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Why Mindfulness Seems Annoying

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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.

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Zpora February 13, 2017 at 4:03 am

At last, recognition that the whole ‘movement’ surrounding the phenomenon called mindfulness can cause annoyance. I would contend that not only does it seem annoying but for people like me it IS annoying because it is nothing new but with the use of the term mindfulness takes on the air that it is. The same with meditation. For me emotional intelligence is much more useful and doesn’t imply that it is a particular esoteric practice performed during ironing etc. Emotional intelligence is a more useful measure that can be practically learned and developed with proven, straightforward techniques, assessments and benefits without the fuzzy ungraspable concepts of mindfulness. Dr Travis Bradberry has written a lot on this and his book is described as aiming to increase emotional intelligence by using emotional awareness creatively and to employ that intelligence in a beneficia way. Before him was Daniel Goleman’s work but the main thing is that this isn’t a movement that people keep banging the drum about that everybody should be doing including children. By virtue of ‘mindfulness’ being a noun it implies a state to be achieved which will usually require some kind of instructor or meditation learning to explain this might concept. Much more preferable is finding out that you can improve your relationships, knowledge about yourself and others and your work by understanding your own and then others emotions.

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David Cain February 13, 2017 at 9:24 am

Mindfulness is actually quite straightforward, but a couple of factors make it seem esoteric. Its eastern origin conflates it with foreign rituals and symbols. Its adoption by the woo-woo new age community conflates it with all kinds of wishy washy concepts like “spiritual healing” and purity. It’s also particularly difficult to relate in verbal terms, because it happens inside the subjective experience, so its resistant to analogy and diagrams, etc.

As you say, the word itself also causes confusion — sometimes it refers to the practice, sometimes it refers to the specific quality of mind being cultivated, and other times it just refers to the idea of paying more attention in life generally.

I don’t know much about emotional intelligence but from what I know about it, mindfulness helps improve the same values — self-knowledge, empathy, compassion and an awareness of the internal experience of others. We don’t need to choose one over the other.

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Barbara February 13, 2017 at 5:09 am

This is a great piece which deserves to be very widely shared as it gets to the hub of the ‘mindfulness’ problem as presented in the press. “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.” How true is this.

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David Cain February 13, 2017 at 9:25 am

Thanks Barbara.

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Hette February 13, 2017 at 6:00 am

Thank you for this. It was a relief to read this and realize I was not the only one feeling bad (judgment….!) about my ability to keep my mind on what I was doing right now…

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David Cain February 13, 2017 at 9:28 am

The mind is extremely fickle and we really need to understand that before we apply too much effort to mindfulness, or else it will seem impossible pretty quickly. I don’t think we advocates of mindfulness have done a great job at emphasizing that vital point.

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Ryan February 13, 2017 at 8:01 am

Beautifully and compellingly written, as always. A good reminder to keep expectations in check. (Reality minus expectations equals contentment?)

And keep your options open. Don’t rule out the mayonnaise just yet!

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David Cain February 13, 2017 at 9:29 am

I’m experimenting with some prototypes

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Linda February 13, 2017 at 8:15 am

Thanks David, great post and a good reminder that a failed mindfulness attempt is ok!

Would be interested in your thoughts on the research the author of that article referred to –

“Although some of the studies did show that mindfulness meditation or other similar exercises might bring some small benefits to people in comparison with doing nothing, when they are compared with pretty much any general relaxation technique at all … they perform no better, and in many cases, worse.”

I have looked at a few studies and also read a few skeptical books on meditation where they found people just lying on a coach being still delivers similar benefits to meditation.

I kind of see it as – it doesn’t matter which relaxation technique you choose, as long as you do *something* and do it often. Either that or a lot of the above activities naturally tend to put a person into a mindful state, which is naturally very hard to control for in a scientific experiment!

Might have answered my own question there, but would be interested in your thoughts on this :)

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David Cain February 13, 2017 at 9:47 am

The science around meditation is in its infancy, and the demonstrable proof of its benefit often gets overstated. Of course, a book skeptical of meditation will select for studies that understate its demonstrable value.

