The buzz of mindfulness has been going around for some time. Companies and schools are picking it up and installing mindfulness programs. There are some benefits to practicing mindfulness indeed, but they seem to be hugely overrated. Contrary to bold claims that it increases happiness, there is no reliable research to back this. While mindfulness meditations do bring some benefits to clinically depressed patients, there is no big evidence it brings happiness to ordinary people.

Mindfulness is not supposed to add to your stress!

Mindfulness meditations seem to be a good gateway to some good things, such as stress relief, but only provided you do it in a way that does not actually add to your stress.  If you find yourself questioning whether you are doing your mindfulness meditation correctly, you are adding to your agitation rather than reducing it. If, on the other hand, you approach it like an accomplishment thinking how great you are for doing it, you are reinforcing narcissistic and self-consciousness tendencies that are the very thing mindfulness is supposed to relieve you from. Straining to be mindful and patting yourself on the back for doing so defeats the purpose.

Mindfulness is often associated with focus and concentration

And indeed, there is big value in being able to command one’s focus of attention among all the information noise we are flooded with. Training to fully focus on something at hand like your breath, as mindfulness teaches, is a good training wheel but why stop there? Why not let it go to better and nicer things? What better and nicer things, you may ask? How about how you will be being and feeling once you have resolved your problems? Your brain is a lovely time- and distance travel-machine, why not use it?

Mindfulness is supposed to be about the present moment 

What exactly are the benefits of the present moment? When I focus on the present moment to the exclusion of everything else, I feel like I am depriving myself of one of the advantages of human cognition: the ability to hold past and present and future simultaneously. Having a concept of the future is one of the things that are unique to humans as compared to animals. Animals don‘t plan for  future; as for the past, judging by how quickly an animal can recover from a near-death encounter with a predator and within minutes calmly graze grass again, shows that the past has no big grip on animals either. Animals are fully in the now but why should we strive for that?

To be fair, our lives are often much more fulfilling lived outside the present than in it. After all, where are you visions and goals if not in the future? And how do you build on your experiences and learnings if you are not able to hold the past against the future and compare alternative scenarios? Why shun automated actions and autopilot activities when they are in fact shortcuts to this kind of freedom of the mind that lets it go anywhere? Why banish this kind of journeys to focus on your breath?

Good things feel good

Finally, does mindfulness feel good? Because good things do. Practices that slows down your heartbeat feel relaxing. If focusing on your breath slows you down, it is a good gateway to relaxation.  But then, to some, me included, putting the body through some stress by doing physical exercises is more relaxing to both my body and mind than putting my mind on my breath. Your muscles feel more relaxed after you have tensed them than if you have not.

What is important is taking time to do things that feel good. And who is to say how this is best done? It may be a leisurely walk, it can be a nap. Somebody else’s recipes may not work for you. It is a great idea for companies and schools to schedule leisure time but mandating how is is to be spent may have the opposite effect. If mindfulness is about being mindful to your own needs, I am all for it! Do it your own way!

© 2020 Teodora Rudolph

Photo credit Gerold Guggenbühl,