Reading Ruth Whippman's November 26th opinion letter on mindfulness, Actually, Lets Not Be in the Moment left me with a growing sense of dismay and sadness.
I am a mindfulness practitioner of almost 20 years, a teacher, trainer and leader in the field. I believe deeply in the transformative potential of mindfulness practice for individuals and the world. But I also have concerns about how to bring mindfulness into society today, without it being watered down or inappropriately applied. Ms. Whippman's letter is just another example of everything that is wrong with our growing need for quick fixes to the deep problems we face as a global society. It is absurd to think that we can "maximize our happiness" by simply bringing attention to whatever we are doing in the present moment. This is one very small aspect of mindfulness practice, and alone will have very little, if any, effect on one's mental states.
The promise of mindfulness is ultimately one of choice. Mindfulness invites us to get curious about the fullness of our experience, not just the stories we tell ourselves about it. For example, if I am stuck in a traffic jam, I may easily get irritated and caught up in anxious thoughts about being late for my next appointment. These thoughts may jump to wondering what the hold up is, and imagining all the worst-case scenarios. If I find out on the radio it's because there is someone threatening to jump off the overpass, I may even wish they would just get it over with so I can get on with my day.
Mindfulness asks us to wake up to what's happening. Do we really want to be a person who would prefer someone to commit suicide so that we won't be late! Of course not. Those are just thoughts. But those thoughts come from within us, and mindfulness asks up to get curious about that so, ultimately, we can make different choices about how we respond. So instead of going straight into the thoughts and feelings, and believing them to be real, we take a deep breath and take a moment to simply be present with the discomfort of our experience right now. What comes next is up to us.
Life is hard. It isn't easy. It isn't easy for anyone living on this planet at this moment in history. That's not to say that some don't have it harder than others. Of course some do. But we all experience suffering of one form or another and for each of us that suffering is very real.
So there is discomfort. It's the end of a long day, you're physically and emotionally exhausted, you're making SpaghettiOs, and suddenly you remember something you've seen on your Facebook feed that says you'll feel better if you pay attention to that task and not get lost in thought. You try that and you get annoyed, because it feels like just another thing to do. Another thing that, if you fail at, it's your fault. Well, I would be annoyed, too. There is nothing joyful in that.
Mindfulness is a whole life practice and not something you can learn to do with any amount of satisfaction from an article on your Facebook feed. With practice, just like learning to play an instrument, we begin to wake up to our direct moment by moment experience in ways previously unavailable to us. We notice physical sensations and the effect they have on our mind with more clarity, we are able to be with that experience in a less reactive, non-judgmental way, and we create space to be able to make more informed and, yes, wiser choices about how we want to be in this world.
This is not to say that the world doesn't present problems out of our immediate control. The causes of unhappiness are endless, and some of them we can do very little about. But there is so much we can do something about. We do have the power to change our response. This isn't an either/or scenario: either there is something wrong with the world or there is something wrong with me. We live in a both/and reality: the world is full of suffering, and there is something we can do about it. Mindfulness is ultimately about empowerment, not for the sake of acquiescence, but in order to better prepare us to meet the demands of this life. Mindfulness actually builds our resilience, without depriving us of anything.
The word mindfulness derives from the Pali work sati, which is sometimes translated as "to remember." So it isn't just about being in the present moment. It's also about remembering who we ultimately are, or want to be, and keeping that in the center of our lives. And it is about the intention we bring to how we want to be with our experience: remembering our intention and coming back to it over and over again.
When practicing mindfulness, we become interested in the present moment, but not at the expense of our thoughts about the past or the future. The difference here is that we can choose which thoughts we want to engage with, and which are not in line with our intentions. Of course, memories from the past and plans for the future are important, and support us to live a happy, healthy life.
Instead of dismissing mindfulness before you've really tried it, maybe you could get curious about it. Ask, "What is this mindfulness thing really all about?" Read a book, listen to an online talk or guided practice, take a course, go on a weekend retreat. Talk to those of us who know something about it. And don't assume it's just a practice for the privileged. I have found that during times of great difficulty is when my mindfulness practice has born its greatest fruit.
So please, don't knock mindfulness. Not at a time where the world so desperately needs people willing to meet suffering within themselves and one another with wisdom and compassion.
by Singhahsri Gazmuri, Breathworks Program Director