“Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place.”
It can be tempting to come to mindfulness training and hope for lots of techniques to help us handle specific situations. What’s the right method for dealing with a parent or child, or for making the right career move, or for managing depression? Of course, there are ways to approach these situations artfully, but in mindfulness training, we focus first on becoming familiar with the workings of our internal processes, seeing parts and patterns with a precise, open eye. Through this process of quiet observation, we can notice what leads to well-being and what doesn’t.
It may seem like we’re not doing very much when we practice, but plenty can change in the stillness. We’re performing a kind of internal alchemy. Over time, mindfulness training can open us up to a radical transformation in perspective, leading in turn to a new way of being in the world. If we train ourselves to work with the mind and body, really getting to know how they function best, we can bring this learning to every circumstance, without needing a new set of instructions each time.
Scientific studies suggest that mindfulness can help in a wide range of circumstances, such as reducing the risk of relapse among people prone to depression, helping professionals maintain attention and performance in the face of demanding workloads, and protecting caregivers from burnout and empathy drain. There have been positive results from studies involving people experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia, asthma, fibromyalgia, tinnitus, and loneliness, among many other situations.
Rather than trying to achieve a prescribed set of outcomes, mindfulness training helps us understand and work with the human experience as it is in the moment.
But in each of these instances, changes seem to come as a by-product of people learning foundational practices and attitudes, and applying what they learn to their lives. This appears to be the best way to approach the training, for as soon as we try to make mindfulness solve a particular problem, or fit a certain set of circumstances, we’ve already moved away from the present moment and into focusing on future results. A problem-solving approach is sometimes counterproductive, as it can create and highlight a stressful mismatch between our current circumstance and our desired goals. Rather than trying to achieve a prescribed set of outcomes, mindfulness training helps us understand and work with the human experience as it is in the moment. If we can do that, aren’t we likely to manage things better anyway?
This doesn’t mean that action won’t happen. With space to breathe, we may find skilful activity comes, but perhaps without our having to strain. Without having to make great plans or push for major changes, a path toward happiness and wisdom can be walked. In time, mindfulness practice does tend to lead a particular way of living, based on awareness and compassion for self and others. But mindful ethics come not from an ideological or moral standpoint, but from the understanding that how we live affects our state of mind and body, and our relationships with those around us. We all benefit from awareness and compassion.
By tuning in to the nature and effects of our thinking, feeling and acting, and cultivating the steadfastness and space to refrain from unskilful deeds and open to wiser choices, we’re freed up to notice what leads to a happy life, and given the tools to create it. Science seems to be showing that happiness is nurtured by actions such as taking physical exercise, committing to ongoing learning, fostering strong social connections, and practising kindness and generosity.
By experimenting with these approaches mindfully, and noticing what happens, we can test them in the laboratory of life. Does how we look after our bodies and minds affect well-being? Do we and others feel and respond better when we’re kind? When we’re living, working and communicating from a compassionate perspective, does this lead to better circumstances? Does it help in our relationships? By approaching suggestions for ethical living as invitations to be explored, rather than rules to be obeyed, we allow ourselves to tune in to and respond from a deep sense of purpose, rather than the internal slave-driver who tries to govern with ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’. As well as freeing us from the tyranny of self-judgement, in which we’re blamed and shamed into an imposed view of right and wrong, this gentler approach offers a greater chance of fulfilling our aspirations, because it is learned and tested in our own embodied experience.