“Mindfulness is NOT a Self-Improvement Project”

This is the first thing I write on the whiteboard when I start leading a new in-house mindfulness group or when I’m starting to work with some of our community partners and treatment centers. I want the participants to cut out what I found to be about a 10 year process of discovery for me. That is, to hold the possibility from the outset, that in a deep and fundamental way we are already ok if we would just slow down long enough to notice – without running away. And actually, to drop below this a little bit, that just being, just breathing, noticing and exploring our the experience of our 5 senses is profoundly healing. This is why the 3rd Wave of mindfulness-based therapies are standing on the shoulders of behaviorism and CBT. Dipping our toes into the pool of our own sanity, even for a moment, is refreshing.

Instead of the next project, mindfulness IS an opportunity to “catch ourselves being sane.” The initial practices are a framework that we put around what is already and what is always happening. Reality is always unfolding, all too often just outside of our conditioned thoughts and behaviors, and we have the wonderful opportunity to experience it in a raw, fresh, heart and eye-opening way. That is, if we are able to adhere to the forms of the practice. If we can explore and be curious. If we have the hope and the courage to move beyond the “I can’t meditate” stage. Because that just means you’re a beginner and there is a wonderful life in store for you if you are able to show up and trust the form and relax into the space of just being. Warriorship in the mindfulness space means just showing up and not believing your thoughts – including the “I can’t meditate” thoughts.

I’ve been teaching mindfulness in meditation halls and treatment centers for over 10 years. One thing I’ve learned and witnessed is that everyone can meditate. Every single person who has tried it with me has experienced themselves settling into their breath, becoming more aware of their breathing rhythm and body sensations. They have, when so directed, been able to witness and experience direct contact with the 5 senses – the ones that can wake us up and pull us out of confusion and out of conflicted or intense emotions. They have been able to imagine their own needs getting met during Metta practice and have opened up to loved ones and to those with whom they have had some conflict. They have learned to ground, connect and transform their fears and emotions into fuel for connection and experience.

Most importantly they have experienced themselves, even if just for a few minutes on a Monday or Friday morning, as sane, grounded and open human beings. For a few minutes they have been able to drop the project of “fixing themselves” or of “getting clean or sober” and have experienced themselves being absolutely, fundamentally flawless human beings. Their history of pathology and “medical necessity” has dropped off and they have experienced the freedom that comes from simply being kind to themselves, of experiencing the sounds of a bird, the wind chimes or the palm trees swaying in the wind.

They’ve dropped the “I can’t do it” and replaced it with “I am it”. My breath is enough. It’s not about stopping thoughts. The only people who have no thoughts are dead or have head trauma (trust me on the head trauma piece – but that’s for a different post). There is nothing more to do in that moment than just be and notice and allow yourself to relax into it. The quickest way to mess it up is to approach a mindfulness or meditation practice as a self-improvement project. You can almost guarantee that it will be difficult as there is too much self-aggression and no enough self-acceptance in that approach.

When we are able to start dismantling the “I am broken” approach to our own self-exploration then we are better able to resist the tendency to judge, condemn and fix (or further break) others. When we take a few breaths, allow ourselves to ground and appreciate ourselves, appreciate the simplicity of the moment and be grateful for all that we have, we can take this “off the cushion” and into the rest of our lives.

A bow at the beginning or end of a practice session (religious, spiritual, martial arts, etc.) generally signifies a respect for the path, the teachings and teachers, and the process. When we bow at the end of a practice session we are taking a moment to appreciate the fearless and significant work that we have done to ease our own suffering and that of others. But we are also bowing in respect to the warrior’s work that is ahead of us. That is, stepping into the unknown, raw and vulnerable space of experiencing ourselves and others directly. Exploring our own sanity and pointing out the same in others. For as they say, “Everyone you meet is fighting a tough battle”.

Do this with me – this is the most important thing, because with out it this is all a nice idea. Sit up straight, rest your hands gently on your lap. Now take three breaths. In and out… In and out… In and out… Notice your posture, your mental state (busy mind, etc.), your emotional state (hopeful, frustrated, etc.), and then find one thing in your immediate environment that you are grateful for. Take 3 more breaths and connect with that thing you are grateful for. Give yourself a small bow of gratitude for taking, what are very likely your first conscious breaths of the day. Then try to stay connected in this way to yourself and to others throughout your day and see what it’s like.