Saturday, March 9, 2013

When Mindfulness Becomes Mindlessness

For an updated version see PsychCentral here.

Mindfulness meditation has been unequaled in helping me navigate the stressors that can rob me of the beauty of each moment.  It has helped me manage a serious mental illness, and it has helped me confront major and minor roadblocks that threaten to derail all of my plans.  I believe that anyone can benefit from this practice.  And therein lies the problem.

My wife has a very stressful life, with a very responsible job, a terrible daily commute, and me.  Her reactivity, to me, seems very high, and she often loses her temper.  So, of course, I think she should practice the same techniques I use to deal with stress.  I can’t understand why she would balk at something so painfully obvious.  If meditation helped me overcome bipolar disorder, it could certainly help her with her difficulties.  But in insisting that she take the same path I have, I stop feeling her experience and instead project my own onto hers.  My awareness becomes judgmental, and I no longer see her as the fully formed individual she is.  Instead I see her as someone who can’t handle stress, without realizing that she may have a very different, albeit effective, way to confront her own challenges.

Mindfulness should be about fully experiencing the present moment - taking in all that is around us, and sharing empathy for the plight of others we encounter.  But it threatens to become an individual pursuit.  Time spent in meditation, relaxation, and contemplation can devolve into self-absorption.  The meditator risks becoming detached from his own experience, and the experience of those close to him.  One can see meditation as a panacea for all ills, and resist putting in the hard work required to overcome obstacles and to face adversity.  A misguided meditator can begin to judge negative feelings and defeating thoughts as inferior, and to extend this misperception onto those she deems negative or unable to deal with daily stressors.  And worst of all, one proclaiming mindfulness can detach from a loved one who is exhibiting emotions seen as undesirable.  By wishing my wife would just calm down, meditate, and release, I invalidate her experience and her as an individual.  A simple act of wanting what is best for someone else can become an act of judgment, starving a relationship of intimacy and trust.  On the other hand, mindfully attending to my wife's needs can be a tremendous source of closeness, growth, and love for both of us.

Mindfulness should not wipe away desire, pain, difficulty, or compassion.  It should help the meditator fully experience each emotion and each sensation.  And it should not be inner-directed.  One has a place in the world, and that place is full of other people.  Mindfulness should make you aware of all that surrounds you, and place you into the canvas of your life.  Not as the center of it, but as a part of a greater whole.  One can be creative without bending others to their ideas.  One can be caring without demanding certain behavior in exchange for our attention.  One must be mindful without being judgmental.  Only then can meditation pull the meditator out of himself and into the world in which he exists.  The world in which he belongs.

The techniques I propound should help one deal with and experience life, not escape from it.  That I am not always so good at this myself is evidence of how meditation gone awry can set one apart from all that is important.  Meditation must help us face life, not face away from it or too deeply inside.  As we experience the world we can act on it, and with it.  Mindfulness that becomes a solitary pursuit can become mindlessness.  Instead, it should be a method of connecting with, seeing, and experiencing both ourselves and those around us.  Especially those we care about most deeply.   Meditation can help us peel away our misperceptions and realize our expectations.  Only then can it help us truly be whom we can most confidently, and caringly, be.

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