Mindfulness is Not a Panacea

Ruth Whippman’s article in The New York Times Sunday Review, “Actually, Let’s Not Be in the Moment,” on mindfulness as “opiate of the masses,” is a thoughtful piece on the tsunami of mindfulness in Western culture. As a practitioner and teacher of this modality for those who suffer from mental disorders I have worked with thousands of individuals—both training professionals to deliver mindfulness to clients and offering it as a service to those in need.

Whippman’s article is part of an expected and welcome backlash on an ancient practice intended to assist people in the reduction of suffering. This work, of course, has been secularized and scientificized, therefore making it culturally congruent and palatable for this time and place. Where the uptake has been most striking and for which there is the most evidence is in the area of mental health.

Mindfulness is not a panacea, and its adoption in schools, the workplace, over the sink, while rinsing Spaghetti-Os, or engaged in the drudgery of a mind numbing job far outweighs the evidence for its efficacy and effectiveness. There is, as Whippman points out, the risk here, of blaming the individual for his or her own misery, making it possible for both government and corporate America to do more of the same, that is, meeting their own agendas, creating a society where inequities between rich and poor and the middle class are widening. The system need not change if all blame for any problem is offloaded onto the individual. There is no question that life in the world is stressful. We live in extreme times. These require both individual and collective responses.

Being in the present moment does not mean negating the past or future. This is how humans learn, create, evaluate, and  problem solve. This is how we develop a sense of self. Without experiencing the here and now, we would be mindless idiots, unable to navigate the world. We would have become extinct long ago. The absorption of mindfulness into Western culture is resulting in its dilution and misconceptions about what it can and cannot do. Mindfulness is complex, requiring the balancing of many paradoxes. It is also a practice to be used both formally and informally. There are times to turn toward the boring, the difficult, and the mundane. There are times when it is more helpful to fantasize about a future or being somewhere else more pleasant. True mindfulness is about intention and discernment. It is not simply about being in the present moment. It is about knowing when to deal with difficulty and when we need to look after ourselves perhaps by deliberately engaging in avoidance. When we intentionally choose to fantasize about a desired future or about being somewhere else more pleasant than where we are, this too can be a moment of mindfulness.

True mindfulness is about intention and discernment. It is not simply about being in the present moment. It is about knowing when to deal with difficulty and when we need to look after ourselves perhaps by deliberately engaging in avoidance. When we intentionally choose to fantasize about a desired future or about being somewhere else more pleasant than where we are, this too can be a moment of mindfulness.

I have often thought that mindfulness, at its best, is akin to living in one of Mary Oliver’s poems where one is both in one’s life, appreciating the full range of experience, but not drowning in it. Mindfulness involves acceptance, but this does not mean lying down and taking whatever is being offered whether it is an illness, oppression, an abusive relationship, a crappy job, or racist slurs. It means being willing to accept what is showing up and then deciding what, if anything, needs to be done about it.

As Whippman points out, why would we want to enter into “self-improvement hell”? There is enough of that already. We will never get rid of our thoughts (past, present, or future) and this really is not the point. Rather, we are trying to develop the facility to see more clearly what is happening in our lives, discerning what is a more compassionate way to live. Mindfulness is about awareness and then deciding what to do next.

Mindful Dishwashing, Revisited

So next time you are doing the dishes try this practice:

1) If you have a dishwasher make the intentional decision about whether or not to use it.
2) If you wash by hand or load the dishwasher, take a moment to pay attention to what you are doing using the sense of sight and touch. Get to fully know those sensations and the dishes in all their glory.
3) Check in with the experience, judging (yes! — or if you prefer, evaluating) whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
4) Now, decide, does your reaction or action in which you are engaged need addressing? Would it be better to stop washing, continue, or change your attitude? If the latter, does this mean finding another way to be with washing the dishes in terms of preference or does it mean putting on some dance music and throwing the plates at the wall? Maybe it means finding a dishwashing buddy? Could it mean fantasizing that you are in a hot tub experiencing the warm water on your hands? Of course you can always reduce your dishes or eat off biodegradable plates or napkins.

Whippman is raising serious issues regarding the spread of mindfulness into our lives. It is important that it is used for what it was designed for: A means to wake up to our lives and truly get to know what it is to be human.

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