Science is slow and careful, as it should be. I mean, we still get highly conflicting studies on nutrition, after more than fifty years of study.

Mindfulness is essentially the practice of empirically investigating your own experience, and you can learn things about your mind this way beyond a reasonable doubt. If you want to wait for science to corroborate anecdotal claims before you investigate it yourself, you might be waiting a few decades. But to any experienced practitioner, the claim that it might actually be valueless is silly.

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randy hendrix February 13, 2017 at 8:21 am

Great post and perfect timing as usual as I have strayed somewhat. Therefore, I do find myself a little stressed, weary and needy, like you said. Ready for CAMP CALM IV!

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David Cain February 13, 2017 at 9:47 am

Looking forward to it!

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Tonya February 13, 2017 at 8:36 am

It took me a long time to get settled into meditation because I too because so frustrated at not being able to turn off my thoughts. I felt like I was somehow missing the boat. But then I read 10% happier and that brought me so much practicality to meditating. Now just the simple act of taking 10 minutes to sit quietly, even if I have a million thoughts, is a step in the right direction. And I have found my reaction time to things has slowed down. The same thing I imagine will happen as I attempt to be more mindful. It’s not the destination, but the journey…even if it makes me only 10%, or heck even 1% “better.’

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David Cain February 13, 2017 at 9:51 am

10% Happier is an important book because the writer is a skeptic, which makes meditation accessible to people who don’t immediately buy the concept. So many books on meditation are written by monks and western, monastically trained teachers who take for granted that the value of the practice is obvious, and seem to have forgotten what it’s like to be an ordinary, untrained person trying to stay with the breath.

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Mark February 13, 2017 at 11:26 am

You hit THAT nail on the head.

(Great piece.)

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Tonya February 14, 2017 at 9:07 am

Exactly!!! It brings meditation to the everyday person with a busy life, job, kids, etc.!

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KaZ Akers February 13, 2017 at 8:53 am

This is a really great post! Try being a master meditation instructor and a Qigong instructor and people expecting you to be completely mindful and totally Zen all the time. I’m not a Monk or a nun, I live in the real world. I have real world stresses. I do seem to navigate them quite well in general but sometimes I’m passionate or angry or stressed or exhausted. I do my best to prevent any projection or to be triggered. And I vacillate between staying a bit insular and not interacting too much outside the classroom AND loving people and being around them. I’ve been studying for 26 years and teaching for 23; sometimes it’s so overwhelming with all the messages and teachers and gurus telling you to mindfully do everything! Maybe if I was living in an ashram or was able to commit myself 24/7 to it all I might be more enveloped in being completely mindful all the time. Oh come on, who am I trying to kid? For me, being perfect is exhausting and totally not necessary. There’s nothing wrong with being flawed or imperfect. As matter fact, I believe that’s what makes us individuals. Thank you, I’m really enjoying your posts. Keep up the great work!

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David Cain February 13, 2017 at 9:59 am

Thanks Kaz. I think there’s a big divide between the needs of western students and the traditional eastern methods of teaching and speaking about the practices. Translated books by eastern monks (and western monks emulating them) often present ideas in absolute, dogmatic tones. Looking at Mindfulness in Plain English (a relatively accessible book on vipassana) you see commands like “Don’t cling to anything and don’t reject anything” without any sympathy for the beginner that might not know how to do that or might find that difficult (or impossible). I think it’s a big part of mindfulness’s image problem.

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Mrs. Picky Pincher February 13, 2017 at 8:54 am

Ahahaha! I mean, it’s a good point that escapism is sometimes helpful, especially when doing something you hate. I think the issue stems from people mindlessly living *all day*, which results in a lack of fulfillment.

The key to mindfulness is determining when you should be mindful. For me, that’s driving. I HATE driving, but when I concentrate on driving mindfully (ie. not speeding or freaking out when I get cut off), I arrive at my destination more calmly.

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David Cain February 13, 2017 at 10:04 am

Yes, escapism is helpful, in fact it’s a pillar of Western life, and that’s often ignored in traditional presentations of mindfulness. Ironically, it’s almost impossible for a westerner to learn what mindfulness is if they’re trying to be mindful all the time.

