Challenging experiences raise questions
Mindfulness has the potential to be a support in our daily lives. If we develop a clear and open mind in periods of uncertainty, we experience less fear and worry about the present and future.
Mindfulness requires a healthy intention and motivation. There is much benefit in questioning every now and then our motives for practice. Such an inquiry can shift our focus and reveal some tendencies within practice which would otherwise cause stress and tension.
Why do I wish to practice mindfulness?
What is the outcome I expect from practicing?
What changes do I want to see from a regular mindfulness practice?
Mindfulness and stress-reduction
Many people start mindfulness practice because they experience stress and wish to relax. The fast pace of our society, the immense pressure we experience, the misalignment with natural rhythms and personal needs build up to feelings of exhaustion and tiredness. We easily assume if we cannot cope with the demands and the pressure, something is wrong with us. We think we should adjust in order to function appropriately.
People seek relief in medication, drugs or therapy. We practice mindfulness with the idea that we just need to relax a bit more in order to function a bit better. Our interest in practice is to get as much relief of tension as possible. We expect that paying attention to the body or the breathing will make us feel instantly better.
Reactivity towards the unpleasant
When we practice solely from the wish to reduce stress, we might react with frustration or irritation to any unpleasant feeling which comes up during practice. The basic assumption is that mindfulness practice only works when unpleasant sensations are absent.
Relaxation arises when those conditions which create stress, cease to be. Settling the attention on the breath or bodily sensations, can interrupt repetitive circles of thought which cause worry and irritation. When such harmful discursive thinking comes to a pause, this resonates in heart, body and mind as relief. Relaxation sweeps through the body and practice shows its benefits.
In other circumstances, this principle will not work. Physical pain is part of the bodily experience. There is no escape from ageing, illness and dying. Mindfulness can alleviate tension and agitation created in relationship to these processes, yet it is not a cure-all or quick fix to any unpleasant sensation.
Mindfulness and expectations
Sometimes, we experience the opposite of calm when we start practicing. Sitting down with the intention to watch the breathing, we meet bodily tension, racing thoughts or dullness and boredom. If stress-reduction is the only motivation for practice, these discoveries can lead to frustration. The expectation is that mindfulness leads to ease and relaxation. When this expectation is not met, the motivation crumbles, and eventually one stops practicing all together.
We think of the painful, the agitated, the wounded, the irritated, etc. as indicators for personal flaws. This can lead to a heightened sense of self-criticism rather than seeing these as aspects of human experience. When we cut these experiences off, we cannot learn to accommodate unpleasant sensations and moods.
Mindfulness and the inner critic
Mindfulness supports us in cutting through deeply ingrained patterns. It sheds lights upon dynamics and creates spaciousness which prevents reactive actions. How we act and interact in the world is based upon a set of values, judgements and views. How we apply mindfulness depends on these underlying beliefs.
Mindfulness practice can be practiced from the intention of self-improvement. We aim to be ‘better’, to find the approval of others or live up to our standards of perfection. Mindfulness turns into a means to create a personality we find acceptable.
Easily this becomes a stage for the inner critic, and mindfulness turns into an instrument of self-flagellation. The attention settles with accuracy on what we think is ‘wrong’ about us. The inner critic uses mindfulness practice as a surveillance system to find and highlight even the smallest flaws. When caught up in negativity, we cannot see clearly. The mind mercilessly judges even the smallest mistakes, and dismisses our attempts of kindness and care as not good enough.
Doubts about mindfulness practice
Stress-reduction and self-improvement alone cannot carry us through a crisis. In times of anxiety and uncertainty it becomes obvious that we need something more substantial than a brief relief from stress. We do not need the additional suffering which stems from a harsh critical voice.
How can mindfulness offer stability?
Awareness without agenda
For mindfulness to support us, we need to inquire whether the intention with which we practice shows carries with it kindness and curiosity.
Do I meet a situation with openness and curiosity, or am I buying into the quick judgements of the mind?
