Mindfulness is simple, yet complex. It is as simple as returning to the breath in each moment. And, it is as complex as making choices that are consistent with our values. Mindfulness of the breath is a confirmation of being fully present to the moment of the breath. It can be comforting. It can lead to a momentary ease of tension or uncertainty. It can clarify our intention. Mostly, we want the comfort and ease and typically this is the focus of mindfulness trainings. In fact, people usually describe mindfulness they’ve learned from trainers, therapists, and online videos as a way of calming and reducing stress. And often, it’s very functional and goes a fair ways to providing a respite from the daily stressors we experience.
Then there’s the transformational potential in the practice of mindfulness that is rarely offered because it treads on a fine line between healing and preaching. This is both a scholarly debate about the “rightness” of offering mindfulness as it was intended in the Buddhist tradition and an ongoing argument in psychology that treatment should be value-free. (There’s lots to read on this topic but I won’t cover it here.) However, we turn to therapy to discover how far we’ve drifted from our values and usually not to take on new or esoteric ones. It may not even be with such clarity that we decide we need to change aspects of our life.
Usually we seek out a therapist because we are hurting, confused, and angry. Our treasured views, our relationships and the world seem out of kilter. Tried-and-true strategies, ways of interaction don’t seem to have the same impact or effectiveness we were used to. In fact, the habitual actions and responses may be producing the opposite effect. Mindfulness seems to offer a way out of the hurt, confusion, and anger by teaching us how to calm ourselves, to be present in each moment, and to let go of the stress and tension.
Mindfulness breath and thought change practices work. It’s a good start because being steady in the face of hurt, confusion, and anger allows a new perspective to emerge. It is a opportunity to review and re-tool our autopilot thoughts and actions.
But should we stop there? Isn’t just calming and reducing adrenaline-driven stress a good enough outcome? No and sure. The reduction of stress is necessary but it isn’t a sufficient condition for lasting change in our reactivities. If what we want is momentary relief so we can carry on, then this is as good a skill as box breathing or any of the other stress-reduction approaches available. However, therapy is more than changing breathing patterns and feeling de-stressed. It is fundamentally about changing our relationship with ourselves, others, and the world.
So let me reach back to a beautiful model originally designed by mindfulness researchers Shauna Shapiro and colleagues: Mindfulness is comprised of creating the Intention to pay Attention to our Attitude (IAA) in each moment. The term Attitude takes on other meanings than your mum’s voice in your head telling you she doesn’t like your attitude! It focuses on the mental state we cultivate as we act out our interactive intention. For example, my partner learned that I love eggs Benedict for breakfast and more so if they were served as breakfast in bed. Every morning of our first weeks living together, he brought me a breakfast in bed of Eggs Benedict with Hollandaise sauce. (We didn’t have an egg poacher so he had made little aluminum foil boats which held the eggs as he held the contraption in simmering water.) We can’t deny that his intention was noble and he certainly was paying attention to the joy it gave him – and me he hoped – to give such a sweet gift. So far so good: Intention is pure, Attention is fully present and mental attitude is positive.
What could be wrong with that picture? Well, after two weeks (or more!) of Eggs Benedict in bed every morning, I was caught in a dilemma of needing to tell him my favourite breakfast was now ruined.
So the IAA model includes one more link: Impact of our actions. Thankfully all the Eggs Benedict did was cause awkward moments and my cholesterol levels were spared. There are so many times when we may have been acting from our values with good intentions only to become confused about the outcome. Those moments are the key to transforming our unskillfulness to skillfulness in demonstrating love, care, and compassion. Building relationships requires awareness of the other person’s process as well as our own. It means checking in to be sure our values are expressed through intentions and actions that are consistent or congruent with our values.
If our intention is to bring joy and the impact is something other than joy, the first part of the sequence to examine is the action we took.
- Was it informed by our needs or the recipient’s need?
- Is it our definition of joy or perhaps a misunderstanding of what brings them joy?
- How important is it that they feel joy in our terms and not theirs?
Mindfulness practices can enrich our relationships with ourselves and others well beyond the calming and soothing. It may feel risky to dig down into the intention of being mindful – to be congruent with our values. It is! And the impact is being the person we truly want to be.