The buzz of mindfulness that has been going around for a couple of decades and is becoming louder and louder, I’ve done my fair share of trying am still not getting the expected benefits.
Big companies and schools are starting mindfulness programs because it supposedly increases happiness. Unless we have a generally agreed upon definition of happiness, we cannot really discuss the effects of mindfulness on it.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfully focusing on something at hand, one’s breath would do, is, as we are told by the self-improvement industry, a defence against stress. And stress is supposedly a killer, hence mindfulness is a life-saver. Whether stress is a killer is another question, depends on the definition of stress. If stress is defined as breaking down of molecules, or catabolic chemical reactions, Biology says that all the energy we have in our bodies is derived from catabolic reactions, hence, stress is the source of the energy we have at our disposal, which means that stress is life.
Does mindfulness feel good?
But I am more concerned with the question, does mindfulness actually feel good? To me, it doesn’t.
Mindfulness is about resisting the autopilot and instead being fully “in” the present moment. But what exactly are the benefits of the present moment? When I do that, I feel like I am depriving myself of one of the advantages human cognition has over other species: the ability to hold past and present and future simultaneously. In fact, having a concept of the future is unique to humans, going by what neuroscience has found. Cognitive science confirms that animals do not have a concept of the future like we do. As for the past, judging by how quickly animals recover from a near-death encounter with a predator and within minutes calmly graze grass as if nothing has happened, the past is past for them, gone and non-existent. Animals are in the “now” but I don’t strive after this kind of happiness.
On the face of it, our lives are often much more fulfilling lived outside the present than in it. After all, where are your 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? If staying “in the moment” actually stresses you, there is nothing against being elsewhere. Your brain is a lovely time- and distance travel-machine!
Mindfulness is often equated to the ability to focus and concentrate. But when I am stuck on a problem, the thing that gets me unstuck is not more focus on it, but just the opposite: distraction. Have you considered why so many “Eureca-moments” happen in a bath tub like with Archimedes or under the shower? Why sniff at automated actions when they are in fact shortcuts to efficiency? Also, focussing on your breath while running late on chores may actually add to the stress, at least in my case. I am not feeling better when I push deadlines or leave things undone, I am feeling worse.
While mindfulness meditations may indeed bring some benefits to depressed patients as research shows, there is no big evidence it brings happiness to ordinary people. And no, it is not going to protect you from your toxic boss! You have to actually deal with your problems.
Nothing against relaxation too, because this seems to be the one certain beneficial aspect of mindfulness meditation, provided this is your preferred relaxation technique. Everybody is different and for some people exercise is more relaxing than mindfulness. If you find that focussing on the tip of your nose actually stresses you by making you question whether you are doing it right, it is not you, it is just not your best approach to relaxation.
Try it, experiment with it, but, like with everything else, don’t overdo it! And if it does not appeal to you, this is OK too.