Meditation Lead, Ella Sherr, shares her frustrations surrounding the ‘mindfulness movement’ narrative and what it misunderstands about this powerful yet beautifully simple practice.
Mindfulness is having a moment.
In an age where we’re busier than ever, more bombarded with information overload than ever, and more distractable than ever, more and more of us are turning to the practice. However, as mindfulness meanders deeper into the mainstream, with ‘Keep Calm and Stay Mindful’ becoming the new ‘Keep Calm and Carry On,’ I find myself drawn to muse upon the misrepresentations that seem to surround it.
Non-doing has nothing to do with being indolent or passive. Quite the contrary. It takes great courage and energy to cultivate non-doing both in stillness and in activity.
Jon Kabat Zinn
Do I Need a Bath?
I recently saw a TV advert showing scenes of a candlelit, petal-filled bath and offering the musing that: “Sometimes, your mind is just too full for mindfulness.” This misrepresented messaging got my goat, suggesting that, because our minds and lives are so busy, we don’t have time for mindfulness.
The advert lacked an understanding that busier minds might benefit most from the practice and reinforced the misguided assumption that mindfulness requires time, stillness, effort, and space. And a lavender-filled bath.
While I agree that modern lives are busy (not a bad thing) and busy minds are hard to quiet (not the goal of mindfulness), being mindful can actually help us cope with busy minds and busy lives.
Much of our time is spent doing and thinking about doing. Our mind-chatter keeps us concerned with the future, contemplating lists of to-dos as we flitter from task to task. And it keeps us concerned with our pasts as we repeatedly skim through mental lists of ‘dones,’ ‘dids,’ and ‘shouldn’t have dones.’ All this mental doing and time-travelling create tension and anxiety that we often don’t notice, making our physical doing more stressful. The fretting mental energy of bouncing between past and future carries us through our days and prevents us from really being present in our nows.
Mindfulness brings our attention back to the present and alleviates some of that mental fidgeting. It doesn’t ask us to stop being busy or to take time out of that busyness to run a bath. It simply invites us to bring our most precious gift, our attention, back to whatever busyness or stillness we’re in so we don’t get so easily lost in it or too overly consumed by what’s been and gone or what’s yet to come. Instead, we practise being with what is in the now; mindfulness reminds us to find stillness amid the busyness and brings a sense of peaceful being to our busy doing.
Mindfulness or Mindlessness?
Mindfulness is … being aware of the present world and noticing everything… in the conscious world … Mindlessness is the state of being lost in… past thoughts and always following the same routines and ignoring the present world.
The day after I saw this advert, I read an article attesting that mindlessness is better for stress than mindfulness, saying, “Our obsession with mindfulness is only stressing us out,” and that we should “reject cultural snobbery and embrace the mindless.” Although I also enjoy engaging in the odd mindless activity, I don’t agree that we should be promoting mindlessness as a better coping tool for stress.
While we don’t have to be mindful all the time, finding mindful awareness in so-called mindless activities – such as commuting, cleaning, or cooking – can make us appreciate them more. The practice isn’t something extra that needs to be done but a way to be while doing what we’re doing.
It can join us in our busy lives, keeping us present in meetings and musings alike, while walking or washing the dishes, so we get less easily lost in drifting, daydreaming, and autopilot. It can even join us while we do nothing but be, whether that nothing is being done on the sofa or in that lavender-loaded bath we finally found time to take.
As we become more present during our experiences, our perception of them shifts. The boring and repetitive reveal deeply-buried aspects of bliss; we start to find joy and appreciation where we once found a chore. If we take time to look out the window and smell the lemony suds, the perspective of doing the dishes shifts from one of ‘this is a pain in the neck’ to one packed with pleasure and presence.
For mindfulness, we need to have nothing but what we already have and to do nothing but what we’re doing. This simple perspective shift elevates how we do and how we be. With mindful awareness, we fundamentally change how we experience our lives. It doesn’t change what happens in them or what we do, but we see and feel things differently, creating ripple effects on how we behave and interact. It’s all about perspective.
Mindlessness itself can undergo a perspective shift if we let it. Instead of us being annoyed with ourselves for forgetting to be mindful, that recognition of being ‘lost' can start to be seen as a gift – a reminder to return to presence. Recognising mindlessness is the perfect training ground for awareness, so we can welcome both for the gift they are.
Be Busy, and Be There
There is only one time that is important – NOW! … because it is the only time when we have any power.
Being mindful during busyness (mental or physical) can actually offer us a lifeline and change how we cope with it, so we might not need that bath after all. Mindfulness isn’t taking time out of life to do nothing. As John Kabat Zinn, ‘the godfather of modern mindfulness,’ says, being mindful “has nothing to do with being indolent or passive.” While formal meditation can ask us to sit in stillness, mindfulness and informal meditation don’t.
Meditation is, in a sense, the training ground for mindfulness in daily life. By practising being present with our experience, observing what shows up without reaction, attachment, or a desire to change it, we work out our mindful awareness muscles and become better at applying this outlook to our lives. So, when mental chatter sweeps us away, mindfulness asks us to expand our awareness and observe our thoughts from the position of an onlooker, so we don’t get so tied up in their web and feel so stressed out by them. Instead, it encourages us to focus on an anchor present in the now to ground and stabilise us, for example, our breath.
So, when uncontrollable happenings start playing out around us – the weather, an angry boss, a traffic jam, an argument – we begin to be more present with how we respond, rather than mindlessly reacting. We observe what’s happening without judging it or becoming lost in it and start witnessing our experiences from a more peaceful, anchored, and aware position of presence.
No Bath Required
Mindfulness meditation doesn’t change life. Life remains as fragile and unpredictable as ever. Meditation changes the heart’s capacity to accept life as it is.
Mindfulness doesn’t stop life from being busy, messy, and full of ups and downs, but through practice, we’re better equipped to handle those peaks and troughs without being thrown off-kilter. We start to accept the now as it is and soon start noticing solutions within obstacles and blessings within the bland.
The transformation won’t happen overnight, so be kind and patient with yourself and take the practice slowly. Find a guide who you can gel with and let them help you practise bit by bit. You need nothing but what you already have, and there’s still no bubble bath required.
And if moments of mindlessness feel like what you need, accept that and roll with it. Be where you are – don’t judge a lapse of attention. But remember, recognising that lapse might start to trigger a sense of mindful awareness that could help you find the moment of space you need.
To start your step-by-step journey to mindful presence, try our guided meditation app for busy lives that are always on: Moments of Space. Download here.