Feb 15, 2016

A more serious commitment to mindfulness, and a relevant paradox

I've been a mindfulness dilettante for quite a while now. I've read a few books about buddhism (some very straightforward, others impossibly cryptic), visited a few mindfulness practitioners, and occasionally (and inconsistently) meditated on my own. I haven't noticed any long-term benefit from these efforts. I think I've been approaching the entire enterprise incorrectly.

There's a lot of judgment in that last paragraph. I'm not interested in correcting that judgment here, so I'll just note it and move past.

Recently, I've decided to make a more serious commitment to mindfulness practice. I'm intending this to be different from previous efforts in two ways: (1) rather than just practicing when I feel like it, I'd like to pre-commit to a regular practice, then do it whether I feel like it or not; (2) instead of constantly assessing whether this activity is worth my while, I'd like to reserve judgment and just do the practice, then revisit after a time to think about what I've gotten out of it and whether to continue.

My recent commitment has two components. Each Sunday evening I go to a meditation class, where we sit mindfully for 30-40 minutes. And each Tuesday evening, I go to a mindfulness-based-stress-reduction (MBSR) class, which takes up the whole evening.

As a supplement to the MBSR course, I've been reading Full Catastrophe Living, a primer written by the creator of the MBSR method (fun intersection: his son leads the meditation class I'm going to).

There is a paradox inherent in mindfulness practice. People want to use the practice as a means towards some other purpose – to become less stressed, or more at peace, or less bothered by pain, or more effective at their work. Yet the practice emphasizes "non-striving" and can only be approached as an end-in-itself. So how does that work?

Full Catastrophe Living has some good discussion about this (p. 93-94):

In framing the work of meditation in this way, we are putting [MBSR students] in a paradoxical situation. They have come to the clinic hopeful of having something positive happen, yet they are instructed to practice without trying to get anywhere. Instead, we encourage them to try to be fully where they already are, with acceptance. In addition, we suggest they suspend judgment as best they can for the eight weeks that they are in the program and decide only at the end whether it was a worthwhile undertaking or not.

Why do we take this approach? Creating this paradoxical situation invites people to explore non-striving and self-acceptance as ways of being. It gives them permission to start from scratch, to tap a new way of seeing and feeling without holding up standards of success and failure based on a habitual and limited way of seeing their problems and their expectations about what they should be feeling. We practice the meditation in this way because the effort to try to "get somewhere" is so often the wrong kind of effort for catalyzing change or growth or healing, coming as it usually does from a rejection of present-moment reality without having a full awareness and understanding of that reality.

A desire for things to be other than the way they actually are is simply wishful thinking. It is not a very effective way of bringing about real change. At the first signs of what you think is "failure," when you see that you are not "getting anywhere" or have not gotten where you thought you should be, you are likely to get discouraged or feel overwhelmed , lose hope, blame external forces, and give up. Therefore no real change ever happens.

This paradox is my biggest concern about making a serious commitment to mindfulness. I am a very striving, impatient person. I worry that as these qualities lessen, my drive to accomplish things will diminish as well. And that would be a shame – I like feeling driven, and I like accomplishing things!

The counterargument here is that there are ways of being which induce drive but not stress. I am skeptical of this hypothesis, but I am withholding judgment and trying it out. Which is a surprisingly hard thing to do.

[rereads: 1, edits: phrasing tweaks, not in love with the title]