March Mindfulness is our new series that examines the explosive growth in mindfulness and meditation technology — culminating in Mashable’s groundbreaking meditation bracket contest. Because March shouldn’t be all madness.
It seems so simple: Quietly observing your thoughts, you remain open to and curious about the present moment without judging the ideas that ping back and forth in your consciousness. You expect to experience the benefits that research says mindfulness can offer, including reduced stress, increased attentional focus, less emotional volatility, and improved relationship satisfaction.
Except, for some people, that’s not what happens. They might find it hard to stay in the present moment, feel anxious after attempting mindfulness, and abandon their practice. Such frustration is often rooted in a misunderstanding of how mindfulness works, and what it’s meant to do, say experts. People’s expectations of mindfulness are sometimes far higher than what the tool could ever deliver.
“There’s a lot of hype and buzz around mindfulness,” says Alex Haley, assistant professor and mindfulness program lead at the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing. “[People think] everywhere I turn it’s mindfulness-based something. I’m going to have all these expectations that mindfulness is a cure-all, that it’s a panacea. It’s not. There are limits to what it’s able to do.”
Those misconceptions can be cleared up with just a little research. Yet there’s another, more complex reason why some people feel mindfulness isn’t effective. An emerging field of research is exploring how people who’ve experienced trauma may feel significantly worse during or after mindfulness practice. Researchers working to understand that dynamic believe it’s still possible to use mindfulness approaches, just with important modifications.
So before giving up on mindfulness, or feeling ashamed that mindfulness isn’t producing the results you wanted, make sure you’ve considered the following things:
What does mindfulness even mean?
Mindfulness has multiple definitions and those can look different depending on your teacher, or whether you’re getting mindfulness tips or instruction from an app, best-selling book, YouTube channel, Instagram influencer, yoga class, or news stories like this one.
“Mindful awareness is paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be.”
Perhaps the most widely-known definition of the secular practice of mindfulness comes from researcher and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn, who said: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Though Haley uses Kabat-Zinn’s definition, he frequently invokes another one from Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at UCLA Semel Institute’s Mindful Awareness Research Center: “Mindful awareness is paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is.”
J. David Creswell, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who studies mindfulness, thinks of it as an “open or present attention to your present situation.”
While different from each other, these definitions share a core element: attention to the present. If you embrace one definition over another, just remember that it’s meant to help you understand how to practice mindfulness, and it’s fine to consider what it might leave out. This approach will help guide your practice and refine your expectations.
“It’s not unicorns and rainbows”
Creswell says popular misconceptions of mindfulness portray it as a tool for relaxation or “blissing out.”
“It’s not unicorns and rainbows,” he says. “I liken mindfulness meditation practices to aerobic practices for the brain. [Exercising] hurts, it’s a little unpleasant, but at the same time it’s building muscle. With mindfulness, you’re building a brain that’s more resilient.”
That mental strength develops over time as you focus the brain’s attention on the present moment and learn how to observe positive, negative, and neutral feelings without being carried away by any of them. This is no easy task for human beings, whose powerful thoughts and feelings can rip them from the present moment and thrust them into a stream of consciousness that’s confusing, exhilarating, fulfilling, or exhausting.
Some people mistake mindfulness as a surefire way to avoid that overwhelming experience, but Creswell says that’s not the case. Developing mindfulness skills can mean, for example, staying observant and curious about what’s happening when you’re having a panic attack. From Creswell’s perspective, the goal is to cultivate “equanimity” in the face of uncomfortable experiences. That objective is why mindfulness is so frequently associated with formal, seated meditation, which can prompt physical discomfort and mental fatigue.
Why should this make me feel better?
Haley believes that mindfulness works because it puts people in a different state of mind, one where they’re actively aware of and paying attention to events happening in the present moment. As they take in that information, they better understand the situation and can make a choice about how to respond. With regular practice, this can create a “positive feedback loop” that leads to more moments of mindfulness, and our resulting choices become wiser and more compassionate, says Haley.