On a meditation retreat (which is based on traditional monastic living) you’re supposed to try to be mindful of everything you do all day, including going to the bathroom. But even westerners that go on retreat don’t want to live that way all the time. I am a big advocate for making practices of small parts of your day, and maintaining a modest daily meditation practice. But if I wanted to be a monk I’d be a monk.

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Kate Brassington February 13, 2017 at 9:14 am

Thanks for this! Excellent points made.

I would add that another reason people get frustrated and annoyed with meditation is that they’re told that mindfulness leads to increased happiness. Which is actually very true in my experience, the more mindful I can be through out my day, and including (especially) during the more mundane or uncomfortable moments, the more happy I am with my life and myself in general. But what people don’t understand, I think, is that mindfulness leading to more happiness is not the same as mindfulness being fun or enjoyable or comfortable all the time. If you think you can just breathe in and out the smell of your dish water and lean in to the raw feeling of your hands in the too-hot water and you’ll all of a sudden feel amazing, you’re mistaken and also missing the point.
Mindfulness to me means experiencing what is happening, even if it’s discomfort or boredom or irritation or whatever, just as it is. And like you said, without judgment. So during those less fun experiences, no, mindfulness is not going to feel the same as what we usually consider “happiness.” And for the mindfulness to do what it does, you have to let that be enough, and let it go.
But then wouldn’t you know, the happiness does come. In my experience, the more I can be present and awake and lucid during those tedious, unpleasant or even painful experiences, the more happy I feel overall. My guess as to why that is is that you can’t really, fully hide from the unpleasant aspects of life. And that maybe when we distract ourselves from them or try to numb them, they just get saved up and bubble out later, or result in an underlying tension or uneasiness. I suspect that when you let those experiences be their miserable selves in the moment, you have more space later on to fully feel the good stuff, without the weight of those harder times dragging through it. I don’t know.
In any case, I do think mindfulness leads to happiness. But also that a misunderstanding of HOW and WHEN it leads to happiness might be another source of disappointment for some.
Anyway, thanks again!

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David Cain February 13, 2017 at 10:15 am

Great post Kate, you nailed it. Especially this:

But what people don’t understand, I think, is that mindfulness leading to more happiness is not the same as mindfulness being fun or enjoyable or comfortable all the time

Mindfulness is a kind of work. Mindfulness practice doesn’t make you feel a particular way, and in fact the point is to let yourself experience exactly the feelings that are already here. But a continued application of this work does reliably generate more experiences of peace and equanimity. They might not (but they might) happen while you’re doing the practice, even if the practice is mindful dishwashing, or mindful eating for that matter.

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DiscoveredJoys February 13, 2017 at 9:17 am

I’ve often wondered if there might not be a third missing element. Even if you account for elements 1 and 2, what if there are a small proportion of people who cannot do mindfulness (or any of the other suggestions for improving… whatever)?

Some people can’t do arithmetic beyond fractions. Some people can’t carry a tune. Some people only think in pictures, not words. Some people can never pass their driving test.

Of course it’s quite possible to confuse those that can’t with those that won’t.

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David Cain February 13, 2017 at 10:20 am

That’s a good question. I doubt it, except maybe in cases of certain cognitive disabilities. Children can learn mindfulness. It’s ultimately a matter of noticing your experience in greater detail and learning some of its nuances.

I think your last line says it all. How many times have you heard people say “I just can’t do math!” It really only means they don’t know how.

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Arthur Guerrero February 13, 2017 at 9:56 am

This seems like an issue if you’re thinking in black/ white.

If you don’t like washing dishes, then don’t be mindful of it. Think of the NBA game your going to watch, or the friend you’re going to text after your done.

I don’t see it as a big deal to decide not to be mindful with certain tasks.

Good post though David.

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David Cain February 13, 2017 at 10:23 am

Mindfulness isn’t being proposed as way of enhancing activities you enjoy. The value of mindfulness is greatest when you start to experiment with applying it to experiences you resist or avoid. It’s a way of unraveling the mental reactions that make it unpleasant/difficult in the first place.

