In the past one or two decades the term mindfulness has arrived in nearly every aspect of life in Western societies. Hospitals, schools, workplace, even stock market or military – mindfulness is everywhere. There’s mindful childbirth, mindful parenting, mindful nature-loving, mindful politics and politicians – seemingly mindfulness fits everything. Coming out of the blue, this approach is about to spread to other parts of the Earth, too.
What’s the secret behind it?
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s now classical definition,
“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.”
Although many people think mindfulness is a technique it’s obvious from K-Z’s definition that it’s much more than that: it’s a view of life or, more precisely, an art or even science of living. No wonder that mindfulness is able to play role in every aspect of life – as there’s nothing we couldn’t do with open, moment-to-moment awareness.
The fast-paced spreading of mindfulness has, however, some setbacks, which is commonly called “McMindfulness”, after the fast-food restaurant chain. Just a short check on the Internet may show you what McMindfulness is: a massive amount of promises how some practices can improve your life, work, relationships, physical and mental performance, material richness and practically everything you can just imagine. These promises make you think that mindfulness is a like a fast lunch at McDonald’s – belly is full in a minute, the next task may start. Or a pill that you can just take and can wait for its beneficial effects soon.
Although many people experience that only a few weeks of daily mindfulness practice increase their life qualities the promises of McMindfulness are among the falsest ones. Its simple reason is that when the motivation of practice is wrong then the result will be also not be as expected. The original intention of mindfulness is just being with what there is. In other words: befriending with the reality, accepting the world as it is. It’s based on the ancient wisdom (coming from Buddhism, actually): every unnecessary suffering is the result of us not being able to accept the reality. When it’s hot we want cooler weather, when we’ve lost someone we want them back, etc. Either resisting the experience of here and now or clinging to them, refusing natural change.
Befriending things as they are make us soften resistance or clinging, open our perspectives to new opportunities, give up old habits leading to multiplication of pain. This is the base of mindfulness. If we practice like this we can collect the fruit of our meditation: not only suffering decreases, but we see the world more clearly, attention improves, relationships get more honest and deeper, we can enjoy pleasant experiences more deeply, we don’t get stuck in difficult emotions so easily or so long.
What I want to say is that the only “valid” intention in mindfulness practice is to accept reality as it is. If I practice meditation to improve my work performance, remain cooler in the stock market or get creative ideas – that’s NOT mindfulness at all. It is also NOT mindfulness when I practice to decrease my pain, ease my difficult emotions or have a better relationship to people. On the other hand, it IS mindfulness when I meditate to get known the pain better and deeper, meet the thoughts in my head non-judgementally, or discover difficult emotions. Mindfulness is not a fix to anything. We don’t change internal or external objects through meditation, we only change our attitudes towards them.
You may have come to a thought of controversy or paradox by now regarding mindfulness. “I want to feel better, work better, live at ease with people – so why practice mindfulness if I can’t get them?” The paradox indeed exists: first, you have to accept what you want to change. And acceptance is impossible without feeling, experiencing, deeply knowing, even nearly befriending what you want to let go. As mentioned above, only the consequence of this acceptance could result in better, let’s say, work performance, emotion control, wider mental perspective, etc.
I’m saying more: if you practice for other purposes than bare acceptance then you don’t even get those purposes. You may have read or heard different statements from various “gurus”, “teachers” who can’t stop overpromise things. The reality, however, is that mindfulness is a very effective approach to find the peace with ourselves and the world – but it isn’t the wondrous elixir that may cure everything. As the founder of MBSR, Kabat-Zinn said:
“It is indeed a radical act of love just to sit down and be quiet for a time by yourself.”
Why I really love this sentence is that it expresses the honest motivation of mindfulness practice: taking care of ourselves. It isn’t complicated, it doesn’t require too much time from us – it does require some commitment from us, though. In this modern world we’re used to having a specialist for every problem we have. Physicians, therapists, mechanics, computer pros – just find the appropriate professional. Mindfulness, on the other, builds on the belief that we are our best experts as there’s no one who could feel the same as we do.
Practicing mindfulness has really changed my life. It can change yours, too, if you have an appropriate motivation to it. If you want to make peace with your inner and outer world you may start your journey now…