Today there are few pockets of this country left untouched by mindfulness. Ask anyone you meet and it is likely they’ve heard of it, but many misunderstand what it means. New practitioners often ask, “Am I doing it right?” This concern tends to bubble up right away when they find they cannot quiet their minds no matter how hard they try. In fact, the harder they try, the worse it seems.
With all the misinformation out there, its no wonder there is confusion. The practices are often touted as a tool for reaching goals. But, mindfulness is a way of living – a way of relating to inner experience and the world. Its also a practice, which fortunately leaves us lots of room for experimentation. However, when we undertake the practices with a wrong attitude or view and this intention never evolves, we can start to feel stuck and discouraged.
Mindfulness as Self-Improvement
In reaching the mainstream, there has been a tendency to turn the practices into nothing more than a strategy for self-improvement. Some sports professionals and CEOs are attracted to mindfulness in the hopes of becoming “winners”. They may see it as a means for developing greater focus, speed, productivity, or efficiency in themselves, their athletes, or their employees. There is a kernel of truth in this because the practices are indeed correlated with increased concentration, processing speed, and flexibility in thinking. The problem is that mindfulness involves present moment awareness and when we are actively striving at getting somewhere else or being someone better, we aren’t truly abiding with what is.
Another effect of practicing mindfulness is that we begin to see things more clearly, free from bias, expectations, and conditioning. This may change our priorities. We may find ourselves reconnecting with our deepest values and feeling less drawn to conventional ideas of success and happiness. An interesting study found that practicing mindfulness decreased motivation, but not performance, on mundane tasks, which may have been related to this essential paradigm shift.
Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already. – Pema Chödrön
Mindfulness as Status Quo
Sometimes we turn to mindfulness because other strategies seem too hard or scary. In comparison, mindfulness seems so positive, so innocuous, so free from troublesome side effects or consequences. Maybe we’ve found ourselves in very difficult circumstances that are changeable, but we are reluctant to do so. This might include navigating an abusive, yet important relationship (i.e. with a boss, coach, family member or a partner), working long hours at a stressful job that pays really well, struggling with an addiction, or trying to meet unrealistic self-imposed expectations for success, beauty, fame or perfection. The underlying hope is to make ourselves more compliant so we can tolerate something harmful with less distress, so we don’t have to take meaningful action, make a difficult change, or let go of something we want. However, the practice of mindfulness involves an attitude of compassion – a willingness to acknowledge suffering in ourselves and others and to take action aimed at eliminating it. Resigning oneself to harmful changeable circumstances is not the practice of mindfulness.
You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf. – Jon Kabat-Zinn
Mindfulness as Spiritual Bypassing/Materialism
Chogyam Trungpa coined the term “spiritual materialism”, which is the belief that certain temporary states of mind can end suffering. “Spiritual bypassing” was conceived of by John Welwood to describe the use of practice as a way to avoid what is unwanted. When we use the practices to reify our most cherished ideas about ourselves and to distance us from what we find unacceptable, our problematic mental habits just become further entrenched.
Many people stumble into mindfulness because they are dissatisfied, afraid or hurting in some way. They have rightly heard that the practices are correlated with improvements in health and wellbeing. But some have characterized them as feel good strategies – essentially ways to ignore, distract from, or get rid of painful emotions – to think positively or to get blissed out. Mindfulness is awareness of what is here now, regardless of whether it is wanted, unwanted, positive or negative, pleasant or unpleasant. So, when we engage in things that help us avoid unpleasant emotions that are already here, this may feel good temporarily, but it is not the practice of mindfulness. The temporary relief feels good in the moment, but results in disillusionment when it fails or eventually ceases.
Altogether, the idea of meditation is not to create states of ecstasy or absorption, but to experience being. – Chögyam Trungpa
Another example is when we use self-compassion practices as a way of avoiding conflict or difficulty rather than as a way of helping ourselves to face whatever arises. We may feel soothed in the moment, but become ruffled anew when we inevitably revisit the experience. If we use practice exclusively to build ourselves up or make ourselves comfortable, this is a misuse because practice is meant to help us see things as they truly are, not as we wish them to be. A skillful practitioner experiments to find a balance between prudent self-care and letting go of defenses, so that we can open to what is, even when it is unwanted.
Rigidity and Inflexibility of Practice
In my interactions with other practitioners and in the classes I teach, I occasionally come across someone who is rigidly attached to their particular form of practice. They become irritable or agitated when, for whatever reason, they encounter something new or feel pressed to experiment. These students don’t understand that its not the specific type of practice that brings lasting happiness. The practice is just a vehicle – a finger pointing at the moon. That unexpected feeling of being a bit off balance when we try something new is just more fodder for practice. How can we truly know our minds – our habits and biases – if we rarely traverse outside our comfort zone?
When we lose our equanimity because we can’t have things the way we want them, it is much like an addict who doesn’t get their fix. Addicts are caught in the illusion that they need their drug of choice to feel OK. In the short-term, a fix seems to help. In the long-term, the fundamental problem is just accumulating under the proverbial rug its being swept under. What is needed is already inside of us, it isn’t injected into us by something from the outside.
Several of the attitudes of mindfulness are either missing from or directly opposed by these types of misappropriations of practice. These include things like compassion, patience, non-striving, and acceptance. If we don’t understand that dissatisfaction arises directly out of attachment, aversion and ignorance, we will misguidedly believe that clinging to certain qualities or outcomes and rejecting others through the use of mindfulness “techniques” will lead to lasting happiness. Instead we generally find any relief we experience is short-lived at best.
The good news is even when we “misuse” mindfulness, we can still reap its benefits if we are able to persist through any initial disillusionment. Lots of people start a yoga practice to get in shape or lose weight, but they begin to appreciate the subtler benefits that arise. Others begin to practice meditation in order to reduce stress or become a better person, and instead there emerges a more skillful relationship with themselves and their environment. My own interest in mindfulness came from a desire to help clients for whom more traditional therapies were proving ineffective. In embodying the practices and attitudes as a therapist, I discovered powerful beneficial effects manifesting in my personal life. Regardless of how we come into the practice of mindfulness, its benefits unfold naturally given time. The main risk of any “misuse” is that we may become disillusioned and prematurely stop practicing because it fails to meet our unrealistic expectations.
Life is a dance. Mindfulness is witnessing that dance. – Amit Ray
Hafenbrack, AC & Vohs, KD (2018). Mindfulness Meditation Impairs Task Motivation but Not Performance. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes; Volume 147, Pages 1-15.