What is the Point of Mindfulness?
Why should you take advice from a meditation teacher who doesn’t meditate?
Only 22% of people who take a course in mindfulness meditation are still meditating just two months after completing the course. Obviously, something is wrong with the way meditation is being taught, or the expectations teachers are setting for the practice, or the results achieved by each meditator.
The response from many in the mindfulness community would be that you’re not supposed to focus on a result when meditating. You’re supposed to reach some state of nonjudgmental awareness. But most teachers call meditation a practice, and most students expect that when we practice something we’re supposed to be practicing for something: Some outcome, some change, some goal.
People come to mindfulness with the expectation of improving their lives. I don’t think many who practice are meeting that expectation. Perhaps the reason is the focus on “just being present” that so many in the mindfulness community adhere to. I don’t think that’s enough.
The first section of my book, Practicing Mental Illness: Meditation, Movement and Meaningful Work to Manage Challenging Moods, is about meditation, including detailed instructions on how to meditate. Yet in some way the entire book is about meditation practices aimed at the goal of focused attention, but focused attention with a point. The point is to develop the capability to predict, prevent and manage episodes of anxiety, depression and mania. I believe this skill is best learned, at least at first, through meditation.
However, I don’t think meditation practice has to be reduced to seated meditation, focusing on the breath. While this is a good practice to learn the basics of meditation, other practices in focused attention, such as exercise and deep work, can yield the same benefits as seated meditation. Still, seated meditation is the practice most mindfulness classes focus on. I think, for focused attention to truly be beneficial, to truly meet the goals I establish for practice, you have to go way beyond sitting on a cushion and well into your daily lives.
Most mindfulness teachers would object that this is exactly what they do – teach students to live each moment mindfully. But they still focus on nonjudgement. I think life, especially a life in which one lives with a mental illness, needs to be, and is, full of judgement. Judgements about behavior, choices and therapies. Judgments about values. Judgments about right and wrong. We make decisions all day, and many of them deeply affect our mental health. Meditation should not teach relativism or reduce every thought and action to an abstraction. Meditation should teach us to make better judgments, not avoid them.
Also, with too heavy a focus on seated practice and nonjudgment, mindfulness becomes something that you do for twenty minutes a day, and then you get up and get on with the rest of your life. This point of view is not what many mindfulness teachers intend. But it is the way many students come to see practice.
Instead, a meditator can bring the skill of focused attention, the skill they can learn through meditation, to other activities and all their thoughts, and discover the physical and emotional signs that signal imminent mood swings. Then they can act to address and approach that mood swing with decisions that can minimize, or even prevent, its negative effects.
If you’ve tried meditation and were disappointed in the results, or if you just don’t see the point of sitting there doing nothing, please reconsider the idea of practice and your experience with it. There are many ways to develop focused attention, and many reasons to bring more focused attention into your life. You can find such practice in your work and anytime you move or exercise, as well as in more formal, typical meditation practice.
What do I mean when I say I’m a meditation teacher who doesn’t meditate? Well, I don’t practice the way many learn in most mindfulness classes anymore. But in fact, I’m practicing all day, every day.
I used such practice a few weeks ago to avoid a troubling, potentially dangerous, mixed episode. I used it yesterday to sit outside amidst budding trees and singing birds and truly enjoy it without the need to reach for my phone. I’ll use it today to do my best work, and tonight to pray. It’s OK to expect something from practice, and I hope that at least you will try a practice. You should expect better mental health, but it takes work to get there. Work like that found in practices in focused attention. With this work you can predict, prevent and manage mood swings. Please give it a try.
You can learn many practices to help manage challenging moods in my book Practicing Mental Illness. Please purchase a copy here.