Mindfulness Should Come with a Warning Label

Mindfulness.  I talk about it often and it is all the rage, especially right now with the pressures of a pandemic.  It does offer some amazing benefits in that it allows us to defuse from a thought, come into the present moment, and increases our ability to accept what is.  Though it should also be know that there are some other considerations to keep in mind when it comes to mindfulness.  

Often times when someone first starts using a mindfulness technique, there is a sense of separation from a thought, belief, or judgement about a situation, a place or a person (including yourself).  This separation leads to a decrease in the distress caused by these memories leaving us only with the physical sensation, which without the amplification of the mind and our emotions, is better.  It is not uncommon then, to come to the conclusion that “if I can do A then B will go away”.  But here are some cautionary notes.

Avoidance is Not a Good Strategy

If you are using mindfulness to “escape, avoid, or control”, if you are trying to eliminate it and avoid the feelings associated with the thought or memory, then you are simply just doing more of the same.  You are distracting yourself, trying not to think about something, and you know that ultimately, this does not work.  If you don’t know this, experiment with this yourself.  

Think of a memory,  song in your mind, or something as simple as chocolate cake and for the next 60 seconds, then do everything you can to think about anything but that.  I suspect, based upon the research, my own personal experiences, and what I have seen in session, that you will not be able to do this.  You might fixate on a catch phrase “I will not think about it”  or bring to mind your cat or dog and focus on that, but in essence what you are doing is saying “I am thinking about X so that I do not think about Y.   In other words, you are are still thinking about Y.  

This is one of the main reasons why so many I have worked with  who say, “I used to have a mindfulness practice, but it stopped working”.  They are indicating what the research has already discovered and trying an approach (avoidance) which in the long run does not work. 

Consistent, Purposeful Practice

While avoidance is usually the primary reason for why mindfulness loses its effect over time, another reason why mindfulness stops being as effective is that a person stops setting aside time each day to do a simple mindfulness practice with purpose and intent. Mindfulness is a skill (or rather a set of skills) that needs to be attended to like brushing your teeth, learning a new subject, or cleaning your home.  

If you spend a good deal of time going to the gym to increase your strength or start to follow a diet in order to get yourself to a healthy weight, you focus, you strategize, and your purposely practice.  There is a schedule and often a set of tools that you use to move in the direction of the goal.  Yet, if you reached the weight goal or made it to a certain level of strength, if you came to the conclusion that “Great!  I did it!  I am done with this” and stopped doing those practices, you would eventually slip right back to where you started.

Now, it will be easier to restart and refocus, to purposely bring your attention back to the original program, maybe even make some improvements, but you would have to bring back the actions and keep them going indefinitely.  They need to be done long enough that they become a behavior, that is, done with purpose and intent long enough that it actually is uncomfortable to NOT to the activity.  I am like this when it comes to my workout routine.  I typically feel terrible mentally, emotionally, and even physically (though not at first on the latter) if I cannot make time for this behavior, also sometimes called a lifestyle.

Not Having a Clear Understanding of Personal Values

Along with a consistent mindfulness practice, it is important to have a clear notion of what your values are.  Having three to five general terms or directions helps when doing the mindfulness activity along with helping to keep you motivated to stay committed to whatever action you are engaged with.  This helps to stop us from drifting back into old, automatic behaviors.  It gives us something to anchor to.  

For example, if vitality (health) is one of your values, then you might put a specific goal in place that aligns with that value.  Healthy eating, getting enough rest, getting physical activity into your day might all be goals that align with this value.  Having this value in your mind will help you star the course when you find yourself experiencing discomfort in the effort of creating a new behavior.  The values act as an anchor, both in a mindfulness practice as well as in committed actions in your routine.

Final warning is this:

You Will Be Fully Present to Both Joy and Sorrow

Finally, it is worth noting, and here is the biggest warning, by becoming more present to each and every moment means that you will fully be able to experience the joyous moments, playing with your dog, hanging out with friends, enjoying a sunrise and many positive aspects of being alive.  However, this also means though that you will be present and open to fully experiencing aspects of life that are typically labeled as negative. 

Unwanted emotions, sickness, and other peoples suffering.  That last is a big deal.  You will begin to notice little and big examples of distress and suffering all around you and your mind will race to protect you from that kind of pain.  This is only natural, this is often required, but do allow yourself to experience it, be present with it, and open yourself around it, because if we try to close ourselves off to this aspect of our experience, we close ourselves off to all of the rest as well.  

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