russ Harris speaks extensively about the issue of acceptance vs control in mindfulness in his book, ACT Made Simple.

[2] Creswell, J. D., Pacilio, L. E., Lindsay, E. K., & Brown, K. W. (2014). Brief mindfulness meditation training alters psychological and neuroendocrine responses to social evaluative stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 44, 1-12.

Dr Sarah McKay @ Your Brain Health: Does Meditation Stress You Out?

And one last thing... 

Are you a mindfulness convert or still doubtful? How do you find calm in your life?