Sitting quietly, I pay attention to the sensations of my breath. My attention wanders to a thought about the email I need to send. A feeling of restlessness ripples through my body. When I notice that this is happening, I do my best to accept that my attention has wandered and that these feelings and thoughts are normal. Then I bring my attention back to the breath. This happens over and over during a period of meditation.
Sometimes the thoughts and sensations are pleasant and sometimes they are not. The goal is not to feel or think a certain way. The goal is not to suppress or avoid thoughts and sensations. The goal is to be with whatever shows up. You simply commit to pay attention, notice when attention wanders, accept where it wanders, and bring it back to where you have committed.
When I started practicing mindfulness, it was because my desire to avoid the discomfort of anxiety was running my life. The idea of being with the thoughts and feelings of anxiety was both radical and terrifying. The clarity and confidence than came from doing it was revolutionary in my life. And it was not easy or quick. I did not feel blissful. I mostly felt resistance to sitting there. I often hated it.
Years later, when I started teaching mindfulness, most people had never heard of it. I spent a lot of time teaching what mindfulness is. Now that almost everyone has seen mindfulness on the cover of magazines, I spend most of my time teaching what mindfulness is not.
Mindfulness is not necessarily relaxing. Sometimes your body relaxes. This is normal. Enjoy it, but don’t expect it. Sometimes you notice stress, tension or anxiety. This is also normal. Because mindfulness is often confused with relaxation, many people give up when they find that they have a busy mind and/or a restless body. Mindfulness practice helps you develop a less reactive relationship to the normal range of human experience.
When someone tells me they had a “great” meditation, I always want to know what they mean by that. If they mean that they felt good, then I know that they are likely to be disappointed in the future. If they mean that they paid attention as best they could to the stuff that felt good and the stuff that did not, then I know that they are building some useful skills.
Mindfulness is not spectacular. It is not a quick fix. It is not going to make you perfect. Mindfulness practice builds the skills of noticing where your attention is, accepting what shows up inside of you, and returning your attention to where you have committed it. This is a great metaphor for living well with a wandering and impulsive mind in daily life.
Does this practice have the potential to build skills that help you work with life more peacefully and purposefully. Definitely. Will it deliver on all the instant promises that have been associated with it? Definitely not.
Modern society has grabbed onto mindfulness with the same gusto as the latest diet or fitness routine. This has led to people using it as a way to avoid discomfort rather than encounter discomfort peacefully and work with it consciously. This fits into the modern cultural narrative that we can live life in a way so that it will always be comfortable. Good luck with that.
While no one has ever died of discomfort, plenty of us do a lot of damaging stuff trying to escape discomfort. If you practice bringing awareness and acceptance to discomfort, you will see that it shows up no matter what we own, who we know, and how many social media followers we have. The other thing you will see is that it always passes.
As human animals, we have the ability to feel stuff and to choose a response. Trying not to feel emotions can be a huge waste of energy. On the other hand, acting habitually on everything we feel can be a huge waste of energy. Practicing mindfulness helps us see that we can choose to put our energy into purposeful action in the presence of discomfort. We can see that we have a lot of freedom – even when we don’t feel like it.
Mindfulness is not a cure all, and it is not the only way to gain clarity or build useful life skills. However, it can be an effective way to gain a healthy perspective and to reduce our struggle against the natural discomfort of being human. And that’s not nothing.