Starting out, almost everyone reports feeling incredibly uncomfortable. My first mindfulness class involved deep breathing, and thoughts like “this sucks,” “is this what Zen is supposed to look like?” My lower back was sore and I was generally restless. The relief, came from finishing the class.
But I persevered.
This is a common misconception that meditation or mindfulness involves halting the mind of all thoughts, but this is not the case. Essentially, you are training your mind to be an observer of your thoughts, like a birds eye view of what your thoughts are. Or, as the analogy goes, your thoughts are on a stream like leaves, and you don’t pick them up or necessarily ‘do’ anything with them, but watch them come and go. When we perceive thoughts and feelings as visitors, we develop the discernment as to whether to act on them, rather than reacting to them.
The core components of mindfulness, include watching the breath, non-judgement, and allowing your thoughts to just ‘be.’ One of my mentors disliked all the mindfulness jargon and when asked for a definition simply stated “mindfulness is.”
This seemingly simple practice is counterintuitive to the way we lead our lives: multitasking, running around and doing many things at once: eating breakfast, scrolling through your phone, replying to text messages. We think about where we were and where we’re going, yet forget to be in this moment and risk missing the moments of our lives all-together.
Colloquially and simply put, we can consider depression as a focus on past circumstances, and anxiety as a projection of fear onto a future hypothetical situation. But a lot of the time the moment, the way things are, are ok. If we learn to sit with an emotion or thought that may be uncomfortable, we develop two skills: the first, is self-awareness, a knowingness of what the ‘story’ is that we’re replaying on our minds in a loop. My mentor discussed the capacity to go “oh that’s that story” rather than engaging in it and making it a larger part of her experience. The second is the capacity to choose where to go from here.
Consider mindfulness in a further treatment context. Mindfulness has been used as an intervention for chronic pain, which may sound counterintuitive to face potential pain rather than avoid it. The power of meditation is also being used with clients in interventions regarding substance abuse; if they are able to recognize the cravings, observe and watch them from a distance and sit with them rather than act on them, it is not difficult to see the benefit that may have in terms of ‘relapse prevention.’ This is a process of retraining the brain. That is, it is the quality of attention that we pay to our thoughts, which matter; we can’t run away from what is, but we can sit with the emotion, cognition, and gently notice what is going on. That space to just ‘be’ is something that we seldom allow ourselves. Cultivating acceptance, peace, and awareness are important facets of learning to be comfortable in our own presence and with ourselves, irrespective of whether there is a mental health diagnoses or not.
Meditation does not have the goal of making you feel good; in fact, sometimes the opposite is true as we sit and allow our autopilot thoughts to surface. In allowing that, we have the capacity to train ourselves to sit with uncomfortable emotions and thoughts; that is, the so called ‘benefits’ of mindfulness are relaxation and rest, but it is important to remember that these are byproducts rather than the ‘goal’ of mindfulness. There is no ‘goal,’ just that we allow ourselves to be in the moment.
In allowing mindfulness, we give ourselves the gift of just showing up as we are with what we’ve got in the moment we’re in.
Photography: Calvin Klein Campaign SS 1986 - Josie Borain, Carey Lowell by Bruce Weber
Words: Marianna Jaross
Marianna Jaross has a background in psychology, a masters in counseling and psychotherapy, and is currently training as a psychologist. She has qualificiations in mindfulness therapy, a dedicated practice, and a passion for sharing this with others.