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Primal Prosperity February 13, 2017 at 10:25 am

Great article. For me, mindfulness in a hectic life was just too hard, but that is really the point of why it is so widespread… and difficult… and, as you pointed out, annoying to many. :)

What I have found is to be mindful is to just do less. Work less, clean less, even create less. Making less goals, and having less to-do items, but focus on being more impactful. Basically, less busyness. I use this phrase often: “Don’t confuse activity with accomplishment.”

I love to just sit and think and ponder without even taking notes on my thoughts. That is definitely mindfulness, but not what someone might consider meditation. But I wasn’t able to achieve that during my full time work days. I’m much more creative these days because of this. Additionally, as hunter-gatherers, I don’t think we did our 2-3 hours a day of hunting, gathering and building and then said ‘whew’, I need to meditate. I think those things required a tremendous amount f mindfulness and then they could spend time playing with their children, creating, telling stories, making music, dancing, inventing, etc… In these modern times though, we spend too much time sitting in cars and cubicles, just thinking about what else we would rather be doing, and then we usually have only 2-3 hours left in a day to do the things we love. We have it flipped from the true ‘affluent’ societies. That is a big problem right there, and that is definitely where programs like your meditation course and mindfulness practice can help in the short term while that person can figure out how to slow down in the long term.

Anyway, I’m not sure exactly what your meditation course involves, but if you don’t have something about active meditation, you might consider adding that. For a lot of people, sitting quietly just doesn’t get us motivated. I love to run/walk and not have any music, podcasts, books on “tape”, etc…. no logging miles, no ‘fitbit’… I like to just use that time to unplug and think, enjoy the quiet, look at the scenery, etc… without any requirement to be ‘productive’ in a modern sense.

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David Cain February 13, 2017 at 12:57 pm

Thanks PP. I do support the call for more idleness and pondering, and less busyness and entertainment. But I think it only confuses matters to call these changes “mindfulness”.

Mindfulness refers to something much more specific than just slowing down at life, and I think to avoid confusion we should only use it to refer to the nonjudgmental kind of attention I’m referring to in this post, and the practice of cultivating that kind of attention. Mindfulness is only difficult and annoying to the extent that it is misunderstood.

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TheHappyPhilosopher February 13, 2017 at 10:35 am

Wonderful article David!

I agree that meditation and mindfulness have been misunderstood by many as they have come into the mainstream. “Forcing” oneself to be mindful is actually quite the opposite, and I think that is what people who do not understand.

For me mindfulness is not addition, but subtraction. It is not “going to something”, it is simply “being”. We are so used to immediate success and results, but acceptance of failure, pain and discomfort is the essence.

I love your use of the word “gentleness”. You can’t force mindfulness, you have to embrace it.

Mindfulness is such a super power, I don’t know how I functioned before I embraced it. I guess in some ways I didn’t function.

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David Cain February 13, 2017 at 1:04 pm

The crux of most misinterpretations, I think, is coming to mindfulness with the idea that you are trying to change your experience into something more peaceful, stable, wholesome in some way. But as you know, the state-altering effects of mindfulness don’t happen on command, and in fact your success in the practice hinges on your success in allowing your present experience to be exactly what it is.

I refer to this as the paradox of mindfulness — we come to mindfulness to become more peaceful, more compassionate, less miserable, but those changes are achieved through a practice of letting go of the urge to alter the present.

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Richard Boys February 13, 2017 at 11:00 am

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

― Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
Thanks for this article David. I have gotten off the track and this helps me refocus my efforts with a proper mindset. I appreciate your many posts.

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David Cain February 13, 2017 at 1:06 pm

Best of luck with the practice.

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Joshua February 13, 2017 at 12:26 pm

Hi David,

Great article, yet again. Thanks for sharing it. I love how you’ve broken down some of the misconceptions simply by providing more information on what mindfulness can be to those who practice it correctly (and frequently).

One thing that I’ve found helps with the entire concept of mindfulness is to USE the internal dialogue that a lot of people fight in order to stay with the present moment from an almost third-person perspective. Think of it as a “play-by-play” or narration of your life.

