Mindfulness does not work. Oh Really?
I have been speaking about Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for the past two years as part of a community grant aimed at building resiliency. As a result, I am invited to give training sessions for caregivers and those in stressful social services jobs.
MBSR is a legitimate antidote to community and personal stressors. Once we learn what mindfulness is and how to employ it, mindfulness is the difference between burnout and resiliency. The idea of mindfulness is to calm the mind, stay present without judgment and to focus on the breath when our automatic stress responses kick in with chants like I’m the worst parent ever! I can’t handle one more interruption! Let me eat cake!
But mindfulness is easier said than done – even for the well informed.
It never fails that when I agree to speak, I am faced with my own opportunity to practice. One particular morning on my way to a conference, I had a mini-melt down because I was convinced my husband, son and the entire baseball team were against me. The morning schedule required an act of Congress to get people where they needed to be, and our carefully engineered plans kept changing with the appearance of each new text message. Because I work from home, there was no getting away from the perceived moment-to-moment crisis.
Entangled in everyone’s drama but my own, I ended up unloading on a fellow parent and unsuccessfully stalking the coach so I could give him some planning pointers. I knew my tantrum was ridiculous but I could not – did not -- stop myself. The train had left the station.
The most ironic part is that I was speaking on advocating with clarity and calm that afternoon. As I finally drove away from the fiasco, my family and my town, I started laughing. I had just advocated with hysteria and confusion!
Mindfulness is great in theory, but why doesn’t it work? Why can’t we just harness our inner calm?
We don't have time.
Mindfulness is usually sought by those of us who are anxiety-ridden, depressed, and doing too much. All of us are perpetually connected, reacting to every demand and crisis, and then wondering why we are exhausted but can’t sleep.
Mindfulness is designed to inspire calm by activating parts of our brain that counter the hyper-aroused state we live in daily. The problem is we may view mindfulness as one more thing to add to our packed schedules. It’s sitting for hours on a special meditation pillow or attending yoga class which requires time and trendy athletic wear.
Who has time for it?
The fact is you can do mindfulness anywhere and anytime during your day.
For example, set an alarm every couple hours and take three deep breaths where your inhale is half as long as your exhale. The exhale is what kicks in the parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of fight or flight) reducing muscle tension, heart rate and blood pressure. You can also practice simple breathing exercises or guided visualizations when falling asleep at night. You’re lying there anyway. You can also turn off your radio and meditate while you drive.
There are many subtle ways you can incorporate mindfulness into your schedule without having to interrupt anything except your attention.You have to WANT this.
We Would Rather Do Anything Else
Unfortunately, we are so addicted to our busy-ness that it feels uncomfortable to be still, even for a few moments. In a study conducted by the University of Virginia, it was found that most of us prefer to do something (like, anything) rather than nothing.
When left in a room with nothing but the option to shock themselves, subjects in the aforementioned study preferred self-administered shocks to being alone with their thoughts. Since mindfulness requires delving into personal thoughts and feelings, it can initially create discomfort. This is why movement like yoga, breath work and guided visualizations or meditation can be helpful.
When we lean into the chaos of our minds and let the initial torrent of thoughts and feelings come, they will settle. It’s like taking the plunge into a cold pool; the hardest part is getting in.
It takes patience and practice to get comfortable with passing discomfort, but it eventually gets easier.
I’ve Tried It – and It Was Not For Me
The first time I did yoga, I could barely stand to sit lie quietly. My mind and body kept screaming at me (on the inside) to get up and do something. I decided right away that it wasn’t for me. I have also tried meditating, but sitting down on a cushion for long periods of time can be physically uncomfortable and distracting.
What I didn’t understand is that feeling angry, distracted, irritable and frustrated by the pace is perfect. Mindfulness invites us to embrace those annoyances without judgment and with curiosity. These practices are not something to be perfected or conquered but rather an ongoing practice with layers of new self-awareness.
We walk with our enlightenment, not towards it.
I Already Do It
One of the things I hear the most as a mindfulness and wellness advisor is, “Oh, I know. I already do that.”
Let’s just acknowledge two things: First, we know what we want to be doing; and second, we probably do engage in many potentially helpful activities.
So why aren’t they helping? It is not what we do, it is HOW we do it.
I once had a client who wanted help addressing anxiety and self-confidence. She had been to therapy and counseling and was seriously considering medication because nothing and no one had been able to help her. Within moments of our coaching call I understood why it was difficult for her to find solutions. She called in to our session on her mobile phone while walking her dog in a busy square near her work. We were interrupted no less than three times by her meeting acquaintances. Her social sidebars were the perfect distraction from addressing her problems.
Think about your gym.
Yoga is becoming mainstream in the exercise world, so we may incorporate it into our workout schedules and declare that we do yoga. Yoga really can be a great workout, but there is a difference between doing yoga for exercise and doing yoga as a mindful practice. In a workout, I push myself and notice where I am working hard; as a practice, I focus on how I am feeling while tuning in to my body.
We only build our mindful muscles by bringing ourselves into the present and truly paying attention to the task at hand. In that state, we realize our intentions beget actions that affect our way in the world. Mindlessly doing mindful activities curtails success.
I Totally Know Someone Else Who Needs It!
Another statement I hear regularly is how much someone’s friend, co-worker, in-laws, child, or spouse needs mindfulness. It’s usually accompanied by a knowing eye roll and chuckle. The thing about mindfulness is that it only works when we are ready to embrace the idea that any change in another person begins with a change in ourselves.
I find it fascinating that most of us are in positions where we expect others to change – kids, our clients, our students –and yet we are not willing to do that kind of hard work ourselves. Change is difficult. When you require it of others but not of yourself, there is a problem.
“I am the perpretor of my suffering –but only all of it.”
- Byron Katie
The more we engage in regular mindful practices, we will see improvements in our actions and choices. They won’t always be perfect, but we will notice when we fall off the wagon and why.
Trust me, I know. Instead of losing my cool without thought, I am now fully aware of my choice to continue a tantrum. And I can stop and see the contrast between what I teach and how I act.
Mindfulness is a practice, not a destination. It only works if you are willing to work at it.
About the Author: Wendy Gauntner is a certified Martha Beck Life Coach for E-Therapy Café. She is also a writer and author of Lee & Me: What I Learned from Parenting a Child with Adverse Childhood Experiences based out of Wyoming. Wendy is E-Therapy Café’s Confidence Builder, Champion of Caregivers, Story Shifter, Creator of Calm, Inner Purpose Tracker and Wayfinder.
E-Therapy Café™ is a people-focused, innovative online counseling and coaching platform for individuals, couples, families and corporations. The mission is to provide professional, convenient, and affordable, modern online therapy – anytime, anywhere for everyone. The Boutique Team of Licensed Therapists and Certified Life Coaches are passionate change catalyst, focused on realistic goals in today’s fast-paced world. The headquarters is in Northern VA with a nationwide and global reach.