The Examined Life
Getting results from mindfulness...and letting go of them
Barely a week goes by without some new clinical trial showing how programs which teach mindfulness can help people minimize suffering and enhance their well-being. Whether it be through reducing stress, managing illness, boosting the immune system or moving away from addictive habits, science is confirming what meditators have reported for thousands of years—that mindfulness is beneficial in a wide range of ways. At the same time, it's important not to get carried away by all the data, sucked into viewing meditation as a quick-fix solution.
To fall into this goal-oriented mindset is to fundamentally misunderstand what meditation is, and how it helps. Indeed, expecting meditation to “make me better,” perhaps based on the results of clinical studies, may well sabotage the practice, whose benefit comes partly from letting go of the tendency to grasp for results.
In the UK, psychologists have positioned mindfulness within the cognitive-behavioral tradition, and there are similarities—like CBT, mindfulness offers a practical set of skills that can help people relate more effectively to their thoughts and feelings. But whereas CBT is primarily a change-focused approach, mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy show us how to let go of struggling for change. Their magic lies in enabling us making peace with who and where we are, right now, in this moment.
This attitude draws on ideas and practices that have several thousand years of history and tradition behind them, and which have usually been advocated as part of a system of meditative training designed to facilitate a deep transformation in the way we experience ourselves, others and the world. A fundamental premise of this training is that we are already basically OK—we don't need to “try” to get better, we just need to learn how to uncover and be who we really are. Curiously, adopting this attitude of deep and radical acceptance often seems to produce some of the change we were seeking. So, there's a paradox: mindfulness can change us, and can lead to effective change, but while this takes effort, it doesn't come from striving. Indeed, striving can actually be a form of self-aggression, which just creates more misery.
Mindfulness practice, then, is not so much a tool for self-improvement, but more a way of relating to our lives in a spirit of awareness, openness and kindness. Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, recently said that “mindfulness is not a technique. It is a way of being, a way of seeing, a way of knowing.” It nurtures a process of unfolding, of allowing things to settle, so that that well-being might emerge from coming into flow with how things are, even when that isn't how we'd like them to be. It's true that this kind of awareness can be the ground for more skillful decision-making and behavior—but when we can let go of the tension created by struggling to be better or healthier, the need for our problems to have a 'cure'—even if one were possible—no longer seems quite so relevant. And at that point we might start to feel a whole lot better.