Don't torture yourself in the name of mindfulness

In a recent op-ed titled “Actually, Let’s Not Be in the Moment,” Ruth Whippman took mindfulness to task. She told a great story about how mindfully washing the dishes added to the pressures of modern life rather than taking them away. I can relate. When I started meditating, it seemed like yet another thing I had to. Another criterion I’d be judged by. But today, when I’m making multiple critical decisions with my patients in the emergency department, I reap the benefit of the time I spent working through those doubts, making the journey from mindfulness to the meditative state.

Maintaining attention on the activity you are engaging in (washing dishes, to use Whippman’s example) is a training exercise for the mind, much like push-ups are a training exercise for your muscles. Just as blasting through as many push-ups as you can without stretching or prior preparation can result in frustration and pain, so can this form of mindfulness. You may well have experienced new levels of frustration if you tried to stay mindful during the recent presidential campaign.

If, however, the mind is prepared for that kind of training, there is a benefit to be gained from a prolonged period of single-minded focus. Namely, you will distinctly sense a resting awareness in you that is aware of the focusing mind. You will sense this awareness as an essential aspect of you, distinct from mind and body.

This awareness isn’t an abstraction or a fantasy - it’s a real experience. It is also a one-of-a-kind experience in that it doesn’t fluctuate with time or circumstance. The mind fluctuates - happy to sad, peace to agitation, past to present to future - but this awareness doesn’t. The more you give attention to this awareness, the more it saturates you. The result isn’t just happiness, which is a specific experience, but rather an unshakeable ease that remains even when happiness goes on vacation. And it’s there even at 3:53am when the ninth ambulance has just arrived in the ER and you’re pulled out of a room to see a new patient who’s blue in the face and barely breathing.

Here’s where Whippman trips up: Her interpretation of the philosophical consensus “the key to contentment lies in living fully mentally in the present” is a misunderstanding. That’s because the present or now that so-called spiritual practices refer to is not the present that the mind occupies, which is merely a stopover between the past and future. The true present is not a mental state. It is a state of awareness independent of and prior to the activity of the mind. It is a timeless, meditative state,  beyond mindfulness, and beyond past, present, and future.

As a philosophy, this knowledge can be interesting but ultimately not satisfying by itself. Satisfaction is delivered with the practical experience of it, an equally rewarding experience for everyone.

So how do we get there?

If mindfulness practice feels like a frustrating chore try blowing off steam through physical activity. Go for a walk, lift some weights, do some stretching. Physical activity helps to release excess mental energy. In today’s world, there are so many rules, do’s and don’ts, and items on our daily checklist that asking the mind to do yet another activity, can be too much - especially one as subtle as bringing itself back to the present moment.

Another approach is to spend some time allowing your mind to roam wild. Turn it loose. This isn’t the same as daydreaming. When you daydream, you are caught up in the daydream. In this case, you are consciously making the choice to turn your mind loose. The more it’s been suppressed, the longer it will be out to pasture. Rest assured, it will eventually return home and you will discover a new sense of effortless calmness.

These exercises will prepare the mind for a mindfulness practice, if that’s what you choose. You can also return to them intermittently to change things up as your practice progresses. Meditation and mindfulness are techniques that yield benefits in proportion to their proper use. If they are used improperly, including to put others down or demonstrate superiority, they will accordingly yield poor results. Similarly, if they are seen as a panacea for all problems and used in isolation, they will yield suboptimal results. 

Ultimately, the benefit of meditation must be recognized in the improvement of one’s own quality of life and the ability to improve the lives of others. A meditative mind is capable of acting more efficiently in the world. These times demand we use the alertness, equanimity, and insight of the meditative mind to address problems in the real world. Action without meditation is inefficient. Meditation without action is incomplete.

Whippman’s final paragraph says it best. I’ll paraphrase: Rather than struggling, simply be grateful. It’s a shortcut to wellbeing.

Anoop Kumar is an emergency physician in the Washington DC metro area. He helps people translate wellbeing into daily life. He is the creator of How to Experience The Three Bodies - A Meditative Journey to Wellbeing and author of Anoop Kumar, MD, MM is an emergency physician in the Washington, DC metro area. He is the author of Michelangelo's Medicine: How redefining the human body will transform health and healthcare.