"Mindfulness” is the latest buzzword in mental health and wellness circles, and is rapidly gaining ground in business environments as well. I have noticed that the term is used so ubiquitously and indiscriminately these days that some people may not know what it means. What follows is a brief explanation of mindfulness practice, its benefits and potential pitfalls, and how it integrates into psychotherapeutic work.
Mindfulness is, essentially, an ancient religious wisdom that has been rediscovered, diluted, simplified and repackaged for our modern, consumerist, self-help culture. (For another example of this, consider Yoga). It is often touted as being “new”, when in fact its basic teachings are thousands of years old and have been available to us free of charge for our entire lives. The “new” assertion stems from the explosion of scientific studies in the past decade that “prove” that mindfulness can significantly improve stress levels and overall psychological health.
So what is it? Mindfulness practice refers to a set of ancient Buddhist principles that guide us in relating to our experiences in ways that reduce suffering. ‘Suffering’ in this context refers not to pain or hardship itself – which is unavoidable – but to an unhelpful attitudes towards that pain. Suffering arises because we try to pull in or push away certain kinds of experiences, or wish desperately and impotently that reality were something other than what it is.
Think about it this way: when bad weather breezes through, we may feel disappointed, but do we try to change or deny the storm clouds? Resisting something as uncontrollable as the weather seems absurd. You can think of your inner life – you thoughts, feelings, beliefs, stories, and urges – much in the same way you as you regard the external world. After all, how much control do you really have over internal events that arise and pass spontaneously and autonomously? Not much. You can respond to them in constructive or unhelpful ways, but you can’t do much to stop them from happening in the first place.
Examples of suffering include when people who feel anxiety or sadness use substances to medicate or avoid those uncomfortable feelings, or become upset that they’re upset. Often there is a kind of identification with the feeling – a sense of I am sad (rather than there is sadness here right now). Suffering arises any time you feel you should be or feel or think or do anything other than what is happening in the moment.
This resistance to what is happening internally and externally – to “what is” – amplifies rather than alleviates the primary pain. Of course, it’s important to work toward reducing the sources of pain in your life to the greatest degree possible – especially if you’re suffering from abuse or a painful or dangerous medical condition. But mindfulness practice involves accepting that some physical and emotional pain are an intrinsic part of the human experience and can never be entirely extinguished; all we can do is develop our awareness, acceptance and compassion.
Where People Go Wrong With Mindfulness
There is a phenomenon among mindfulness practitioners of what is often called “Spiritual Bypass”, which is what happens when mindfulness principles are misinterpreted and misapplied. Basically, it’s when you think “mindfulness” means you shouldn’t have feelings and reactions. Perhaps you’ve met these people: self-styled spiritual types who seem to be unaffected and detached from everything around them. Their personalities are often flat. Nothing seems to get to them, they pride themselves on being emotionless, and they are often difficult to connect with interpersonally. In Buddhist circles they are sometimes referred to as “stale biscuits.”
At the root of this is a basic misunderstanding of what nonattachment means. People often think it means detachment, which is quite different.
Nonattachment means that as internal experiences arise, you don’t “tug or push” at them; you let them be and observe them happening; you don’t try to perpetuate them or will them away. You are not attached to any particular experience, because you realize that your inner life is constantly shifting.
Detachment means that you don’t care about anything. It means you aspire to eliminate feelings of love or pain and reduce attachments to people, animals, places, beliefs, or passions. Nonattachment refers to how you relate to your inner experience, while detachment refers to disconnecting from the world.
Mindfulness properly understood does not prescribe a detached stance toward the world; in fact, it encourages the opposite: feel your feelings fully and consciously; loving with all of your heart; becoming as aware and nonjudgmental as possible of your inner experience, and not trying to change it.
Mindfulness and Psychotherapy
Mindfulness is central to therapeutic work and the development of self-awareness. Therapy helps guide you into experiences of yourself that you might otherwise run from; this creates much more confidence and ease around your inner life, and your ability to understand and manage it.
Therapy utilizes mindfulness primarily by helping you become aware of your core beliefs, feelings and thoughts and develop curiosity about them. When you permit yourself to experience yourself fully and without judgment, much of what you fear and avoid suddenly seems manageable: shame, doubt, low self-esteem, anger, sadness, grief, anxiety, depression, addiction – the list goes on.
Therapy helps you access, express, tolerate and accept a full range of feelings, which is essential to personal growth and provides a surprising amount of relief. Resisting this mindfulness-based emotional work – which we all do, biologically programmed as we are to avoid pain – is what causes so much of our suffering. Repressing feelings can lead us to act out unconsciously, often in ways that are destructive to ourselves and others: We push people away, develop addictions, live with chronic anxiety or depression, or develop physical symptoms of emotional distress.
To hear more about mindfulness, check out some of the great, free talks on Dharma Seed.