I visited a Zen meditation class a couple of years ago. After 90 excruciating minutes of silence and attempting to look serene while my legs, forced unwillingly into some semblance of a Lotus pose, screamed in agony, we all went to the pub. That was a not a good day for mindfulness.
Mindfulness and meditation are hard. I seem to spend half my time clearing phone notifications from Headspace, the mindfulness app. ‘Time to get some Headspace’ – Yes, but not now. I’m busy; I have a blogpost to write about mindfulness. Then I can feel wise and mindful, perhaps slightly superior, and not need to do any of that pesky mindfulness.
When I consider, at the end of each day, that I was unable to find 10 minutes of the past 24 hours to dedicate to it, something doesn’t add up.
Mindfulness claims to help with all sorts of things, many of them core to what I see in my work as a psychotherapist: anxiety, depression, confusion, despair, trauma, stress and low self-esteem. So how do we get more of it?
In the psychological film Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch suffers a trauma that Western medicine cannot fix, so heads east to Kathmandu to seek out Tilda Swinton. She’s shaved her head and says everything in a profound, ghostly way. Like Tilda Swinton in every other movie, she’s mastered time, space and consciousness; crossing dimensions at will. So what does she do with this newfound esoteric power: settle for a life of cultivated, ego-less awareness atop a mountain? No. She makes cool swords, glowing magical shields and brand new ways to smash things into buildings. Disappointing? No, I loved it.
The fact is, my Western mind likes to think of things as a fight, even Eastern things about the cessation of struggle. I am the Hollywood director that scribbles out the tedious bits about tranquillity, oneness and patience to insist on another walloping CGI fight scene. That’s me. Sorry.
So, until I’m able to move into some non-dual, world-beyond-worlds, here are your top weapons and strategies in the eternal battle for mindfulness:
Intend mindfulness into submission
Not ‘intention’ because that’s something you have whereas ‘intend’ is something you do. Intend perhaps to be a little less hasty, more patient, to do it to help your family, to be less stressed at work, to help make a decision. Mindfulness can’t resist it.
Stop expecting mindfulness to help
Let the intention be enough, don’t demand results. As soon as you have an expectation, a particular purpose for your mindfulness beyond that, you lose. You’ll fail to achieve whatever that purpose is over your arbitrary time frame, so you stop. Mindfulness is about suspending your striving for more, for different, for elsewhere. It’s staying where you are, doing what you’re doing (including intending). Get comfortable there; it’s where you spend your entire life. Don’t demand things of mindfulness. It will give you not what you expect but might provide what you need.
The technology of habit
Freud wrote in 1916: ‘The ego … is not even master in its own house, but must content itself with scanty information of what is going on unconsciously in its mind.’ The ego, your awareness, opens the bedroom door, looks around, nothing much going on, closes the door, goes downstairs. The kids spring out of bed, jump up and down, wreak havoc. Awareness walks back up the stairs; kids hear the creaking, door opens, nothing to be seen, all quiet and serene. Don’t expect to be the master in your house. Use technology to be there when you’re not there. That’s what ‘habit’ is, it makes your unconscious work for you. Make an unstoppable habit of mindfulness: see if it can escape then.
Mindfulness is the opposite of trying. It’s what happens when trying ends and effortlessness is allowed to reign. Just sit there. You might think you’re trying hard to stop following distracting thoughts, but this is a trick: just don’t follow your distracting thoughts. Conceive not of adding a solution on top of a problem, rather that underneath the problem is no problem at all.
Do mindfulness terribly
Trying to do mindfulness well was part of my error. Try to do it terribly, if it helps. Sit still, focus on your breathing, notice your desires to sabotage your mindfulness practice. Make no attempt to conquer them. Mindfulness will be helpless at your feet in no time. You turned up, you win. The only way to do mindfulness wrong is not to do it at all. My attempt at Zen meditation was not such a bad day for mindfulness because I turned up.
Don’t take time out to do mindfulness
Even 10 minutes a day can be too hard to find sometimes. So combine your mindfulness practice with walking as Thich Naht Hahn encourages, ‘peace in every step’. Or washing the dishes or your commute. Mindfulness isn’t even a state of mind, it’s an attitude: of openness not judging, of breadth more than depth and breath over death, of awareness over distraction. Haven’t got a chair? Do mindfulness. Haven’t got peace and quiet? Do mindfulness. Stop making excuses (‘That’s too easy to be worthwhile’ is my favourite) and soon mindfulness will be unable to evade you. Alone, quietly in a seated position is good, to know what that feels like, but it’s not the only option.
Throw your hands in the air like you just don’t care
The problem is in the title: ‘mindfulness’. It implies this is something to do with your mind, perhaps the brain. Mindfulness is a whole-body experience. Remove the hyphen in mind-body: body-mind is better. It is one interconnected experience where the body comes first yet mind is right alongside, not second. So throw your hands in the air and see if a bit of that care that’s weighing you down lifts.
Notice how tight your jaw is right now. Use your body, breathe your body. Visit a yoga teacher that talks of moving meditation, not acrobatic feats. Embody mindfulness.
Mindfulness won’t make you less crazy
Life can feel insane sometimes. Welcome that in, too. As Henepola Gunaratana notes: ‘Somewhere in this process, you will come face-to-face with the sudden and shocking realisation that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barrelling pell-mell down the hill utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way and you just never noticed”. I reassure myself as a psychotherapist that if it’s true, it’s friendly. It takes courage to deal with things as they are, but it’s better than fighting ghosts.
Tell everyone how good you are at mindfulness
Now is not the time to be coy. Promising others you’ll do more mindfulness reinforces the habit. Make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’re not ready to tell your mother, many of the apps help you make virtual friends and supporters. Inspire others and explore with them how it’s helped you or how you’ve struggled with it or whatever your experience has been. Tweet. Write a blogpost. Make mindfulness a movement.
Don’t wish you did mindfulness yesterday
Even Western medicine gets this right: if you miss a dose, you pick up where you left off. Don’t try to take yesterday’s dose today. Rumi, more the real deal than even Tilda Swinton says: ‘Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times’. Yesterday is dead, and you’re still alive. And don’t even talk to me about ‘tomorrow’: your weapons are useless tomorrow.
Research aside, my experience is that mindfulness has much to offer. The days I get to it, or rather stop getting to other stuff, are ‘good’ days.
Things seem a little less muddled, oppressive and urgent. I phrase many of the above tips, and the idea of a battle against mindfulness itself, in a certain counter-intuitive way to reflect my experience.
In the interests of science, I stopped writing this just now to do 15 minutes meditation. I chose a quiet, sunlit churchyard. A loud car alarm then went off for several minutes to my left. A pneumatic drill was going the whole time to my right. Buses passed constantly behind. The battery for my noise-reducing earphones cut out half way through. No matter. Today I did it. Your turn.
Image credit: Freepik
Adam Knowles is a terrible meditator and BACP-registered psychotherapist in private practice at London Bridge. Previously active in LGBT+ and Humanist movements, Adam now works with individuals in open-ended therapy across a broad range of issues while undertaking advanced training in the Existential approach.