Mindfulness is a buzzword within the psychology world at the moment, and the mainstream community have followed suit. The approval I get from people outside of the psychology world when I tell them what I am studying, affirms that mindfulness is pretty trendy right now. This creates an inkling of wariness in me, that even despite its successful integration into Western society within clinical and non-clinical populations the essence of mindfulness is being surpassed, or even ignored.
There is a necessity and scope for mindfulness in our lives. If we were to reflect upon our own thought processes, we’d find that much of our focus involves thinking about events that have happened in the past, or hypothesising scenarios that are yet to occur. In doing so, we are failing to appreciate the present. Mindfulness provides the potential to act as a tool grounding us to live in the present, which in the reality of a super-connected, auto piloted world, may be something that seldom occurs. We can be virtually everywhere at once: multitasking, living in the past or guessing what the future could hold. The irony is that doing so can come at the cost of engaging with the moment, with relationships, or even your life.
"Quieting the world when we’re used to constant stimulation, or when you feel like crap, is fucking terrifying."
Jon Kabat-Zinn, internationally known for his work as a scientist, writer, and meditation teacher, is strongly involved in integrating mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society. He has defined mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experiences moment by moment”. One becomes aware of current internal and external experiences, and allows them to just be, running their natural course. In the Eastern definition of mindfulness, in Sanskrit, it is defined as being a witness to yourself or self-remembering. Despite contextual differences, it is clear that both definitions contain the quintessential element of self-awareness.
The danger within Western conceptualisations of mindfulness lies in goal-oriented undertones. Importantly, there is no ‘achieving’ mindfulness, and the benefits that may arise such as relaxation or calmness, are merely by-products of the experience.
Contrary to idealistic notions of longstanding bliss, the reality of mindfulness is that individuals find it incredibly difficult being alone with their thoughts. Quieting the world when we’re used to constant stimulation, or when you feel like crap, is fucking terrifying.
To practice mindfulness one needs to be aware of, and acknowledge, whatever emotions or thoughts are passing through them at that given moment. One must then acknowledge that there exists potential to move on and pave the way for the next experience, whatever it may be. Experiences that we might consider ‘good’ or ‘bad’ aren’t swept away, but acknowledged: it is what it is. While it may feel counterintuitive to acknowledge difficult emotions or experiences, consider that Buddhism (from which mindfulness is derived) teaches that suffering is an inevitable part of life.
Other Buddhist notions of transience and (lack of) attachment should also be considered. Once we acknowledge that circumstances, relationships, and emotions can change, accepting the curve balls of life can become a bit easier because we’re not fighting the way the world works. It is important, however, not to confuse acceptance of where you are at or what you’re experiencing with a defeatist attitude. Mindfulness is not about relinquishing control, it is about being aware of ourselves and getting through life while all other human emotions and experiences inevitably go on.
Consider the following Chinese proverb: “You can’t stop the birds of sorrow flying around your head, but you can stop them from making nests in your hair.”
Mindfulness is not about putting a positive spin on everything, in fact, it can be quite confronting to face the essence of it: shit happens. But good stuff also happens. Accepting both is the key.
If one maintains that mindfulness is not a solution or a goal, but rather a state of consciousness, which allows the potential for awareness of transient experiences, there exists the possibility to change, accept, or manage your life a bit differently. But that’s your own life journey. Now go out and live it.