“It allows us to understand our experiences, and most importantly, is the choice to how we respond to the things we’re feeling,” says Haley. “If we notice things that are really challenging, we can say, ‘I want to make a different choice.'”
“If we notice things that are really challenging, we can say, ‘I want to make a different choice.'”
That sense of agency is empowering, but it’s important to know that mindfulness is a state of mind that comes and goes. Feeling calm and observant one day and at the mercy of your thoughts and emotions the next doesn’t mean you’ve failed at mindfulness. It just presents another opportunity to strengthen your skills, or to try again the following day.
Haley says frustration and difficulty with mindfulness can come from overly strict ideas about how to practice it. People commonly believe that mindfulness means you must practice formal, seated meditation, but Haley says that’s just one option. He sometimes recommends people start with movement by observing how their body feels when its been moving for long periods of time. Haley also relies on a slight variation of the “STOP” technique in which you slow down, take a breath and extend the exhale, observe what’s happening in the body, and consider the possibilities before proceeding. That approach can shift people into a state of mindfulness and away from being reactive.
Creswell’s own research has found that there are three types of evidence-based mindfulness programs: an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course founded by Kabat-Zinn and offered by credentialed instructors around the world; apps like Headspace and Calm that use teachers trained in mindfulness; and mindfulness meditation retreats. Creswell recommends exploring various options to find research-backed programming and resources, or a qualified teacher.
What if mindfulness still isn’t working for me?
Despite the clear benefits of mindfulness, science still can’t say who might benefit most or least from the practice. Creswell says it’ll be five or 10 years before researchers can confidently answer that question. In the meantime, some scientists and meditation practitioners who study mindfulness are focusing on the possibility that mindfulness might actually create the possibility of harm for some people who try it, particularly those with a history of trauma.
David Treleaven, author of Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing, says that for some people struggling with trauma the basic tenets of mindful meditation practice, including focusing on the breath and remaining still for periods of time, can actually exacerbate trauma symptoms. Paying close attention to anxious or threatening feelings may heighten the body’s fight-or-flight stress response, elicit intrusive thoughts of harm or danger, and prompt flashbacks to traumatic events.
For some, focusing on trauma symptoms because they’re happening in the present moment can lead to physical immobilization akin to freezing in place. Treleaven describes that response as a “deeply wired survival response in humans.”
A meditation teacher unaware of these dynamics might insist that remaining curious and nonjudgmental about these sensations is a necessary part of mindfulness meditation.
“People feel isolated and ashamed that a practice that seems to be working for so many people isn’t working for them.”
While Treleaven believes that mindfulness can be very beneficial for people who’ve lived through trauma, he disagrees with an approach that diminishes or minimizes their unique experiences.
“People feel isolated and ashamed that a practice that seems to be working for so many people isn’t working for them,” he says. “They end up feeling like, ‘I’m broken beyond a point that even meditation can’t work for me.'”
Treleaven instead advocates for adjustments to mindfulness meditation. He urges people to take breaks as needed in favor of pursuing lengthy sessions or weeks-long meditation streaks. He advises teachers against touching students without their explicit permission. If focusing on the breath is anxiety-provoking, Treleaven recommends finding an “object or anchor of attention,” like sounds or the feeling of your bottom touching a cushion or the floor. When sitting for long periods of time is uncomfortable for those who’ve experienced trauma-related freezing, Treleaven suggests mindfulness that incorporates movement.
The goal, he says, is to create a consistent practice that builds mindfulness skills while reducing the risk of harm. He recommends people who’ve experienced trauma look for mindfulness resources, classes, and instructors with a trauma-informed approach.
“It doesn’t need to be a one-size-fits-all practice,” Treleaven says. “We can modify it for people so that it enables them to have a sense of success.”
No matter why you’re struggling to feel the benefits of mindfulness, that flexibility is key to starting, continuing, or pausing a practice. Mindfulness, after all, is never about perfection.
This content was originally published here.