This may seem like a strange topic for a Blog about mindfulness, however there is an increasing and worrying trend for pop mindfulness products to sell themselves on this tide of false positivity and false promises. Today, the Autumn Equinox, I hope to bring some balance to the area.
When we start to practice mindfulness or meditation we often find ourselves suddenly surrounded by Facebook posts, self-help books, memes and all sorts of other information gravitating towards us which is filled with positivity:
This moment is perfect
Things are just as they are meant to be
Life is wonderful voyage of discovery
And other such sayings (usually taken out of context of their original teaching) as well as affirmations such as ‘I accept wholeheartedly whatever happens in each moment’.
But what about when this moment is truly awful? Or horrendously difficult?
I have been holding something very difficult recently and the other day I was sent a photo and message on Facebook by an automatically generated ‘mindfulness’ page which the algorithm seems to have decided I want to receive content from. The message was ‘Whatever you are worrying about today won’t matter in a year’s time.’
This is true of many of the things we worry about on a daily basis. We worry unnecessarily about little things which are often inconsequential, and we also sometimes worry about bigger things which are still less important than the things which really matter to us when we stop and think about what gives meaning to our lives.
There is a reason for this, and it is due to the way our human brains have evolved to allow us to evaluate our actions and behaviours to make sure that we are still acceptable to, and fitting in with, the group we need to belong to. This is part of our survival mechanism, so it is no wonder that it takes on a huge significance. Surviving in our social group is as important as finding food, shelter, and a mate. In fact, our ancestors had no chance of finding food, shelter or a mate without belonging to a group. Mindfulness practice helps us to reperceive some of our worries and put them into a realistic context – sorting out what needs our attention from what is just habitual worry with little basis in reality.
However, it is not always true that what we are dealing with now will have disappeared in a year – if only it were! The problem with this kind of attitude is that it negates and denies the pain and suffering we all experience at times in our lives. Watching a loved one struggle with a long term or incurable illness. Supporting a dear parent through dementia or a difficult aging process. Living with depression or addiction. Surviving abuse. The list goes on. As Steven Hickman says, “At times, life simply sucks, it hurts, and it’s no good, no matter how you look at it or try to frame it.”
So, does it matter if we try to ignore the difficulty and try to be positive?
In a word: Yes.
First, we are engaging in ‘emotional bypassing’ – negating our real emotions and pretending things are different from reality. We are invalidating our emotions and our experiences.
Second, we are buying into what has become known as ‘toxic positivity’ – the idea that we have to remain positive and cheerful at all times, especially if we practice mindfulness or meditation. It is toxic because it is harmful to ourselves and those around us. If we can’t allow ourselves to admit to what we are feeling, not only does this prevent us from managing those feelings well, but we implicitly deny others around us from voicing their true feelings as well.
Third, this leads to guilt and shame. When we repress difficult feelings it is as if we are saying that there is something wrong with us for having those feelings. We ‘should’ be immune to human emotions, shouldn’t we? We ‘should’ be able to stop those anxious or worrying thoughts, shouldn’t we?
The truth is that these thoughts and feelings are all here for a reason. It is part of being human and our mindfulness practice needs to be a support to us when things get difficult, not another stick to beat ourselves with over our apparent ‘failings’.
Can we find positivity even in dark times?
Hopefully! In fact all meditation and spiritual disciplines teach us to ‘look for the light in the darkness’. We are taught to keep returning to the present moment and find something sustaining, something we can appreciate, however small. These are the things than support us when life gets tough without us having to pretend. Acknowledge the difficulty, as Kristen Neff says, recognise ‘this is hard, this is heavy to carry’ and then look around the difficulty for what else is here.
We don’t want to dwell on difficulty to the exclusion of all else
In ACT we talk about the hand in front of the face. When we place a hand before the eyes that is all we can see, but when we move the hand further away, we can see the whole room and the hand is a small part of that. In the same way we can acknowledge the thought that is before us, and then place it into a bigger context where is becomes just one of many experiences.
I recently came across a Hindu teaching that we must celebrate whenever we can. Even in the midst of sorrow and darkness, if the opportunity comes along to celebrate even for a short time, we must take that opportunity.
Islam teaches ‘leave tomorrow’s battle for tomorrow’ – a reminder that even when we can’t avoid the trials that await us, we can still find respite. There is no point bringing the difficulty towards us any sooner than necessary.
Christianity & Judaism teach that there is ‘a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance’. This teaching from Ecclesiastes is part of a much longer text which reminds us of all the aspects of human experiences without judgement, ‘there is a time for everything’.
And Buddhism, in which many secular forms of mindfulness have their roots, is a philosophy founded on the recognition of human suffering and how to acknowledge and alleviate this where possible. There is nowhere in Buddhist teaching that instructs us to ignore our suffering and plaster on a serene smile of pretence. That would be the opposite of authenticity.
So next time you see a social media meme, or a book title or a mindfulness postcard which fills you with a sense of failure because you just don’t feel that way in that moment, remember that this is not a failing. You are a human being and life can be difficult at times. And then reach for a practice that will sustain you, share your difficulty with others in your meditation group if you belong to one, and make use of the wealth of support out there to get through the difficulty as best you can.