A mindful conundrum
An op-ed piece recently came out in the New York Times that took a critical look at the booming mindfulness craze. You might’ve noticed mindfulness is everywhere lately, touted as the next big thing (even though it is in fact, ancient). The piece skeptically highlights the appropriation of mindfulness toward improprietous ends such as financial gain, corporate productivity and the avoidance of pain altogether. (Haruki Murakami said, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”) The author briefly mentions the distinction between mindfulness and meditation and goes on to admonish some of the reported pitfalls of the pursuit of a mindfulness practice. While there is overlap between the two, the piece somewhat conflates mindfulness and meditation.
Mindfulness isn’t a thing you do to achieve material gain or even to feel better, although becoming more aware of yourself can be a growthful experience that does in fact make you feel better. While mindfulness can often come in the form of meditation, for many of us irregular meditators, it is also an ongoing practice not limited to a particular activity or time of day.
As a psychotherapist, mindfulness is something I practice with my clients in every session. Together we notice the thoughts and feelings that emerge, and the narratives that can limit us. Sometimes I share what I notice, too, in relation to my client’s experience. Mindfulness has roots in Buddhism, and this should be honored, but while those roots provided the springboard into western popular culture, mindful practices exist in other world religions and other traditions.
As the author of the Times piece acknowledges, meditation and mindfulness hold risks for some, especially people with a history of trauma. Yet almost anyone can benefit from a mindful practice. We can notice what sensations and thoughts pass by as we move through our day, and if we choose, we can also attune to our experience with more intention through the gentle focus of meditation.
It’s important that we’re thinking critically about appropriate and genuine of uses mindfulness—or any practice that finds its way to the evening news. But let’s not swing the pendulum too far in the other direction. Without mindfulness, we lose a useful tool to come to know about our feelings, thoughts and experiences. In fact, I would assert that if we’re not mindful, it’s hard to experience almost anything beyond various degrees of dissociation.
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Trusting the struggle
As we all do from time to time, I went through a rough patch a couple years ago. I was trying to find solutions to things I wasn’t sure could be solved. As I often do, I took a walk to clear my mind and reflect on my goals. By happenstance, I came across a small piece of graffiti on a park bench that read, “Trust Your Struggle.”*
‘Yeah!’ I thought. It was the perfect thing to encounter in that moment, and it felt like someone put it there just for me. I was excited but I wasn’t sure why. Even though I couldn’t figure out why I should trust my struggle, I was comforted by the thought that something about my struggle could be a part of a wiser process beyond my conscious mind. Apparently the author thought my struggle was inherently trustworthy. For months I continued to reflect on why I should trust a struggle, but I came up empty. Still, my comfort remained and I continued to visit the graffiti tag until one day, I came to find it painted over. The bench was green again.
My befuddlement continued without the tag, but my comfort did not waver. As I continued to contemplate what it meant to trust a struggle, two little gems emerged in the months that followed.
The first gem has to do with sticking points. Did you ever notice how you continue to bump into the same kinds of problems over and over, even in different circumstances, with different people? These are the sticking points that are unique to each one of us; struggles we have a hard time waking up to for various reasons. These are the struggles we continue to resist and deny. Maybe you get annoyed by the same things again and again in different relationships. Maybe you have a story about yourself that you will always be impoverished or left out. It can be hard to confront our responsibility in those experiences, whether that means developing greater patience and compassion for ourselves and others, finding fulfilling relationships, or seizing opportunities before they pass us by.
Trusting those struggles, or sticking points, means that we stay awake and committed to the growth required to move beyond the repetitive patterns that no longer suit us.
The second gem is implicit in the first, and it has to do with mindfulness. The only way we can grow from our struggles is to really be in them, to understand the way we show up and our real intentions. If you can stay with the struggle instead of abandoning yourself or distracting yourself with substances, consumerism, media, or any other way of numbing out, you will be able to grow in ways you’ve probably needed to all of your life. Being mindful with our struggles means we are working through the things we’re needing to grow from and within, the things our sticking points reveal. There is no possible way to do that without being in the epicenter of the struggle itself—mindful and awake.
The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center web site states: Mindful awareness can be defined as paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is. It is an excellent antidote to the stresses of modern times. It invites us to stop, breathe, observe, and connect with one’s inner experience. There are many ways to bring mindfulness into one’s life, such as meditation, yoga, art, or time in nature. Mindfulness can be trained systematically, and can be implemented in daily life, by people of any age, profession or background.
At some point I heard that “the only way out of your feelings is through them,”—mindfulness leads the way in. We trust our struggles because they reveal the very things we need to grow, the food for our emotional life force.
Trust your struggle, because it reveals something yet to come.
*During the process of writing this piece, I discovered that Trust Your Struggle is “an artist collective of visual artists, educators, and cultural workers dedicated to social justice and community activism through the medium of art.” I reached out to TYS through the email provided on the contact page in the hopes of obtaining a comment, but as of the publish date, did not hear back.