A few years ago my wife told me an amusing story about something that happened on the way to her yoga class. As she drove, she was tailgated aggressively by a driver in a sports car. When she was able to move over to let him pass, he zipped dangerously close as he sped around her and quickly changed lanes to pass the car ahead of him.
When my wife arrived at the studio, she was surprised to see the same car in the parking lot, and the man setting up his yoga mat in her class. We laughed when she told me the story because he fit a certain stereotype of the person who does mindfulness practices like yoga or meditation but doesn't seem to partake of the deeper elements of the practice—someone who might push ahead of you after meditation class to get their kale detox smoothie, picking up where they left off in their frantic lives.
Well before this incident I'd wondered if the popularization of mindfulness—"McMindfulness," as some have called it—had hollowed out its core. Could this potentially transformative practice be distilled to a 10-minute-a-day "hack" for better relationships, concentration, and mood? To be honest, I asked this question of my own practice, which felt rather tacked on to my life-as-usual.
I explored this issue in my recent discussion with author and mindfulness teacher Ora Nadrich on the Think Act Be podcast. Nadrich recently wrote Live True: A Mindfulness Guide to Authenticity, which offers ways to bring mindful awareness into every area of our lives. She noted the tension between bringing mindfulness to as many people as possible and maintaining the integrity of the practice.
"I'm very inclusive," Nadrich said. "You don't have to be sitting on a mountaintop as a Buddhist monk to experience these things." Like many teachers of mindfulness, she aims to bring age-old practices into the modern experience. The approachability of westernized mindfulness has drawn countless people to it, including me.
At the same time, she noted a "watering down" and commodification of mindfulness "that only uses some aspects of it, and doesn't require the work." And while the concept of mindfulness is extremely simple—"being present in the moment with acceptance and non-judgment"—it's not at all easy to practice.
"Like anything else that's useful to our lives, meditative and contemplative skills take practice and commitment," said Nadrich. "It does require effort on our part." That effort can be a tough sell. We've been trained to expect immediate gratification in our "fast-food, instant-everything" culture, with electronic gadgets that have compromised our attention span.
In my work as a therapist, I've been concerned at times that mindfulness might be used as a tool to maintain an unhealthy lifestyle. I've worked with very sane people who seemed to view mindfulness as a tool to support their frankly insane lives—working nonstop, constantly glued to a screen, neglecting their relationships, not tending to their deeper needs. Instead of introducing a new way of being, meditation becomes one more thing to check off on a long to-do list.
And while mindfulness practices like meditation can be very relaxing, they have much more to offer than simple stress reduction. Part of their benefit comes from helping us to see our lives more clearly, which often leads to changes for the better.
Accepting that reality is the way it is will almost inevitably show us that we need to change. We might recognize how our habits aren't serving us well, or that the life we're living isn't right for us. Years ago I realized with perfect clarity at the end of a yoga class that the job I was working was a terrible fit for me. That insight led to pursuing a much more rewarding career path over the past decade, not to mention a schedule that allows me to have many more hours with my family.
I'm reluctant to say there's a right way and a wrong way to practice mindfulness. Those kinds of judgments, after all, are antithetical to the spirit of mindfulness. But I do believe there's much more to the practice than we often make room for. Mindful awareness can transform every moment of our lives. You don't have to convert to Buddhism to discover that power, but it does seem to require connecting mindfulness practices to a coherent philosophy of living.
And it seems to require slowing down. "Be aware of when you're trying to rush a moment," advised Nadrich. "Mindfulness isn't a quick fix." Simply slowing our pace at times can provide the space to see how we're living, and what might need to change.
One way to slow down and bring mindfulness practice into your daily life is what Nadrich calls "life gazing." It's a simple exercise that involves "really being aware of what you're seeing, without judgment. Just observe."
As we note what's around us, our awareness and senses will heighten. "Suddenly we start to see things more multidimensionally," said Nadrich. She initially did this practice at red lights, when one's mind is often restless.
We can life gaze in any situation—in a meeting, at the beach, in a café, or just hanging out with friends and family. Rather than answering the call of our smartphones, we can be more fully in three dimensional life.
"Take the time to gift yourself those moments," advised Nadrich. "Every moment is an opportunity to awaken."
[There was a coda to the opening story of the impatient yogi: My wife later learned that he had recently suffered a tragic loss in his family. Maybe he was desperate to get to his weekly yoga class because it was the one place he could find some peace. I have no idea, but perhaps, like all of us, he was doing the best he could.]
The full conversation with Ora Nadrich is available here.
Nadrich, O. (2019). Live true: A mindfulness guide to authenticity. Los Angeles: IFTT Press.