Can I bring kindness, care and love to a situation and make the clear commitment not to engage in self-rejection or reactivity?
When suffused with care and curiosity, mindfulness is in itself healing, nourishing and supportive. Awareness does not need an agenda. Instead of manipulating the present moment, we can shift to receptivity, spaciousness and care. We start to find rest when we do not keep trying to fix ourselves.
This pause is the birthplace for stability and clarity to arise. Action without these two is hasty reactivity. We might need to change something. We can make a commitment to do so only when we feel grounded and calm. For the time being, we trust into mindfulness and meditation to bring us the clarity necessary.
Inviting an intimacy with experience
Simple awareness of the dynamics of bodily sensations provides a resting place for heart and mind. In the interplay of heat and cool, tingling, itching, throbbing, softness or tension we experience an intimacy with life.
We witness the constant shift of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral sensations. In meeting these, we learn to be with the whole range of human experience. Over time we develop the skill to soften where necessary, to breathe through when helpful, and to rest in that which is unproblematic and nourishing.
Any experience can provide a lesson in how to relate. We see what actions lead to a contraction in the being, cause agitation and stir up the mind. There are other ways which allow us to stay receptive, calm and open. When we know how to handle experience, the amount of fear we experience diminishes drastically. Circumstances have less and less potential to throw us of balance. We meet life with a calm heart-mind, moment after moment.
A place in the first row
The sense organs pick up information every second of the waking day. Seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting create a continuous tapestry of impressions. Without careful attention the mind puts layers of interpretation and judgement upon these. A picture on the wall triggers memories of the past. We see another person. Comparison arises and leads to anger or shame. When the mind wanders too far into discursive thinking, we lose ourselves in virtual reality.
The bare sense impressions provide a place to rest. We stay close to the beauty of the flower, the sound of children laughing and the touch of the warm tea cup within our palm. When the stories about past, present and future lose their intensity, we experience relief and clarity. The first row in the orchestra of sensual impressions is a place of shelter.
Mindfulness as a refuge in itself
We take refuge from the rain. We can equally take refuge from the stories, the worries, the fears and anxieties. When moods and thoughts contract the heart-mind, we can return to mindfulness to find stability. From a healthy distance we realize that a thought is just a thought, a flash of fear just a flash of fear. We can breathe through, allow it to pass without any engagement with it.
The current virus crisis easily triggers fear and anxiety. Questions might demand to be answered: What will happen to me, to my loved ones, to the society? How will life be in the future? What will happen to my plans, my hopes, my goals? It takes a clear commitment not to drift off into fearful thoughts about future and past. As an alternative to worrying about the future, we dedicate our attention to today. We trust that bringing care, kindness and clarity to the present, we take the best possible to care of ourselves, our loved ones and people around us.
Trusting in mindfulness
Once we see the protection mindful awareness can provide, we develop confidence in practice. In moments of fear and irritation, we are more likely to return to practice to deal with issues. The immediacy of bodily sensations, the anchors of touch, sound, view, taste and smell are always available. We might need to return to these safe places many times over the course of the day. Keep steady with it. The fear, the restlessness, the irritation will cease. It has to, if it is not fueled any further.
In these days, we need to practice mindfulness not because we wish to relax a bit, or because we try to become an ideal version of ourselves. We practice because it protects our hearts and minds. Caring for ourselves this way, we find ground and stability. Benefits of practice ripple out naturally to those close to us.
Mindfulness is not a trend, not a product, not something we can get or create. It is an innate capacity to see clearly and respond well. When suffused with kindness and care, we can rest and trust in its potential to carry us through the storms of life.
This article is part of a free online course on "Mindfulness in Times of Coronavirus" offered together with senior mindfulness teacher Christopher Titmuss.
You can find the course under https://mtc.thinkific.com/
Recorded audio talks with reflections and guided meditations on the theme are available on https://soundcloud.com/ulla-koenig