Sounds like a paradox, right? By all common logic, we shouldn't be stressed out if we're practicing mindfulness or meditation. We hear over and over in the news how those practices are supposed to help us relax. Yet I hear over and over from clients that the whole concept of mindfulness provokes anxiety. It's time to strip down the concept of mindfulness and make it accessible to everyone.
What Is Mindfulness?
You will never find one true definition because the experience varies by culture and personal experience. Virtually all cultures around the globe have some version of what we collectively refer to as mindfulness. It could involve Eastern traditions of meditation, Western traditions of prayer, or completely secular experiences of simply living in the present moment.
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is perhaps the most recognizable name in the modern day academic study and practice of mindfulness; especially relating to its application in pain and stress reduction. He points out three factors that make up mindfulness: acceptance, non-striving, and non-judging awareness.
Kabat-Zinn states, “We are not trying to actively achieve a state of deep relaxation or any other state for that matter, while practicing mindfulness… But increasingly, by opening to an awareness of how things actually are in the present moment, we often taste very deep states of relaxation and well-being-of both body and mind.”
Perhaps it's helpful to list a few terms that point to the essence of mindfulness:
It can be practiced virtually anywhere, anytime, requires no tools, no money, and no formal training. Wait, what? If that's true then why is the market flooded with meditation classes, audio guides, books, fancy retreats, phone apps, expensive pillows, bracelets, bobbles, and gizmos?
1. Where there's a market, there are marketers. Where there are marketers there are trends. And when the trend happens to be mindfulness, that's a good thing.
2. Many of these items genuinely do help a meditation/mindfulness practitioner develop and strengthen their practice. Many teachers and products are truly helpful and sincere in their intention. If a meditation retreat brings someone much needed guidance and relaxation, all the better. But my message is that places and things are by no means a prerequisite for being mindful or for developing a contemplative practice such as meditation.
So What Do I Need In Order To Practice?
You. That's it. Just show up to the moment. Mindfulness is not a modern spiritual movement. It's not a new-age fad. It's simply you at your most natural state of being. It's a practical everyday phenomenon that you've already experienced without even labeling it. Have you ever just stared into the flame of a flickering candle? Or the intricate petals of a flower? Have you watched the twitching nose of a sleeping puppy? That was mindfulness. It required nothing of you other than to be there.
Then Why Does The Concept Stress Me Out?
There's a lot of pressure to be perfectionist in our pursuits. Perhaps you've read a book or watched the news and internalized someone else's idea of what it means to be mindful. Maybe you tried it a few times and determined that your experience didn't match up with their description of what it should feel like. So you got frustrated and you quit. "It's too hard." "I'm terrible at it."
I'm here to say that you're not terrible at it. You don't have to subscribe to a method, you don't have to attend a retreat, you don't have to spend any money, and you don't have to expect a certain outcome. That statement will threaten a lot of people- the money makers, the retreat schedulers, the devout practitioners of a certain faith. That's okay- I'm not a shareholder.
So How Should I Approach It?
Like I mentioned earlier, try staring into a gently flickering flame. Pick a flower and explore its perfect imperfections. Engage your senses by smelling the flower, feeling its petals, noticing how your feet come into contact with the floor, the entire experience of just being in that moment. You're not trying to control or prevent your thoughts. Thoughts will pass through your mind but you're learning that your attention doesn't have to get carried with them. When you notice your attention has wandered, simply bring yourself back to the present moment.
Try a "mindful shower." That is, next time you shower, just notice what it's like to be under the warm water. Can you become so attuned to the moment that you feel individual droplets hitting your skin? Notice the sound of the water. The temperature. Notice the tension in your body melting away. You're not placing judgment on the water—it's not good or bad or ugly—it just is. You don't label your method of showering as right or wrong, right? You just do it. Exactly.
So take that message with you everywhere. Mindfulness doesn't have to concern itself with right or wrong. It doesn't require a specific technique or a required amount of time. It doesn't have to feel a certain way or produce a certain result. Maybe it will have certain results- and you can simply notice those as they arise. From there, if you're interested in taking mindfulness a step further, you might develop a contemplative practice such as meditation. Think of mindfulness as simply the state of being presently aware in any given moment. Whereas meditation is an intentional practice that involves techniques for achieving mindful states or regulation of the mind.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Guided Mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn: 4 Practice CDs Series 1. Sounds True. 2002.
Brad Waters MSW, LCSW provides career-life coaching and consultation to clients internationally via phone and Skype. He helps people explore career direction and take action on career transitions. Brad holds a Master's degree in social work from the University of Michigan and Master's certification in Holistic Health Care from Western Michigan University. Brad is also a personal development writer whose books are available on Amazon and BradWatersMSW.com
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