This dawned on me a bit more clearly as I was talking to a nurse with a passion for child development about my son. This is actually an exercise that parents are encouraged to use with their children to facilitate language learning – narrate everything you do with your child. It’s also a great practice, internally, to stay with the present moment.

ie. “I’m walking down the hallway, there’s some light coming in from the windows. There’s a creaky floorboard.” Even when I’m exercising, now, I think to myself “I could improve range of motion in my left hip.” Or “that set pushed me nearly to failure.”

I can’t say whether I’m practicing correctly or not, but when practiced this way it gives you opportunities to be non-judgmental, present, and still point out areas for improvement without being critical.

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David Cain February 13, 2017 at 1:17 pm

Yes, I think that is another huge point. The chattering mind is often characterized as an enemy we need to quiet or shoo away. But this just makes you nuts.

On retreat, after long periods of meditation, when the mind has really really settled, you can sometimes hear this internal voice with extreme clarity. It becomes clear that this voice is not you, it’s just a sort of mental “fountain” of verbal reflexes that is best thought of as a source of ideas to consider, not a source of reliable information about the world.

Anyway, trying to cap off this fountain is a recipe for frustration, but I think a lot of new meditators come to the practice thinking they have to do that in order to succeed, or even begin. And it’s impossible.

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Omar Sattaur February 13, 2017 at 12:45 pm

Well said and a great critique of the Ms Whippman’s article. I would add that it’s very useful to notice my reactions to doing mundane chores. As you say, trying not to judge is an important aspect of mindfulness. Acceptance is too. Sometimes I WILL be reacting hugely to the discomfort I feel, whether it is about dishwashing, your new President or the fact that I can’t run in the hills like I used to. I will be hating these things because I’m human and can’t help this at times. Noticing that hating is important. It helps me to feel connected with my fellow travellers and, indeed, in the longer term increases the likelihood that this occurs spontaneously in my life, when I am not purposely trying to be mindful. Secondly, it is in my experience not only mundane chores or unpleasant tasks that attract this type of response from me. There are times that I can recall when I have simply been totally unaware of a delightful compliment paid me (until pointed out later by a companion) or completely oblivious to the delicious food I am shovelling mindlessly down my throat. The pleasant too escapes my attention. Mindfulness helps me to enjoy what is there, albeit shortlived, and to be aware of my reactions, my disliking, which does not alter the reality that chores have to be done at some stage for my longer term wellbeing.

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David Cain February 13, 2017 at 1:25 pm

Yes, yotally… it’s much more useful to notice that initial shove of aversion or attraction than it is to try to suppress it. In fact, just being aware of it creates a kind of slack in the line, where it loses its power to upset you, even in the case of something unpleasant.

In Buddhism the make a big deal out of recognizing something they call vedana which is that initial sensation of pleasantness or unpleasantness of a present-moment experience. Even become a little more aware of that event (which happens a thousand times a day) can make us much less reactive and moody.

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Jim February 13, 2017 at 12:53 pm

Nice post. I (jokingly) also blame Tolle. I think that guy IS mindful all-the- time. Even though he espouses practicing for just a single mindful breath, his appearance of always being in a mindful state makes one want to just give up.

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David Cain February 13, 2017 at 1:33 pm

Even if you are joking, I think you’re right. I’ve been meaning to write an article on the “Eckhart Tolle” effect for a long time. I loved his books but there is at least one big problem with them: he did not arrive at his state of perpetual mindfulness through practice. The way he describes it, he just woke up that way one morning after passing out from intense despair. I don’t doubt his story, but it means he can’t really tell anyone else how to get to where he’s at. He does a great job at describing the dysfunction of conventional thinking and clinging, and what it’s like to have left that behind, but he can’t tell you much about what it’s like to recondition yourself through daily practice. So he’s inadvertently convinced a lot of people that they should be able to will themselves into a mindful life, or just think about it in the right way, without any sort of practice. Soon, they give up on the project because they’re not much further along a few years later.

