There are a number of myths about the intent and practice of mindfulness. They tend to arise from the paradoxical nature of concepts and practice. On the one hand we teach that staying in the moment is important; yet we know we need to be forward-looking. In fact, the very reason we try the practice of mindfulness is to have a healthier future! We teach that mindfulness cannot be grasped through the intellect; yet we have handouts, practice logs and shelves filled with books about mindfulness practice. We ask our participants in the courses to listen to the wisdom of their body and be skeptical about their thoughts; yet we can only access that wisdom through our mind process. We say, “Let go of wanting to get to that endpoint!” Yet the taxes need to be done and the dishes washed.
Perhaps the hardest one to understand is that last one. It is a paradox between trusting our own experience which may tell us one thing and knowing we have obligations and responsibilities to meet. How do we practice self-awareness if in that process we have to set aside the needs of loved ones, friends and colleagues? How do we follow our bliss (a wonderful epitaph from the ’60’s) and not leave behind the people who are important to us?
This is really important to clarify and understand because the most frequently asked question in our information sessions and through the early classes reflects the fear that we will become lazy, navel-gazing zombies. So, let’s clarify some things around three mindfulness catch phrases.
Be in the moment – this is a favourite of most mindfulness students and likely the one that gets us in trouble the most. Of course, we can tease about which moment to be in but that is a reality; moments are not discrete. Often we hear it used as a way of not being in the moment; that is, not being in contact with what is unfolding. It is frequently used a way of saying, “I just want the pleasant stuff.” If the moment is painful or intense, it becomes confusing when we find we cannot stay in that particular moment. So what does it mean? In the practice of mindfulness, the moment and the experience are a single unit; one cannot and does not exist without the other. (Another way of saying this is “Time and Being are one and the same.”) Being in the moment means holding a steady awareness of everything that is happening without rejecting or clinging to any one experience. Every experience (made up of an aggregate of sensations) is a source of information for making healthy decisions.
Let go – this is a tough one because it conveys the idea that whatever we’re letting go should go away. We talk about letting go of our anger or grief and feel frustrated when anger or sadness shows up. We try to “put things behind us” as a way of letting go then wonder why it’s always front and center in our lives. We practice dropping pencils held in our hands as an example of letting go or mime various actions that suggest the experience is moved away from our bodies. And we forget that the experience of anger or sadness is an embodied part of our being. In other words, it can no more be thrown away than we can take our brain out and put it on the shelf! How to meet this? Letting go is the process of opening ourselves to the experience we are having without engaging the old habits of judgmental thinking and self-criticism. What we are releasing is the habit of not permitting the experience to be just what it is. Sadness is sadness. When we try to reject that experience, we are in fact reinforcing and intensifying its presence with layers of thinking. If we can picture it as something we are clutching in the hopes of tossing it away like a baseball, letting go is the act of opening our hand and seeing it for what it is, all the sensations and thoughts that go with it.
Accepting what is – another tough one! Often we worry that accepting something is the same as being passive or staying a victim to our circumstances. We try to acknowledge that our job is difficult and our boss is abusive, knowing there may not be employment alternatives. We try to be open to the reality that our relationship is a challenge and worry that feeling lonely and isolated will be our lot. We look at things “as they are” and wonder how we are going to live the decades we have in our situation. Under all the soft words and practices, we may feel this is unacceptable! And it is; mindfulness is the awareness of what a situation is without getting caught in what we had hoped it would be. Acceptance is the practice of looking into our experience, our situation, and seeing all the dimensions in it. It is seeing it for what it truly is and not what we wish it was. The job is difficult. The boss is abusive. The relationship is a challenge. This is what it is. When we see it without a layer of self-judgment or wishing it was different, we are in a better position to make decisions because we haven’t been running in circles around questions of self-worth, shame or blame.
These three concepts are crucial to the practice of mindfulness. They are foundational in setting us on the path of making healthy and wise decisions for ourselves. As we learn to clarify our experiences through these disciplined views, we cultivate healthier relationships with others. And that may be both the true meaning and wonderful consequence of following our bliss.
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