Getting Mindful about Mindfulness

For anyone who has dabbled in mindfulness, you know that it can initially be an uncomfortable process. Like the feeling of an unpopped joint, you come to an awareness of how your whole body is holding a wide variety of pressures. Your mind holds too many thoughts and judgements about those thoughts; your shoulders feel bunched as if against a chill; even your eyes feel hazy with fatigue. A practice of mindfulness asks us to become conscious of all of these pressures and to sit with them; not to actively try to change or judge the things that are causing us discomfort, but to just be present to them.

Of course, the idea is that by developing a regular practice of mindfulness and becoming more present we will begin a process of moving towards alleviating discomfort. As Bessel Van Der Kolk describes in his classic book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, “Mindfulness puts us in touch with the transitory nature of our feelings and perceptions. When we pay focused attention to our bodily sensations, we can recognize the ebb and flow of our emotions and, with that, increase our control over them” (210). In other words, when we show up to our discomfort, we can begin to regain control over our response to it. Instead of shutting down, numbing, reacting in anger, or losing sight of the big picture, we learn to recognize what is happening in our bodies and minds which in turn allows us to be in tune enough to listen to what we need.

In this light, what could possibly be wrong with the idea of using mindfulness? When you start to dive into the criticism behind our society’s adaptation (appropriation) of this technique that has roots in Buddhism, you will find that there is a lot to be mindful about when talking about mindfulness. I’m not going to go into everything that is problematic, mostly because better thinkers and writers than I have already done so:

  1. How mindfulness is used as a way to place the burden of change back on those being oppressed. 
  2. How mindfulness is overly commercialized.
  3. How mindfulness has become less of a way of life, and more a pop psychology way of feeling better.
  4. How mindfulness has become a way for institutions to give lip service to caring for employees, but can really be a way of avoiding true healing.

These issues are vital to finding a healthy approach to mindfulness, and it is worth your time to read about each; but even in light of these issues, mindfulness remains situated as an important tool to reduce anxiety and stress in our society. So my question for consideration is why? I want to go beyond the typical spiel about breathing, grounding your body, and getting in touch with your inner emotions to relieve stress and ask what else is at the root of a practice of mindfulness? 

As I said at the beginning of this post, by default, when we are asked to be mindful, we are being asked to get in touch with things that hurt. I emphasized the physical hurt that can come with mindfulness, but as Van Der Kolk points out, there is a huge emotional element as well. As I considered the multifaceted nature and uses of mindfulness, a quote from a conversation Rev. angel Kyodo williams had with the host of the podcast Don’t Call Me Resilient came to me:

“You have to be peace with yourself in order to tolerate the suffering of the world. And I think if you can’t tolerate your own suffering – you can’t tolerate and have a deep and abiding relationship of self-compassion with your own suffering – then you become, as a result of that, under equipped to be able to really face the suffering of the world.”

For me, this quote gets at the heart of the deeper ‘why’ of mindfulness. A casual practice of mindfulness can provide some space to take a breath, but one of the top purposes of mindfulness is to develop a practice of holding pain and discomfort in a present and non-judgemental space. This is no superficial task; anyone who has been in any level of physical or emotional pain knows how difficult a practice of “tolerating” pain in a non-judgemental and present way is – especially when the pain isn’t something that is easily fixed. Taking this a step further, many of us probably know the hurt of being in the midst of that pain and being told to ‘get over it’, ‘it’ll pass’, ‘every cloud has a silver lining’, etc. 

It is actually this last part around how we treat the pain of others and how others treat our pain that is the real reason I want to ask ‘why’ around mindfulness. Something I have wrestled with for a while when it comes to using wellness methods of any kind is considering what I am asking of a person (and myself) and where they are at in being able to tap into wellness for the pain they are experiencing. There is nothing wrong per say with promoting and sharing practices of wellness, but I would argue that it has to be done from a position of empathy and with an understanding that wellness practices can only go so far if the very things causing the stress that needs a practice of wellness isn’t being fixed. This is why it can be so toxic for institutions or people in power to suggest those in pain use mindfulness to heal the pain that power is causing. When you are being told by an oppressive force to help yourself while the oppression continues unaddressed, it can create a sense of helplessness and further stress. 

So how do we hold the tension that exists in finding a healthy practice of mindfulness? One that acknowledges both the benefits of it in learning to cope with suffering and the harm that can come with suggesting it for pain that needs change from the outside? Though I don’t think the answer is straightforward, I don’t see this as a stale mate kind of issue. And ironically, I think that the solution is in the very question I posed – why are we asking people to use mindfulness? Is it because we truly think it will be able to create a practice of transforming pain into healing or because we would like there to be a quick fix to the pain we are witnessing and feeling? In other words, are we being mindful about mindfulness? The more we are able to see it as a practice of living a life of healing and less of a quick fix to stress that isn’t going to easily go away, the more we can tap into the true potential that lies within mindfulness. 

Works Cited

“How to deal with the pain of racism — and become a better advocate.” Don’t Call Me Resilient from The Conversation,10 February 2021.

Van Der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score. Penguin, 2015.