In November, an article did the rounds—entitled “Actually, Let’s Not Be in the Moment”—in which the author describes, hilariously, a failed attempt at mindful dishwashing.
It’s quite relatable if you’ve ever tried to force yourself to “be with” some unpleasant domestic task like sorting recycling or scrubbing a drip tray. Even if you’re attracted to the idea of mindfulness, actually trying to commune with tedious or objectionable experiences often proves to be neither enlightening nor fulfilling.
The piece is mostly an exasperated rebuttal to the New Age tenet that we should force ourselves to “live in the moment”. It’s an understandable rant, and I think it represents an increasingly common sentiment in the self-improvement world: mindfulness is annoying.
At least, it’s annoying to try to be mindful all the time, and it’s annoying to be told to be mindful all the time. I receive emails expressing similar frustrations, from people who are tired of trying to find peace in the folding of laundry or the raking of litterboxes, even if they still believe it is somehow possible.
As the author, Ruth Whippman writes, “Mindfulness is supposed to be a defense against the pressures of modern life, but it’s starting to feel suspiciously like it’s adding to them.”
And I agree: trying to be mindful all the time will only make you hate the whole idea of it. It becomes almost offensive to be assured that the only real happiness comes from dutifully communing with the banalities of the present moment.
However, that approach implies a pretty wrong-headed (but not uncommon) notion of what mindfulness is, and the best ways to bring it into your life. Pop culture tends to misconceive mindfulness, and the exasperation in the article is a response to this misconception, not to mindfulness as its practitioners know it.
Unlike many of my fellow meditators, I love that mindfulness has entered pop culture. More awareness of this wonderful mental capacity can only be a good thing, even if it means more people will initially misunderstand it.
There’s now a demand for mindfulness, which means there’s now a mindfulness industry, with all the usual bandwagoneering and half-hearted offerings. The quintessential example of this silliness is a vegan sandwich spread called Mindful Mayo.
This industry offers everything from dubiously-named condiments to Buddhist-run meditation retreats. Even the Dalai Lama has a book deal. And now that I have a couple of ebooks and a learn-to-meditate course, I’m a part of this industry too. I have not yet released a mayonnaise.
The proselytizing that happens around anyone’s new spiritual “secret weapon” does get annoying. Feeling sluggish? You’re not eating enough whole grains. Feeling sad? You need vitamin D. Feeling anything but inner peace on your way to work? You need to be more mindful of this hard plastic bus seat.
Ms Whippman has written a string of similar articles decrying this phenomenon. They’re worth reading, at least for their humor and their deserving criticisms of self-help culture in general. However, mindfulness practitioners will see immediately that the practice being criticized isn’t mindfulness.
The First Missing Element
It’s almost a cliché now, but there’s more to mindfulness than just paying attention to what you’re doing. After all, ruminations about work and fantasies about Don Draper are just as much a part of the present-moment dishwashing experience as the scent of Palmolive. Mindfulness isn’t a matter of where you apply your attention, but how.
A simple definition of mindfulness, from Jan Chozen-Bays is “Awareness without judgment or criticism”. This isn’t perfect either, but it includes the element that differentiates it from everyday attention.
This vital nonjudgmental quality is usually missed by pop culture. Noticing without judging creates a wiser, less conflicted orientation towards your moment-to-moment experience, which you can’t achieve simply by forcing yourself to focus on your hands and ignore your thoughts.
When you’re practicing mindfulness, you’re noticing your physical and mental experience with an implicit agreement to at least see if you can allow it to be exactly as it is.
Often, you’ll find you aren’t able to be open in this way. We have limited patience, at least at first, for practicing this generous, forgiving kind of attention. That’s why it’s usually learned through daily meditation, where you can practice this sort of openness, in short stretches, on simple and inoffensive experiences like the feeling of your own breath.
It is worth simply noticing the physical side of life more often—feeling the floorboards as you walk, noticing the din of traffic—even without the nonjudgment aspect. Rumination makes us miserable and delivers surprisingly few useful answers. Returning to the concrete side of our experience more often can stop it from snowballing too long.
But if you believe doing this continually will bring you happiness (or that doing it continually is even possible), you will be disappointed and frustrated. You’ll find “mindfulness” to be annoying, impractical, or ineffective.
Some of the confusion is the fault of experienced practitioners using the M-word in this looser sense, which can happen when it becomes second-nature to bring that nonjudgmental quality to your awareness of the floorboards and the dishrag. In hindsight I’ve probably done this a lot (even in blog posts on mindful dishwashing) which may have confused the uninitiated more than it helped.
The Second Missing Element
There’s another point that’s missed more often than the nonjudgment part, even among experienced practitioners: mindfulness is not something human beings are naturally good at.
Evolution has given the human mind a very strong inclination to evaluate, categorize, and talk to itself about what it notices. Mindfulness is a practiced suspension, or forgiveness, of those nearly automatic impulses. When they do happen, you can notice them too, and return to your raw experience with the intention of allowing it to unfold as it will.
Because mindfulness is such a departure from our usual, impulse-driven mode of engagement with reality, we need to be very gentle with ourselves when we practice it. To develop mindfulness is to gradually recondition some of our most high-strung impulses. If we try to force ourselves to stay attentive or stop thinking, we’ll hate it in no time.
Gentleness is a major point of emphasis in any decent mindfulness instruction. We can’t always bring this kind of openness to our experience, but by experimenting frequently (and dedicating stretches of time to it, in meditation) we recondition ourselves, gradually, to be less reactive and less needy.
Once you have a bit of experience with mindfulness practice, you know it’s absurd to expect yourself to stay mindful throughout an entire TV commercial, let alone an entire dishwashing session, or an entire lifetime.
When we practice “mindful living” exercises in Camp Calm, we use everyday tasks that take two to ten seconds—turning a key, closing a door, putting away a pot. Then we go on with our day. We can stay mindful and curious for the beginning, middle and end of these very short events. Any longer than that, and our experiments will probably end in distraction, outside our awareness. That’s the nature of the mind we’re working with.
Gentleness is the central value that keeps us from throwing our hands up at the whole project. When we’re unable to be gentle, we back off the effort and come back to it later.
Mindfulness doesn’t seem so annoying after we’ve accepted that we’re rather impulsive, impatient creatures who like to force things. We grasp at more control over our experience than we can ever achieve, and we suffer from that impulse every day, in the form of stress, hatred, weariness, and neediness. To practice mindfulness is to learn, one moment at a time, what it’s like not to take the bait.
Photo by your best digs