Mindfulness: Why isn't it working for me?
“Mindfulness” is the buzzword of today, popping up everywhere from news reports about its powerful effects to corporate de-stressing seminars and military training programs. This recent surge in popularity, fueled by a rapidly growing body of research showing the benefits of mindfulness, has inspired everyone from college students to new parents to business executives to adopt the ancient practice.
The recent proliferation of information on mindfulness—not all from reputable sources—may encourage some people to think that if they adopt the practice for a while, all of their problems will go away. But it doesn’t quite work like that. Mindfulness is not a medicine you can simply swallow, nor is it a “get better fast” program that provides a shortcut to wellbeing. It’s a practice, a way of seeing the world that takes patience, courage, and a light touch.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a simple awareness of what’s really going on, with no extra layers of judgment, doubt, or aversion. You can be mindful of your body, your thoughts, or the world around you.
Try this: sit comfortably, close your eyes, and take a couple of deep breaths. Then reach up and touch your finger to your nose—when you recognize that sensation, which happens automatically and without effort, you are mindful of it. This is different from getting wrapped up in feelings like “I am touching my nose” or “This feels silly” or “I’m not sure if I’m doing it right.” It’s just being aware of the bare sensation of touch. That’s mindfulness of body sensation.
Seems easy, right? It is—and it isn’t.
Our minds have a deep-rooted habit of evaluating information and forming quick opinions on these assessments—a good tool when trying to make healthy decisions and avoid unsafe situations, but not always useful in other circumstances. We can get stuck in this process or be too quick to trust our reactions, which can cause us to spin out with stress (e.g., “My coworkers stopped talking when I entered the room, and it made me nervous. They must have been saying something bad about me. I feel terrible.”). The nonjudgmental nature of mindfulness can illuminate these unhelpful patterns as the first step in making change. But the habit energy of the mind is strong—and inevitably we get swept up in our own thoughts and judgments over and over.
Why doesn’t mindfulness work for me?
The practice itself can be quite easy to misunderstand, especially if you don’t have a teacher to guide you. Common complaints include:
- My mind is too wild to tame.
- I still feel stressed out, which means that mindfulness isn’t working.
- I thought this was supposed to be easy.
Do you see a pattern here? Many people grow frustrated with mindfulness because they are still focusing on expectations, rather than simply seeing how things really are. These folks have misunderstood what mindfulness is and are instead mistaking their own deep-rooted beliefs as clear seeing.
Relying upon your own expectations to assess whether mindfulness is right for you can cause you to grow frustrated early on. While some studies show various benefits from a consistent mindfulness practice in only 8 weeks, this doesn’t mean that your problems immediately disappear. Mindfulness is not a magic pill, nor does it produce the same results in everyone. Some people may notice an enormous sense of peace when they sit; others may find that they struggle with constant distraction or their mind churning out story after story without rest.
But even if you are struggling, it’s not a problem. You can be mindful even in the midst of doubt and frustration. That gentle sensation you felt on the end of your nose earlier? You can also connect to moments of joy, peace, stress, and despair with the same light touch.
How can I tell if I’m really being mindful?
Let’s say you have to give a presentation at work. You’ve worked hard to prepare, but about ten minutes before it is supposed to start, you begin to grow nervous. There are a number of options for how you might react to this feeling.
Spinning out: “I’m feeling really nervous. What if I bomb this? What if everyone laughs at me? I don’t know why I volunteered to do this. Should I say I’m sick and leave? I need to get out of here.”
Spinning out, mistaken for mindfulness: “I had better practice mindfulness so this feeling will go away. Let’s see, I’ll pay attention to my thoughts. I’m nervous. I’m not feeling confident. Wait, why isn’t this going away? I thought mindfulness was supposed to help!”
Real mindfulness: You take a breath and notice the nervous feeling in your stomach, the pounding in your chest. Without getting caught up in judging yourself, you just notice how these things feel in your body. You don’t need them to go away, nor are you fueling them by worrying about what they mean. You simply see how it is now. After a moment, you may notice that the nervous feeling has calmed a bit. If that happens, you simply notice it and keep going.
How can I keep working with mindfulness?
The best way to practice mindfulness is to just practice. When you catch yourself making assumptions about how the practice might benefit you, just notice that expectation and let it dissolve.
And remember to keep it light—just like your finger touching the end of your nose. Having a sense of humor and self-compassion when you feel yourself struggling will help create the space you need to step back and let go. There’s no end to mindfulness—but you can begin again over and over.