Updated: Feb 18, 2019
What's Up with Mindfulness?
“I live in this fantasy world. Where things are actually ok and I don’t want to jump off a building. Don’t worry Candace, I’m not suicidal. I would never actually do that; it’s just a figure of speech. I’m being super dramatic here to make a point. I escape to my thoughts because this feels better, but I feel like a looney tune” I rattled on.
“Have you ever heard of the acceptance-mindfulness theory?” asked my therapist.
“Candace…I can barely practice mindfulness much less accept it.”
She chuckled back and through her sweet smile responded: “Let’s try!”
Mindfulness is the biggest thing since instagram, but as the movement rolls on, myths and misinformation have popped up, like sweets in your grocery cart when shopping with a toddler.
So let’s talk about what I’m learning and how it could maybe help.
What in the Freak is Mindfulness?
Am I sitting in the lotus pose chanting “Om!?” Well. Not exactly.
Mindfulness is the ability to remove the distractions of what might happen/ what did happen, and focus on what is happening right now this second. It includes being curious and open to discovering new inspirations and information in the current setting.
As a society we tend to place all our cool points on our ability to multi-task. The challenge is that research is showing that multi-tasking doesn’t really work.
We switch in between tasks for quick and short periods of time, we actually eliminate parts of the task in order to quickly shift in and out of it. The parts we are eliminating include focus, thoughtfulness, and appreciation. Instead of living in “the moment” we’re attempting to live in several.
My favorite one is when I’m having a conversation with someone and they check their phone. We are physically in the same space as the person and we probably get the overall idea of what they’re saying, but we miss the opportunity to connect with them, to stop and really think and feel what they are communicating.
James Oppenheim said
"The Foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise man grows it under his feet."
Mindfulness is about looking at what is around us and under our feet rather than missing the “now” because we are worrying about the future.
Myths About Mindfulness
I’ve heard a bunch of wonky definitions around what being mindful looks like, so per usual, here I am to set some records pointedly straight.
Mindfulness is not meditation.
The terms mindfulness and meditation often get thrown around interchangeably. Mindfulness is an awareness. It’s paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment. You don’t need a meditation cushion, or even more than a split second, to be mindful. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the first American mindfulness researchers, likens mindfulness to being behind a waterfall. You’re not under the waterfall, caught in the swirl and pounding of thoughts, emotions, and sensations, nor are you trying to stop or change them. Instead, you’re behind the cascade, observing all that’s happening without evaluation.
Mindfulness meditation, however, is a practice. It’s all the awareness that is mindfulness, but sustained. Instead of just checking in with the waterfall, it’s logging some time behind it. It’s bringing your attention back when it inevitably wanders away, often many times a minute.
Mindfulness is not taking time out to relax.
Mindfulness isn’t a vacation. Stress reduction may be a side effect; checking in with your thoughts, body, and impulses decreases your chance of getting yanked around by them, which in turn lightens your life’s drama considerably.
But fundamentally, mindfulness isn’t rest; actually, the two are kind of apples and oranges. Even remembering to be mindful can take quite a bit of work. But many people, including me, find that checking in with their thoughts, feelings, and sensations, even if it’s not necessarily restorative, is definitely illuminating.
Mindfulness is not Mindlessness
The idea that mindfulness requires a blank mind is a myth that makes many people believe they can’t be mindful. But just like you can’t stop your heart from beating or your stomach from digesting, you can’t stop your brain from thinking. That’s what it does.
Think about it this way: mindfulness isn’t a suspension of thoughts; instead, it’s a suspension of judgment. Put another way, mindfulness is an observation of what’s happening: that itch above your left eyebrow, the bad taste in your mouth, or the fact that the Kit Kat jingle has been running through your head for the better part of a minute.
Mindfulness welcomes any and all thoughts, but sees them as just that: thoughts. As my favorite bumper sticker sums up: Don’t believe everything you think.
The Ultimate Goal is Not to be Mindful All the Time
This is a straight up set up for failure. It’s impossible to be in the present moment at all times. Sometimes you need to plan for the future: “What’s for dinner?” or “I can feel a migraine coming on—I should really take some medicine, drink some coffee, and go lie down.” It’s important to reflect on the past: “Next time I’ll actually try to listen rather than shooting off my mouth,” or “Ugh, I shouldn’t have eaten those leftover pork dumplings.”
Being aware of everything in the present moment all the time isn’t just impossible, it would leave us overstimulated and exhausted. Even mindfulness gurus have many mindless moments—getting lost in rumination or daydreaming.
Mindfulness Isn’t Always Bliss
This is a tough one. Mindfulness is not simply savoring the moment, of taking time to notice the hues of a sunset, or the taste of that warm chocolate chip cookie, or the bubbles in your champagne. It’s also noticing your defensiveness after losing your temper, your helplessness in the face of injustice, or that the milk in your coffee has most definitely gone sour.
In short, mindfulness looks at the negative, the neutral, and the positive, all equally. It’s not joy—instead, it’s the awareness of joy, but also of pain and everything else.
It’s taking a step back from the constant input of sensory information and the constant output of thoughts and feelings. Whether for a split second or many hours, it’s your journey behind the waterfall.
Ever heard of OCD? Obsessive Comparison Disorder.
Many of the challenges of finding happiness stem from this ugly problem of comparison. We find people that are “better” and compare our life to that life; because of what we choose as our point of comparison, we find ourselves lacking and focus on attaining some holy grail in the future or berate ourselves for the mistakes we made in our past.
“Change the way you see things, and the things you see will start to change” Wayne Dyer
As a society we tend to group with people who are similar to us. We live and spend time with people who have the same nationality, similar income levels, similar values, similar education levels, similar interests, etc. When we start comparing ourselves we look to the best in our comparison group. We compare ourselves to people who represent our aspirations, and because we tend only to see the aspirational parts of those people while we ignore the harsh or undiscovered realities, we never seem to match up and we are never good enough.
That starts the circle focusing on the future and how we are going to work harder and do more to be prettier, or richer, or drive a nicer car. When we feel we have reached that level we stop and re-compare only to find that there is yet another level to chase. We are constantly looking for the mythical “pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”
One solution is to expand from a mindset of comparison to a habit of mindfulness and gratitude. What do we have right now that we can appreciate?
"Sometimes we develop grand concepts of what happiness might look like for us, but if we pay attention, we can see that there are little symbols of happiness in every breath that we take." — His Holiness Gyalwang Karmapa
Why is Mindfulness Beneficial?
Alice Morse Earle is quoted for saying that “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That's why it is called the present.”
Mindfulness helps you choose the important over the urgent.
When we are children, we're naturally mindful. When we see a toy or a friend, we stop what we were doing and put our full attention on playing. We don’t evaluate or worry, we just start playing. We become completely absorbed in our games and our friends.
At some point we learn the concept of scarcity, and we start trying to cram as much into our days as possible. We get so focused on finding productive hours that we forget to actually “be” in those hours.
We get caught in a vicious cycle of being able to quickly categorize more and more new experiences and therefore finding fewer and fewer things to be excited about. Mindfulness is the act of stopping and discovering something more to be excited about. It requires us to realize that we really don’t know everything there is to know about what we are eating, where we are walking, or even the person we are with. Re-igniting our curiosity gives us more opportunities to be happy as we find ways to re-engage with the world.
You can’t wait to be happy in the future, because by definition the future never comes. To be happy, you have to find ways to be happy today. Mindfulness is a great tool to help us be aware of what is occurring.
Got any questions or comments. Even some advice? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Your Fake Therapist