On days when things are going really badly, it feels as if nothing you’d looked forward to is panning out and new problems keep emerging from around the corner. You didn’t plan on missing the bus, and then the strap on your backpack broke, and just then your sister called to say she had some worrisome test results. And right about then, a friend tells you to “Just relax!”
How annoying is that?
Relaxation is distinctly not something you can just command yourself to do. It needs to come over you and perhaps, ultimately, to overcome you. That’s one of the reasons so many of us grow to appreciate mindfulness practice. It sneaks up on stress from the side. It lulls us into letting go of obsessively grasping for a permanent security blanket. But we’re not instructed to “just relax.” We’re instructed to pay attention to something that can’t help but be in the present: the breath, the body, sensations. Paradoxically, as our attention and focus increase, our excess stress decreases. We become, for a time at least, a well-tuned instrument.
Paradoxically, as our attention and focus increase, our excess stress decreases. We become, for a time at least, a well-tuned instrument.
We all crave—and need—this relief so much that it’s tempting to stop there. Mindfulness practice relaxed us (maybe even better than sleep), end of story. This notion persists in the popular media: The point of meditation is to escape to your own private bliss-island, to get away from it all.
But that would be a waste of all that relaxation.
The point of the relaxation is not to get away from it all; it’s to get into it all. Mindfulness doesn’t end at relaxation. It begins there. The relaxation gives you just enough stability to see what’s happening in your mind and to gently inquire, investigate. What you see may start to upset you, but you have a chance to see patterns form in your mind and to detect firsthand the formation and continuation of habits that drive your actions.
It can be tough stuff, so at that point, you just notice it and come back to the anchor in your practice, such as your breath. Encountering what’s lurking in your mind—the good, the bad, and the ugly—may inspire you to develop more relaxation, so you can go diving and exploring again and see more.
That’s why mindfulness is a practice for mental health…for everyone’s mental health, which is the motivation behind the work of the Centre for Mindfulness Studies, in Toronto (full disclosure: I serve on the board of directors). Among its many offerings, the Centre trains mental health professionals in mindfulness so they can first reduce their own stress, then help their clients with mindfulness- based skills to resiliently work with the mental challenges of their daily lives. The Centre’s community work, carried out in partnership with social service agencies, has a peer-to-peer component, whereby the clients themselves draw on their own lived experience and personal mindfulness skills to help other clients develop resilience and self-care. This practice of sharing can lessen the need for one-on-one therapy.
It’s a great example of how far mindfulness can go when we don’t stop at relief, but instead move on to real insight and habit change.
This article appeared in the February 2018 issue of Mindful magazine.