When is a door not a door?
First published February 2020
When is a door not a door? When it’s ajar of course! Most of us like an occasional pun, or play on words (some cleverer than others) but what if the joke is really on us?
In this blog I want to explore some of the pitfalls of mindfulness and meditation that you may not have come across as you scroll through the seemingly endless supply of body scans, guided meditations and the ever growing plethora of mindful activities we are encouraged to engage in.
So, when is mindfulness not mindfulness?
The short answer is that anything can be a mindful activity if it is practiced mindfully. In fact, that whole point of learning the practice is to bring mindfulness to every activity we engage in. We don’t learn to meditate so that we get really good at sitting in silence on our own whilst the world carries on around us, lost in a little bubble of bliss as others get on with carrying the burden of solving life’s problems.
Neither do we practice meditation in order to escape from our reality, our troubling thoughts, doubts, fears and insecurities. That’s what we are doing the rest of the time; whilst we distract ourselves with TV, food, sex, alcohol, shopping etc. (not that any of these are necessarily bad for us per se, in fact they generally add to the enjoyment of life when we are in the correct frame of mind). Anyone who meditates regularly will tell you that there is no escape from the self when you sit and focus on this breath, or this body part, or this thought, sound, sensation and so on.
For most people, meditation practice, whichever kind you choose, is a tool we learn to use in order to have a better relationship with ourselves (troubling thoughts, doubts, fears etc. included) enabling us to have a better relationship with others, and with life itself – to live each moment in as much awareness as possible so that we can truly experience life. After all, if that isn’t our aim, what is it we are in such a rush to get to?
Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and scholar, said, ‘If you miss the present moment, you miss your appointment with life…and that is very serious indeed.’
So what joke is being played on us?
The irony of the recent surge in interest in mindfulness is that as writers such as Purser (2019, McMindfulness) and Doren (2018, Mindfulness is just Buddhism sold to you by neoliberals, article in The Independent Newspaper) have pointed out: mindfulness is being sold to us as another commodity. It is propping up the consumer-based society which is the potential cause of much of our suffering. Not only are we bombarded with messages playing into our negative-bias, encouraging us to believe that there is something ‘wrong’ with us that can be fixed if we just buy the new car, house, dress, phone or whatever; but now we have to be frantically colouring in, or knitting, or following an app on the new phone, or redecorating the house in more Zenlike tones, in order to be happy. And, of course, it’s all readily available to buy.
So am I against this kind of mindfulness? Not at all. I encourage mindful colouring, mindful creative pastimes and mindful movement. I recommend Insight Timer to practically everyone I meet. I subscribe to Mindful magazine and several online podcasts. I read other teachers’ blogs, books and articles. So when is a door not a door? I guess technically the answer is ‘never’, but there are more or less useful doors. A solid door which is locked and the key lost is not really fulfilling its function as a door. Neither is one hanging off its hinges.
For anything to be useful it needs to be doing what it was designed to do. Mindfulness, in its modern, western, secular sense, was designed to allow us to pay ‘attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.’ (Jon Kabat Zinn, 2009. Wherever You Go, There You Are’). We can do that whilst we are colouring: noticing shapes, colours, thoughts, reactions and responses, just as we can do this when we are cleaning the toilet, going for a walk, eating, washing, dressing, listening to a loved one and really noticing what they are saying. All of these can be mindful activities, and all of these can be mindless activities: eating on the go, checking facebook whilst our child or partner tells us about their day, walking to get somewhere but not noticing the journey or how we are feeling when we arrive. Anything can be done mindfully or mindlessly; it is our choice.
How does this fit with silent meditation? Well we all need to find our own way of practicing. My suggestion would be to start by attending a course or following one in a book which includes the exercises on a CD or MP3 download (see ‘Resources’ at the end of this blog) and go from there. Ongoing classes or online groups help to sustain the practice after the course has finished and this provides the stable structure from which our informal, or daily, mindfulness develops. Then the fun begins, this is when we can explore what is out there with a mindful attitude and make our choices out of conscious awareness, rather than unconscious reactivity. The same reaction we get to the shampoo advert which reminds us of a cruel comment made to us at school decades ago so we are driven to rush out and buy the product, can also cause us to rush out and buy mindful bath salts. If we sit in the bath worrying about whether the salts are working to cure us of whatever is ‘wrong’ with us, we have maybe missed the point. There is a big debate at the moment around practicing mindfulness ethically and it is worth being aware of this so that we are not ‘mis-sold’ mindfulness and given a shabbier, poorer version.
Whichever way you choose to practice, may it bring you a more fulfilling relationship with life, in every moment.
Mindfulness practice for the next month:
As we begin the Christian period of Lent, many of us start to think about giving things up. Well, if you haven’t already got an idea maybe I can suggest one. Try fasting from judgement, of yourselves and others, and try being kind instead. In particular, be kind to yourself. Try sacrificing some time away from the phone, the TV, social media or other potentially negative distractions, and use that time in self-care. Give yourself some time to just be you as you are in that moment. Make friends with yourself (corny, I know, but it works). We cannot effectively care for others if we ourselves are running on empty, so self-care is a very giving activity.
Try sitting for a few moments and just ask yourself, ‘what prevents me from feeling nurtured?’ When you have an answer, see if you can find a way to give yourself whatever it is that you need.
If you can make time for any of the following, I would thoroughly recommend these (many are available as audio books):
Books with full courses
Burch, V., & Penman, D. (2013). Mindfulness for Health: A practical guide to relieving pain, reducing stress and restoring wellbeing. Hachette UK.
Collard, P. (2014). The Little Book of Mindfulness: 10 minutes a day to less stress, more peace. Hachette UK.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living, revised edition: how to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation. Hachette UK.
Segal, Z. V., Williams, M. & Teasdale, J. (2018). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression. Guilford Publications.
Wax, R. (2016). A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled. Penguin UK.
Autobiography on using mindfulness for living well with chronic illness
Sawatsky, J. (2019). The Healing and Love Collection: Dancing with Elephants, A More Healing Way, Healing Justice. Red Canoe Press. In particular ‘Dancing with Elephants’.
Scientific Explanations behind the Mechanisms at work
Siegel, R. D. (2014). The science of mindfulness: A research-based path to well-being. Great Courses.