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Jim February 13, 2017 at 5:47 pm

Ha. That will be a great article.
When you put it that way, it kind of reminds me of sports coaches. The best coaches are said to be those that were mediocre, and trained themselves to be very good. The “naturals” are typically terrible coaches. Larry Bird comes to mind. When explaining how he knew to pass to a teammate who was 20 feet away, directly behind him, “I just knew he was there.” Separately, even if Michael Jordan gave you great advice, after watching him dunk, your practice would be disheartening.

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Hamlet February 13, 2017 at 6:29 pm

Tolle was asked about “mindfulness” during one of those Oprah “A New Earth” webcasts, and his answer was hilarious. I don’t remember it verbatim, but he said that “mindfulness” is o.k., but he objects to that literal term because “mind-FULL” is really the opposite of what he teaches, which is presence, which is more like a mind empty (of egoic thoughts). Thus, “mindfulness” is paradoxical terminology, and may be counterproductive. The brain may be tricked into keeping the mind FULL.

And don’t forget the Zen master who, after passing on the Buddha’s teachings, told his disciples to “Kill the Buddha!” Any insightful wisdom teaching is in danger of fossilizing into a
rigid doctrine that is no longer alive but just mere words. When it gets to that point, it’s time to do something else, like prayer, self-hypnosis, etc.

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Jim February 13, 2017 at 6:42 pm

Thanks for the reminder. I just re-listened to one of these episodes. In retrospect, Tolle’s sustained performance throughout that series is pretty amazing.

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Tspora February 13, 2017 at 2:43 pm

The many great comments and explanations on this post indicate that mindfulness is a subject not easily understood or easily misunderstood. If something that is supposed to help you in life can be so confusing in terms of what it actually is i.e. its basic essence and practice is not explainable in a nutshell then I think it is only likely to be helpful to some people who ‘get it’ and by virtue of that feel rather special. Einstein did say “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” And also “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” I have yet to find a simple explanation of mindfulness that would help me to understand what it is! Please could somebody put it in a nutshell for me?!

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David Cain February 13, 2017 at 4:58 pm

Hmm, there is doubt that Einstein said “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

In any case I don’t agree, because not everything lends itself to explanation, or can even be understood through explanations. Nobody can explain what a strawberry tastes like, but you can certainly know what it tastes like. Language is a real limiting factor in conveying understanding, particularly when it comes to mental activity.

Explaining mindfulness in the simplest possible terms is quickly becoming a personal quest of mine, and I’m still learning what explanations and analogies seem to hit the mark for people.

Here’s a stab at putting it in a nutshell:

Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to present-moment experience in which you are consciously allowing the present moment to unfold exactly as its unfolding. This takes practice.

By doing this, we retrain our minds to be less reactive, which makes us less afraid of the future, less prone to rumination and the stress it generates, more inclined towards compassion, less needy for entertainment and gratification, more grateful for our experiences and more content with ordinary moments, among other benefits.

But even if I gave you a perfect explanation, it couldn’t convey the experience of being mindful, the nuances involved, or the real value of it. I can describe this stuff all day long but really “getting it” requires spending some time trying the practices. This isn’t unique to mindfulness — “getting” horseback riding cannot be done without spending some time on a horse, no matter how well it’s explained to you.

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Katia February 13, 2017 at 3:48 pm

A well-written, compelling discourse. Thank you, David. It often seems to be that in today’s western society, which tends to appropriate eastern practices and make them chic, mindfulness has become a ubiquitous buzz word. The perception of mindfulness as esoteric is often unavoidable. In my work, I prefer to focus on mindfulness in bite-size pieces. Rather than calling the practice mindfulness and allowing myself to get lost in the ever-evolving and -complicated definition of the term, I prefer to remind myself and my clients to remain curious and honest about what is happening in this moment. I ask, Am I thinking? What is the quality of my thoughts? Are my thoughts focused or spaced out? Do I feel calm and relaxed, or on edge? Do I feel tired, or comfortably awake? Ultimately, I believe that mindfulness also is complementary to acceptance. Once we learn to accept that our natural state is changeable, we begin to understand why we practise mindfulness.

