We come across many times a question in our minds “What Mindfulness Is And What It Isn’t ?” Last year, a friend, who was struggling through a conflictual divorce for many years, became interested in my personal practice of Mindfulness as well as the work I was doing with my students. He started to read and to practice with his children, which satisfied him a lot. But as soon as he met with his personal issues, he became very frustrated, claiming that Mindfulness wasn’t working for him because it added more problems, and even more stress, instead of helping him solving the ones he wanted to be fixed right now.
He then started to blame me for preaching a cult and sent me some articles about how Mindfulness was a waste of time and such a disillusion, because it wasn’t bringing more happiness, as expected. That’s how I discovered his misunderstanding of what Mindfulness really is.
I was very surprised and sad for him who thought that by doing and feeling things in a certain way, Mindfulness would “maximize his happiness”. And when his expectations weren’t met, he felt like his attempt at Mindfulness failed, and he should feel ashamed in front of the police of the thoughts that the big Mindfulness community represents. This sounded like a search of an untouchable heaven which turned into a whole bullying process, exactly the opposite of what I was taught and experienced through a Mindfulness practice.
I can understand why, with such common misconceptions about what Mindfulness should be, some people feel like they are fooled and give up with such a broken heart.
Let me just make a brief memo on History.
In the 70’s, John Kabat-Zin, a young doctor in molecular biology in Massachusetts, was introduced to Mindfulness during his studies and started to develop an intense practice. One of his teachers was the famous Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh, worldly famous for making Zen principles understandable and accessible to everyone.
Kabat-Zin saw an indubitable link between his personal Mindfulness practice – better connection to himself and his environment – and the benefits it could have on his patients – who were suffering from the co lateral negative effects of our modern lives: chronic fatigue and stress, anxiety and depression – if incorporated in an appropriate program. He removed the religious character of the practice and built a secular MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Released) program, and then a MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy) program, which he developed in the format of an 8 week course, administered in the new Stress Reduction Clinic he founded in 1979.
At the same time, in 1975, three academic scientists, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein, created the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), in Massachusetts too, and helped to promote and incorporate Mindfulness in western lives and culture.
Some other scientists started also to develop their practice and to implement Mindfulness in their studies and work with their patients in many different areas such as addiction centers, nutrition, education, and reinsertion.
And since then, it is going viral and the results are pretty impressive. But I will go deeper on this part in another article.
For now, let’s focus on this misconception of what Mindfulness is. We live in this society, full of hyper connections, hyper communication and hyperactivity, which is more and more complex and overwhelming for a lot of people. Despite the huge progresses in the medical field, it seems that we’re still in search of something else that our western way of dealing with suffering doesn’t recognize.
But, at the same time, we’re still western consumers of western medicine, which most of the time is offering short term and radical solutions to eradicate/avoid the suffering. And so, we are expecting the same quick results with Mindfulness. We passively do what we’re supposed to do, exactly as we would take a pill according to our prescription, and let the “thing” deal with our body and/or mind in pain, those familiar strangers we daily cohabit with.
And here is the complete delusion. Kabat-Zin explains it clearly. Mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”.
I know how hard this is when we just want to remove our attention from what’s bothering us in order to escape what is putting us down because we’re scared of suffering. We’re scared of negative feelings and sensations. And we’re also so scared not to fit to this society if we’re not perfect in every way. Then comes the self-judgement, the self-devaluation and the bitter taste of failure.
But, instead of this escalation, we can just sit with what we feel, with what’s coming out into our mind right now. No need to try to erase any thought labeled as mean, bad or inappropriate. No need either to try to avoid any emotion or sensation, pleasant or unpleasant. Mindfulness is about welcoming, noticing and respecting whatever experience we’re having right now. Even noticing distractions with no filter. And above all, noticing these things without judgment. This is called acceptance!
So it isn’t about what we feel or think, but how we relate to these thoughts and feelings and how we act, in a more compassionate way with others and ourselves. Instead of reacting immediately to a situation, Mindfulness allows space for the awareness of our feelings and gives a moment to decide how one wants to respond to a situation The time we take to sit, to pay attention to something as simple as our breathing and gently accept what is going on, letting the strong emotions to soften and even disappear, allows space for a proactive mindful response instead of a reactive response.
And yes, Mindfulness can bring peace and relaxation, but those results are not guaranteed, and it is ok. Keep in mind that according to 25 years of research, a long-term practice is the best way to benefit from Mindfulness meditation.
To end, there are many ways to be in the present moment. Actually, if you read the wonderful books of Thich Nhat Hanh, you’ll discover that every moment can be a mindful one. In the next articles, I will focus and give you some tips on the formal meditation sitting.
In the meantime, take good care of yourselves.
You can checkout and enjoy reading those two books, related to what I wrote,:
– “Whenever you go, there you are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life”, Jon Kabat-Zin, Stress Press, 1994.
– “Peace is every step, The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life”, Thich Nath Hanh, Bantam Books, 1991.
Marianne Nizet is a Songwriter, Primary School Teacher, Mindfulness Practitioner and Mindfulness Instructor, certified by the Mindfulschools, CA. She has been teaching in different contexts (with children in the spectrum, in international and bilingual schools) for the past ten years and she has been teaching Mindfulness for the past three years in a primary school of New York. She now lives and offers Mindfulness sessions for schools (including delivering Mindfulness curriculum for students, professional development for teachers and administrators, and teaching parents) in Paris, France.