Mindfulness has become the new buzzword, the miracle cure, the quick fix, the panacea that we have all been waiting for. Or has it? The idea that you participate in an eight-week course, and your struggles with anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and chronic pain, amongst other ills that afflict us vulnerable human beings, are banished once and for all, is naive. In some ways it’s understandable, we have inherited a medical model where one is diagnosed, given a prescription, takes a pill, and hopefully the problems all go away. If only! It’s no wonder that after a period of media rapture about the virtues of mindfulness, we are currently experiencing a critical backlash. Mindfulness practice is not a metaphorical head ache pill.
We want everything quick, and we want it now. You only have to look at advertising for broadband speeds or promised travel times to know that we have become an impatient people. I overheard someone recently exclaim with horror, on an underground platform, ‘3 minutes!’ until the train arrives. Three whole minutes of sitting, with presumably nothing to do, but sit with oneself… what an opportunity, or not, as the case may be. On average, internet users will wait 10 seconds max for a page to load, and then they are gone. God knows what this is all doing to our nervous systems. At the same time we know that anything worth having takes time, remember the adage, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’. Think of a good wine, or cheese, they are aged, matured, over time, and so it is with learning to live mindfully, our practice improves with age.
The eight-week course is a great package that includes many of the life-long skills, that you will need for your onward journey. However, the journey does not end in week eight. Just as a newly planted seed requires continuous tending and watering to grow strong and healthy, so does our practice. Initially, the kind of maintenance required can be difficult. We experience resistance, doubt, lethargy, restlessness, we crave for other pleasures. We find it difficult to sit still and pay attention to our experience. I like Yoga teacher Erich Schiffmans’ analogy for developing a motivation for practice. He describes how as a child, his parents had to force him to brush his teeth, he didn’t see the point. As an adult however, he knew what not brushing his teeth felt like and he didn’t like it. It is the same with our practice, initially we resist, then after some time we notice that missing the practice doesn’t feel right, the day just doesn’t unfold with the same quality of clarity and focus. I know this to be true in my own experience, and I hear it from people who practice regularly. This is a great motivator!
Regular and consistent practice is so beneficial. Our body/minds are ‘clearing houses’ for everything that happens in a day, week, year or years. We need a regular time and space to release some of the accumulated tensions, and make contact with how we are. I heard one meditation teacher describe this as ‘mental flossing’. Through sitting with, and getting to know our body/minds, we develop a greater command of our physical, mental and emotional capacities. Instead of squandering our energy in endless rumination and distraction we can begin to channel our resources into cultivating a more fulfilling, healthy and satisfying way of life. We can rise to the occasion of this life, just as it it, with courage and energy. Our practice won’t eliminate the challenges of life, but it will support us in meeting life with greater dignity and balance. This takes commitment, commitment to a path of practice that offers incremental changes over the course of a life time, ‘real’ changes that endure.
In order to fulfil the commitment, we need to assess our priorities. As we endeavour to practice we may notice that we have the deeply ingrained habit of giving the most time, energy and commitment to things that don’t ultimately serve us, or bring lasting satisfaction. This can leave us feeling internally bankrupt. In contrast, many people who attend MBSR courses, or sustain a regular practice, report feeling in touch with something of great value in themselves and their lives. Post eight-week course, we don’t want to let all the good work we have done wither away, we need to nourish and sustain our practice. The monthly groups, the Deepening Mindfulness Course and the Relational Mindfulness Programmes I offer, are designed to support people in sustaining their practice. I know from experience, and from studying meditation traditions that are thousands of years old, the importance of ‘feeding’ the motivation for practice through study, and participation in community. At some point, if we want to experience the benefits of living mindfully, we have to wake up and put ourselves and our practice at the top of our ‘to-do’ lists.
Image John Hain