Struggle with mindfulness you say? Isn’t mindfulness supposed to be about letting go of struggle and being with whatever you experience in your present moment? Well yes. That is the idea.
But if you are not particularly mindful or self-compassionate, learning these skills can take time and can feel like hard work – like remembering to eat more veggies, drink more water (than coffee) everyday, or do that planned exercise because you know you’ll feel better once you’ve done it.
A couple of years ago, as someone who was pretty new to mindfulness, I interviewed a handful of people with experience of chronic pain about their experiences with mindfulness for my honors dissertation. I wanted to know qualitatively: what were the things that facilitated people’s general (formal or informal) mindfulness practice. I also wanted to know about the barriers people faced in engaging with mindfulness (you will be able to read more about my findings about people with chronic pain who practice mindfulness in a future blog post).
What motivated me to pursue this topic was, in part, the tension I felt between knowing that mindfulness is essentially quite simple and is linked to many benefits while at the same time finding it incredibly difficult to master. I had some anecdotal evidence that others experienced this difficulty too. I know, I know, Zen masters say it takes a life time (and I am no where near mastering it – I can barely sit still to be honest), but I wanted to know: what it is about mindfulness that is so difficult to engage with?
On reflection, part of the difficulty for me at this time was my reaction to the word ‘practice’. Much of the academic mindfulness literature, as well as the very little I know about Buddhist teachings, says that to reap the benefits of mindfulness one must make time in a busy, stressed out schedule to practice regularly. If you are too busy to sit still or really don’t feel like it, you, of all people, need to make time and practice most! Aagh.
To me the idea of practice equated with discipline and effort. And ‘discipline’ was not in my vocabulary. In fact it conjured up images of a regimented military or gym routine, or suggested the prerequisite ‘standards for holiness’ for belonging to a specific group. And this did not appeal to me. It was not only the idea of discipline but also the struggle of putting in the effort involved in learning a new skill – organizing my time or sacrificing something else so that I could accommodate a mindfulness practice – that was a barrier for me.
This was the paradox for me!! Mindfulness is supposed to be this activity that enhances our lives. It is not about struggling effortfully but about simply observing, without judgment, your internal or external experiences. And yet it takes effort to stop and be mindful when it is not a habit. And if I couldn’t meet my (often unrealistic) expectations of myself then I would either ramp up the inner-critic or my frustration levels would go up over not achieving my goal.
I learned from my study participants that the most achievable way to make changes in your life is through taking small realistic steps. Practicing mindfulness regularly will turn it into a habit, deepen the experience and make us more aware of the benefits associated with it. However, sometimes it can be a struggle to commit to even a brief daily practice and if we are unrealistic about what practice goals look like then this can be a huge barrier. I recall thinking that as a counseling psychologist in training, “If I am going to teach this to my clients, I need to be a guru!!”– which was actually highly unlikely and actually not necessary.
Lucky for me my participants taught me to see being mindful as a journey (I will expand on this when I talk about my research findings) and that there are many opportunities to take a moment and notice our experiences any time of the day. Sometimes part of my mindfulness practice is simply noticing and observing the judgments I make, or frustrations I feel, about not managing to be very mindful today.