Much of my time is spent trying to convince people that mindfulness may not be the best option they’ve chosen to deal with (read: fix) their mental struggles. This may seem strange given I’ve been committed to mindfulness as a path of practice in both my personal and professional life. And yes, the research evidence for strong outcomes is not as clear as we would like it to be. Still, there are benefits to paying attention to the ways we make choices and how consistent they are with our intentions and values.
But that isn’t what you thought mindfulness is, right? Me neither. Most of us want to meditate so we can fix something – our feelings, our thoughts, our relationships, whatever. My first encounter with meditation was when my then-boyfriend wanted to learn TM (transcendental meditation). I was convinced that if I didn’t go along with him, he would leave me. (I already suspected he was on his way out.) We went to a couple of sessions and I learned how to meditate using a personal mantra. This sorry story of my not-so-noble start in meditation ends with him leaving and meditation staying. Forty-seven years later, I still find myself using meditation to fix my mood, feelings, relationships. At least now, I am sadly aware it’s a futile intention. All I’m doing is messing with my mind rather than practising to be mindful about the quality of my mind.
How can we tell the difference between being mindful and messing with our minds? Here are three ways to check into your intention when you practice.
What brings you to the cushion?
Every moment is an experience. Pleasant or unpleasant. Clear or confusing. Dull or charged. Whatever the label, the experience arrives, arises, and fades away. Mostly. whatever the feeling tone, our habit is to want it to last or to be gone, respectively. Of course, we know those pleasant feelings don’t last (How unpleasant!) and unpleasant feelings ALSO don’t last (How pleasant!)¹. Unfortunately, that doesn’t keep us from messing with the process by trying to make the pleasant feeling stay and unpleasant ones fade faster. We use the breath to feel good and then chase that feeling for 30 mins on the cushion.
When you settle into the cushion, ask yourself what brings you there. If the answer is wanting more or less of an experience you’re having (or had), then start there. Create the intention to pay attention to that desire for the positive or aversion for the negative. There’s no right answer. There’s just paying attention.
What’s the intention of your focus?
With regular practice, we become very skillful at using the breath to trigger the relaxation response. If we can sustain attention on the breathing over time, it can feel like “dropping” into a “deeper” mind state. Often clients will talk about losing awareness of sounds and activity around them or having a feeling of expansiveness. In many cases, they describe it as pleasant; for others, it can be a scary experience. The mark of whether it’s mindful or mind-messing lies in whether we are observing this phenomenon from a grounded stance or are getting lost in it.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting a little reprieve from the world. However, it can become a form of avoiding the challenging situations, thoughts, and feelings we carry around. It’s not unusual for clients to feel confused when anxiety or mood changes catch them off guard because they believe the feelings of calm are proof they will no longer feel these emotions. Ironically, meditation opens us to feeling emotions more, not less. And that sets off the vicious cycle of chasing the fog of pleasantness to further avoid the unpleasant.
In extreme cases, getting lost in the expansiveness can lead to troubling effects, especially if there is a history of trauma². So, it’s very important to be open about your mental health history – with yourself AND your meditation teacher or mindfulness-informed therapist; both should be trauma-informed professionals. Don’t get stuck on one approach of meditation. Learn about the different approaches to meditative states that are appropriate or which resonate with you.
What are you chasing in your practice?
(Un)fortunately, mindfulness is not about creating and getting lost in another (preferred) world. Yet, it’s “tool”, meditation, seems to offer this world: Calm, ease, a quick nap, feelings of wellbeing, and maybe even joy. How can we resist this world on the cushion when our everyday world feels so challenging, even with its joys? It’s very tempting to stay there and we have highly developed ways of messing with our minds about the value of certain mind states.
Meditation is not about training a death grip on the breath or on awareness. Nor is it about disconnecting from the immediate experience. And, paying attention to that immediate experience for those minutes on the cushion is the best mindfulness teacher. There are five ways³ we mess with this process:
- Rejecting the experience:
- Why deliberately hang out with discomfort, itchiness, wandering minds?
- Cling to a pleasant or different experience:
- The last session was so peaceful! C’mon, mind, let’s get to that next level/gold star on the app.
- Dulling mind:
- I’m so tired, sleepy, time is going so slowly!
- I’m so uncomfortable! What if I don’t get that job done/am late for work/miss my tv show?
- What if I’m doing this wrong!?
The challenge of mindfulness is that it’s not meant to be the solution for what ails us. However, it’s become a way to chase for solutions. And by chasing for solutions, we’re getting tangled even further in our mind by messing with it. So, it’s not always the best starting point because it can inadvertently keep us from addressing important aspects of our history and desires. But if you must, then enter slowly and be attentive to what you’re chasing.
1. Martine Batchelor offers lovely teachings about feeling tones and how to work with them.
2. Lindhal & Britton, and Treleaven have written extensively on meditation experiences and trauma-sensitive mindfulness.
3. These are the five obstacles or hindrances that prevent insight through practice. PDF Five Hindrances from Insight Meditation Center