A lot of my clients make the common mistake of assuming that mindfulness is about relaxation. Or that mindfulness meditations are relaxation techniques. Although relaxation is a by product of mindfulness practice it is not the main intention. Obviously most people come to mindfulness to learn how to calm down and relax. But this common misconception can create a lot of barriers to our practice.
We practice mindfulness to create acceptance and non judgement around our experience and this helps with our particularly difficult emotions. The reason we practice acceptance and non judgment is because the alternative to this is resistance and denial. These emotions take us away from our pure conscious state in the form of our awareness being 100 % engaged in our thinking and stressful emotions. So the natural by product of objectifying our emotions and thoughts is a reduction in stress and higher levels of well-being. This is the opposite to distraction, a lot of us use distraction to self regulate our emotion whether is zoning out on Facebook or using drugs or alcohol to drown out our dissatisfaction of our lives.
Mindfulness embraces these difficult moods and attitudes and moves us towards acceptance in our lives. Sometimes when we practice mindfulness and meditation it can feel like we are opening our closet full of skeletons. Some people even report feeling more stressed after practicing mindfulness however this is natural in the initial stages of our practice. If we have not payed attention internally before its only natural that when we do our feelings will seem amplified.
So stay strong with the practice as you’re efforts will pay off and relaxation and well-being will be the effect of the cause which is changing you’re relationship to you’re thinking mind and emotions.
Mindfulness and thoughtfulness have a close relationship in fact so close that we often mistake mindfulness for thoughtfulness. We hear people throwing around the word mindfulness a lot, ‘Be mindful of this’ and ‘be mindful of that’. What they are trying to say is be thoughtful of this and be thoughtful of that.
Words can take on different meanings for different people for example, to be conscious could mean an intellectual awareness for one person but could have a spiritual connotation for another person. The word mindfulness is no different. The word is traditionally associated with being observant with our conscious awareness meaning the wakefulness and aliveness of being conscious is used with intention to focus on our experiences. The generalized understanding is being thoughtful of our issues and considerate of others and their issues.
So where does thoughtfulness fit into mindfulness? Well the first thing we need to understand is that thoughtfulness is a by product of mindfulness.
It is our conscious awareness that observes whats is going on in the mind and externally. Then having perceived our present moment experience we get to discern how we are going to react. We get to inquire into why we feel a certain way or why someone is behaving a certain way and this is thoughtfulness. Thoughtfulness is the next logical step after mindfulness in the chain of receiving information and basing our responses from what we have just perceived.
Mindfulness has its roots in non duality which is a teaching of universal oneness that under pins many spiritual teachings specifically In the east. The idea of non duality is that we are all connected not only with each other but with the cosmos at large. In fact in non duality when we say we are all connected in this is meant quite literally. Meaning that not only are you one with all forms and objects around you. You are also one with everything that can’t be sensed with the five senses. The reason for this is because we are all the one unified consciousness. experiencing this reality from different vantage points i.e different people, species etc.
So in order to discover you’re essential nature as all inclusive consciousness what would you need to do? Well nothing really as you would already be it right? Why would there be any reason to look for it? In fact many non dual teachers say that there is nothing to do at all.
So why doesn’t it feel that way? and how does non duality tie into mindfulness?
Well first of all bringing you’re attention to this present moment is essential if you are to realize that you are pure awareness. Because it re-introduces us to our true identity which is awareness, keep in mind this doesn’t mean that our awareness ever went anywhere. Our engagement in thoughts, emotions and identifying with our mental persona creates a contrast in awareness. For example we can’t really exist in the past or future without a time machine to take us there. So when we do it is always in the mind and this is just thinking and not our reality right now. To get out of this contrast we must bring our attention to this moment. As this is were our life is really being lived.
Mindfulness is an action to bring us closer to ourselves as consciousness, which simply put is who we are right now! and our sense of aliveness in this moment. Without this realization mindfulness could arguably be simply put as mundane training in focus and conscientiousness.
Is mindfulness traditionally Buddhist?
If we are looking at the origins of mindfulness from a western secular stand point it could seem this way. Many different clinical and psychological modalities have sprouted up within the last 30 years. All using mindfulness as a fundamental element to their processes. The list of Acronyms keeps growing with every new hybrid of western psychology and mindfulness these include MBSR, MBCT ACT, MIBCT, ect. All these disciplines acknowledge Buddhism as their reference and inspiration in which they draw their mindfulness practices from.
