MHASO, Mental Health and Addiction Services of Ottawa
In present day, mindfulness has become quite the buzz word. I often have people who come to see me in private practice interested in learning skills to cultivate mindfulness as a means of ‘getting rid of” unpleasant thoughts and emotions. For others, they report that their minds are ‘too busy’ to engage in such practices.
These perspectives are reinforced by social media and some well-intentioned practitioners as a marketing technique, selling the idea that those who complete an 8-10 week mindfulness program will be void of anxiety, sadness, pain, judgmental and self-critical thoughts, and reactive behavioural habits. I don’t know about you, but to me this sediment has the same flawed message that we often see underpinning a lot of today's’ wellness ventures, which is the notion that if you try hard enough (i.e. practice enough self control and will power) you can get rid of the parts of yourself that you and society identify as flawed or weak. If you don’t try hard enough, then, well, these undesirable qualities are just reinforced in light of the ‘failure’ to achieve the desired change.
I too held this perspective when I began my mindfulness journey 4 years ago. In fact, the first 1.5 years of cultivating my meditation practice, a way in which mindfulness is deepened; I would take off to a bi-monthly residential meditation retreat anywhere from 3-7 days in hopes that this would speed up my self-fixing project. In-between retreats I would continue to live my life feeling overworked, under-rested and overwhelmed, desperately longing for the weeks to pass until I could escape my life and be taken care of at these retreat centres. Every time I went to a retreat (13 in total), I would express my frustration to the meditation teachers on how slow this process was going for me, having had hopes that if I threw myself in as many retreats as I could I would quickly fix the parts of myself that I felt were vulnerable and broken.
After many months of frustration I would eventually realize that while my intention to not suffer was wholesome and a shared human experience, the belief that I was in need of fixing (and that mindfulness was the magical antidote) was incredibly flawed. Unpleasant experiences are a normal part of being human despite our desire for them not to exist, similarly to pleasant experiences that we tend to grasp on for fear that they will dissipate. Both are fleeting and impermanent, as is this human life that we live.
It is when we resist our experience, wishing things to align with how we feel things ‘should be’ and how we ‘should feel’, that we suffer. Mindfulness is not about eliminating parts of who we are, but rather bringing about unconditional acceptance to all parts of ourselves. This includes ones’ inner experience (thoughts, feelings, body sensations) as well as the experience of interacting with the external world through ones’ senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste). This letting go offers freedom from the constant grasping for things to be different, and allows us to embrace life as it unfolds moment to moment. To bare witness to not only what is unpleasant in its truest form, but also the incredible joys that can be found within our ordinary lives.
Offering non-judgmental acceptance has been found to be extremely powerful in reducing suffering for myself and those I work with at our clinic, as the byproduct is a reduction of automatic reactivity as we gain the freedom to pause and choose how we wish to interact to our experiences in line with our deepest values. Here lying the paradox: the more we let go of striving and allow what is, the more what we tend to resist begins to dissipate (eg. chronic stress and worry).
For those of you embarking on your journey to deepen your mindfulness, my advice to you is to let go of expectations for things to be a particular way, and allow acceptance, compassion, and non-judgement to be your guiding force.