John P Forsyth Ph.D.

Peace of Mind


How You Use Mindfulness Matters

When you find yourself in a hole, it may be time to stop digging.

Posted Sep 21, 2017

Mindfulness practice is making its way into mental health care, medicine, and society writ large and for good reason. Modern science is now confirming what contemplative traditions have known for some time. Mindfulness can be good for you. It can help you quite literally help you get out of your mind and back into your life. But it also has the potential to be misused and misapplied. 

The practice itself is thought to involve paying attention, in the present moment, with purpose or intention, and without getting caught up in judgment. After all, just because you're mindful doesn't mean your mind is going to stop offering you a litany of judgments and evaluations. That's just what minds do. Judgments and evaluations, like "I'm doing this wrong," are just more thinking. It's all part of the practice. 

Similar to building a muscle, the skill of being more mindful is developed with practice. And the practice doesn't need to involve a formal sitting meditation. You can be mindful just about anywhere you find yourself and with any activity—eating, walking, mowing the lawn, listening to music, running, washing the dishes, and so on. 

The more you do it, the better you will be at coming back to right where you are anyway and to your experience just as it is. The aim is not to be mindful 24/7. That's unrealistic. The point is to notice when you're pulled into your past, or the future, or a swirl of other thoughts and emotions, and then to step back with some curiosity, and return to right where you are. When you do more of that, you will put yourself in greater contact with the sweetness of life and the rewards of doing things that you care about.

Sounds great, right? Except when it's not.

I have a card in my home office that shows a colorful sketch of a person in a hole, holding a shovel and feverishly digging away. The caption reads "When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging!" Why? Because digging only makes holes bigger and deeper.

I put this out there for a reason. In my life and work, I've met many people who practice mindfulness, or some other form of meditation. But when I ask them why they are practicing mindfulness, I often hear people say things like "to be less anxious," or "less stressed," or "I use it to manage difficult thoughts or feelings." 

In a way, mindfulness is their gold shovel—a way to dig themselves out of their pain and difficulty. This may (and often does) work in the short-term, but over the long haul, it tends not to solve the problems. Holes just get bigger and more menacing over time. People keep practicing. They keep digging. But the pain and difficulty never go away for good. In fact, it may get worse. Many, in turn, end up frustrated with the practice itself and stop doing it.

There is a lesson here that I hope may help you. When you practice mindfulness or any other contemplative or spiritual practice, watch how you're using it. Mindfulness has enormous benefits, but not when used as a shovel to dig out of pain and difficulty. Mindfulness is not just another clever coping strategy or a way to manage what you feel and think. 

Mindfulness is a practice of watching all the inner activity with some gentleness and curiosity so that you can be present to your life right where you are. You do it not to make difficulty go away. You do it to get the space you need to come back, as often as necessary, to right where you are so you can contact your life and experience just as it is—not as your mind tells you it is. You do it to see things more clearly just as they are. Paradoxically, this is what will bring relief and perhaps genuine happiness.

Perhaps it's time to reflect. Ask yourself this: "What are my intentions in using mindfulness in my life?" Am I using it as a shovel? Or, am I using it to open up to my experience and my life—to create the space I need to be present with myself and my life as it is? Now watch. This isn't the time to beat yourself up if you tend to use mindfulness to dig yourself out of the holes you find yourself in. But you can decide to stop using mindfulness as a shovel. Your intentions matter!

Decide to let go, observe what's showing up just as it is, and make contact with your life right where you are. There is freedom in that. This is how you may cultivate greater peace of mind and freedom from needless suffering in your life.