When we first begin to practice being mindful, it can be confusing about the intent of the practice. Participants in our courses often ask if not being “dragged away by our feelings” means we are not supposed to feel anything. They wonder if being mindful means giving up all the things that bring them joy. Understandably, these discussions become a confusing mass of questions and sometimes defensive statements about our “right” to have what we believe we are entitled to.
It may help to consider these points:
(1) The theory of mindfulness is not the Theory of Everything. Mindfulness does not claim to explain our lives or put our experiences into a neat package. In fact, it may do the opposite. The primary tenet of taking a mindful stance or attitude to our experience is to be open to uncertainty. It requires us to let go of our firm belief that we actually can know all that is happening to us. Although it is natural to want to know why our past was the way it was or how to affect our future, the practice of mindfulness is not going to provide that; it has no power over past or future. It can, however, provide us with a window in the current flow of experiences to make different choices despite our past and independent of the imagined future.
(2) Old habits die hard. Mindfulness is an anchor point to keep our habitual reactivities from running – may be even ruining – our lives. A mental state that is flipping around trying to get the most information or indulge in well-practiced reactivities is not gathering useful information or engaging in beneficial actions. When we work on noticing that we are avoiding the uncomfortable experience in this moment by some means of distraction (food, tv, over-activity), we begin to develop the capacity to stay with the real experience. This is a good time to point out that there is no problem with enjoying a good meal, watching tv or being active. The difficulty is when we use these activities to escape from something that needs our attention. (Imagine being glued to the tv while a pot boils over in the kitchen.)
(3) There is no magic. Just paying attention to what is unfolding and assuming that our lives will change is magical thinking. It assumes that no real effort is necessary to develop healthier perspectives on the joys and sorrows of our life. When we pay attention, we open ourselves to the possibility of learning more about who we are. Truly experiencing our anger (rather than acting on it reactively) teaches us about who we become when we feel threatened. Being available for our depression alerts us to our modes of dealing with situations that trigger helplessness. Welcoming our excitement or enthusiasm for a new project or relationship cultivates courage to be willing to take on a challenge. This is important information that helps us become wiser about who we want to become as human beings, people who want to give and receive compassion and care.
Mindfulness is not just a tool to get out of a sticky spot in our lives. It is a commitment to live wisely and compassionately. To do that, we make the effort to discipline our minds, restrain our compulsions, and open ourselves to the exciting uncertainty that every moment brings.