These modalities also acknowledge mindfulness as a stand alone practice dislocating it from its Buddhist context. This does have many benefits as it doesn’t ask practitioners to buy into any belief systems such as karma or Samara or call on people to change there religious beliefs. This dislocation adds a human element to the practice calling on participants to inquire into their own experience and intuition for evidence of the efficacy of these practices.
On the other hand these western hybrids of psychology and traditional Buddhist meditation. Have been criticized for taking the practice of mindfulness out of context and not fully integrating other Buddhist ideas that without them don’t create the full picture of mindfulness. Many argue that the appropriation of this Buddhist meditative practice in the West leaves a lot to be desired. And that more work needs to be done to responsibly integrate Buddhist ideas into western psychological mindfulness hybrids.
But who said mindfulness is exclusively Buddhist anyway?
Ofcoarse we can literally trace the translation of the word mindfulness back to Pali Sanskrit which is of buddist origins. But does that make Buddhism the authority on awarness or attention?
I know from my own back ground I discovered mindfulness from Chinese philosophical Daoism and in practicing Qi gong. I also study Advaita Vedanta a branch of Hinduism where present moment awareness is stressed as mans unified connection to each other and the universe. These teachings both pre date Buddhism and point to their core practices as being awareness in the present moment.
Although some argue that Buddhist mindfulness is not only present moment attention but the discernment of what is happening. I would say that it is a branch of mindfulness as many other traditions point to the present moment as a fundamental element to their teachings.
On my mindful journey i have come across many different spiritual groups who’s teachings embody mindfulness in some way, shape or form whether it is Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, or new age teachings. I find that people often address life’s most difficult questions or issues with generic spiritual #hashtags so to speak.Many people go to a spiritual teaching to get answers to life’s most profound questions and many teachings claim to have all the answers. And maby they do but i have also observed the phenomena of spiritual bypass.
So what is spiritual bypass? Wikipedia describes it as follows:
A spiritual bypass or spiritual bypassing is a “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.
I would simply say that spiritual bypass happens when people use spirituality as a coping mechanism for dealing with issues that we don’t always have the answers too.
For example I study Adviata Vedanta which is a branch of Hinduism and i find that amongst the mainly white and middle class audiences. I get the all too familiar “who is asking that question” response to any difficult questions raised in an attempt to re-locate the focus to the questioning of the questioner. This is a pseudo attempt at questioning the questioners identity with the intention of inducing a realization and is akin to a child questioning every answer with WHY!
You can see how easy it is to use this as a cop out!
This phrase has been abused and normalized to play down life’s tricky and unanswerable questions. It is also a problematic statement as it totally discredits any real questions that emotional and intelligent human beings ask. The other common phrase is “we are all one” or claiming oneness in the face of any questioning of morals or differences in value systems. I believe that separateness is an illusion but i also i see how problematic spiritual bypass is when it comes to any real human issues. the “We are all one” scapegoat is very similar to the “All live matter” response that embodies animosity and discredits other human beings suffering under the banner of equality.
When we dismiss issues and justify everything from a spiritual frame work spiritual teachings can get distorted.
Embracing our vulnerabilities can be a very difficult process and this issue is sometimes overlooked in the self development and well-being wold. In fact authentic self development and mindfulness for that matter is all about embracing our vulnerabilities and accepting them or accepting that we cant accept them.
This doesn’t seem to be productive but realizing vulnerable aspect of ourselves has a big impact on our self image. Acceptance isn’t always a linear journey it can also be a sporadic squiggle and learning to embrace our short comings is an individual process. Accepting were we are versus where we want to be can seem very sobering and somber. But these reflections can help us to digest our situation and open room for more growth if we can simply be with how we feel.
Have you every had the experience of talking about a distressing issue with a close friend or loved one and at the end of the conversation you felt a lot better even though the problem didn’t change?
Acknowledging our vulnerabilities has this similar effect of lessening the compounding stress of these feelings as a result of either avoiding them or over engaging in them. This leaves us with our emotional and mental state as it is positive or negative.
This process doesn’t sound to glamorous or life changing does it!…….
But i can assure you that lessening even 10% of you’re stress would make a huge impact on you’re life just as it would if we added 10% more stress to you’re life.