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David Cain February 13, 2017 at 5:04 pm

We do need a word to refer to what we’re referring to here, and mindfulness is the best candidate, otherwise we’d have to start again with a new word. I don’t think the word is hopelessly mixed up with new age buzzwords and there’s no reason to avoid using it.

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Rocky February 13, 2017 at 6:35 pm

Great article.

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David Cain February 14, 2017 at 8:51 am
Vineet February 13, 2017 at 7:12 pm

Let me coin a term here, “conscious unmindfulness”. It means allowing the mind to drift away while being fully conscious of the event. This is my hack to whenever mindfulness becomes too overbearing like when I am doing a long stretch on the treadmill or when I am stuck in traffic. This way I try to maintain at least a semblance of control without hating mindfulness.

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David Cain February 14, 2017 at 8:53 am

I think it’s best not to worry about shifting into or out of different modes throughout the day. There would be no reason to be annoyed by mindfulness if we didn’t think we ought to be able to be mindful throughout an entire commute or visit to the gym. We need to let ourselves operate normally, with no internal pressure to “be” a certain way, most of the time.

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Abhijeet Kumar February 14, 2017 at 1:06 am

When I was learning mindfulness, trying to interpret the definition and the instructions, would create some degree of confusion, in particular am I doing this right?

Typically we learn by self evaluation and self criticism. So at first I approached mindfulness just like that. Then somewhere along the way, just out of curiosity, I wondered what happens if I really pay attention to water running out of the tap. This was outside of the yearning to meditate or be mindful. This was just curiosity about what actually happens when I pay attention to water coming out of the tap. Something brilliant happened in that moment that I could slowly extend to noticing sounds every now and then, to being able to grasp thoughts (almost like a mother holding her child). Unfortunately, there are no words to describe what I did or how I did it. It is similar to learning to swim or riding a bike.

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David Cain February 14, 2017 at 8:58 am

Curiosity really is the key to learning to appreciate the difference between forced attention and mindfulness. Once you start asking yourself “What is this actually like?”, you want to apply that curiosity to everything: running tap water, putting on gloves, heat from an element, anger, frustration… by default we’re preoccupied with what to do about our experiences rather than what they’re actually like. Curiosity takes you a long way!

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Charlie Klonowski February 14, 2017 at 10:40 pm

Perhaps ‘the moment’ is less a calm-infusing marinade that a conscious mind must sit in to find contentment, and more a mental kettle bell for strengthening its ability to willfully tap into the cerebral area so desired.
I don’t police my thoughts into the moment as an end of itself. I police them as training. So I’m prepared, when the riots of cognitive dissonance break out, to mobilize my thoughts for effective resolution.

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David Cain February 15, 2017 at 10:31 am

I’m little confused by the language here, but I think I get the gist.

Thought policing isn’t a good description of mindfulness, as the point is only to notice what does arise in a somewhat systematic way. I think people confuse it a lot with “positive thinking”. In Buddhism they do talk a lot about cultivating wholesome thoughts and uprooting unwholesome ones, but policing is a bad verb even for that — it’s more like watering the crop and not the weeds.

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Charlie Klonowski February 19, 2017 at 2:56 pm

No. You’re right. ‘Policing’ evokes images of stern, authoritative command delivered with threat of force. Not coherent with mindfulness.
With one more moment of your attention though, I’d clarify that perhaps people mistakenly idolize the moment as a wellspring of calmness. Perhaps that’s why dirty dishes seem a confronting disappointment?

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Mike Harris February 16, 2017 at 10:44 am

“I have not yet released a mayonnaise.”

Of course not. If you were going to do a condiment, it’d have to be Raptitude Relish.

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Michelle To February 21, 2017 at 9:19 pm

I wonder if the “annoyance” people are feeling is actually more of a reaction to what is associated with mindfulness, ie. resentment towards an elite group that is viewed as knowing it all, or with people who are too cool or viewed as out of touch with real problems. I’m really interested in secular buddhism and I don’t personally feel annoyed by mindfulness but can see how it can take on new meaning and acquire negative connotations with how it has been popularized.

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