Being mindful and acknowledging our vulnerabilities doesn’t mean we have to like where we are or that we have all the answers but it does mean taking responsibility for how we feel. Not with the intention to claim fault in our selves but to give ourselves the respect we deserve and acknowledge where we are at any given moment.
When we initially begin practicing mindfulness it can feel like the only thing that we become aware of is the incessant thought stream. Bringing our attention back to the present moment can feel like a chore rather than relaxing. We realize just how much momentum our thought stream has and this can be overwhelming.
But it doesn’t have to be this way!
Even one moment of insight after a significantly long period of mental rumination is a moment of mindfulness. The seeds that we plant by practicing meditation and mindfulness in our daily lives tend to blossom and show up as little moments of awareness or reflection. So it’s very important to realize that these small moments of awareness are is still the practice of mindfulness even after the fact.
Reflecting on how we’ve been behaving or to notice just how in our own heads we’ve been. Is a sign that our practice is starting to work. So instead of considering these small moments failures or insignificant we should consider these moments small achievements.
One of the rarely acknowledged aspects of mindfulness is the fact that we have two poles of attention. Lets look at the objective pole of this attention for a moment as this is what is widely consider as the definition of mindfulness.The objective pole of this attention would be defined as. Paying attention to what you are doing in this present moment or paying attention to internal thoughts or bodily sensations in the present moment.
So the objective pole of attention seems to be the classic definition of mindfulness but there is another aspect to mindfulness.
This other aspect of mindfulness is the subjective pole of attention. This attention is the awareness from which objects are perceived. This can easily be experienced by turning our attention inward to the subjective quality of our experience in any moment. Another way to experience this is to stop thought altogether and notice the presence awareness that is left in our experience and how that feels like who we are. This is the subjective pole of attention where we can rest in awareness. Without projecting our attention outwards to objects such as thoughts, feelings and the external world.
The subjective pole of attention is how mindfulness is expressed in its spiritual context. For instance in Buddhism or Hinduism.These spiritual traditions identify self realization with the subjective pole of attention.
The subjective pole of attention is always present in our waking experience. However due to misunderstanding this aspect of mindfulness goes unacknowledged. The subjective aspect of mindfulness is our visceral sense of identity. The sense of being, the sense of aliveness and that intimate sense that we exist.
Patience is one of the most underestimated keys to practicing mindfulness and it is one of the most important attitudes to cultivate if we are going to have any success in self regulating and managing our emotions and thoughts.
It is not difficult to be mindful of stressful feelings due to the high demands life throws at us. The question is how long can we observe these feelings until the acuteness of them has subsided. How long does it take until we gain perspective and approach our issues from a new space and not out of fear and anxiety.
For instance noticing the knot in you’re stomach you get when confronted with an envelope in the letter box which you know is another bill you don’t know how to pay. Is a great example of a moment we can practice mindfulness. But does momentarily becoming aware of that stress do anything?
It certainly doesn’t pay the bills!
The answer is patience and unfortunately that doesn’t pay the bills either.
BUT!! patience gives us the staying power we need to continuously view stressful feelings so they don’t overwhelm us. By observing and turning our attention to these feeling we disengage our thinking which further fuels our stress levels because we know that thoughts produce emotions. Patience is the remedy to the fire of re-activeness and patience give us the space to respond to our circumstances rather than react to them.
But practicing patience is easier said than done, having the ability to stay with that knot in you’re stomach isn’t pleasant. Sitting with you’re doubts and vulnerabilities when you don’t have the answers to you’re problems is tuff! there’s no two ways about it.
But if we have the intention to not only be mindful but to have patience to stay with what we are observing stress reduction is not far away.
Becoming mindful of the body is a great way to begin our mindfulness journey and as as long as we are not in chronic pain the sensations or feelings we experience in the body are very consistent and are not as dynamic as emotions or thoughts.
The body becomes a great starting point when we are trying to develop a non judgmental observation of what is arising in this moment. Thoughts and emotion have beliefs and values associated with them so we can understand why imposing a non judgmental approach to these two aspects of our humanity can be difficult in the beginning.
Mindfulness of the body is a great way to observe our subtle attitudes to perceived frustrating or enjoyable sensations. It give us opportunities to practice acceptance on the superficial level the body. For example beginning to accept the feeling of a headache or the pins and needles of a foot that has ‘fallen asleep’ can be a lot more digestible than accepting ones anxieties and limiting beliefs one has of themselves.
Mindfulness of the body starts us on the road to acceptance and equanimity