May I change your mind about mindfulness?

By Mandy X. Hu, student aan de Academie voor Leven, PhD adviseur en coach bij het Amsterdam UMC

If you have ever done a coaching session or workshop with me, or read one of my previous blogs, you probably know that mindfulness is braided through my life and practices. I truly believe that intending to be mindful is a mindset that may enrich anyone’s existence – and that it’s essential, even, for making any lasting life changes. Although deeply sensing the truth of this, I catch myself being shy about ‘preaching’ it to others. I’m afraid, it seems, to run into mental walls of prejudice built by brick stones of ‘religious crap’, ‘airy-fairy’, ‘passive’, and ‘disconnected and dispassionate’. Are these indeed your prejudices? Or just my own prejudices about yours? In any case, by writing this blog – my love letter to mindfulness, if you will – I intend to shake the foundations of these walls.

Truth instead of faith

Most of the readers of this blog will have a scientific mindset, as you are PhD candidates, and may get a bit itchy about anything that touches upon religion and faith. It happens to be that mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism, the world’s fourth-largest religion. But before you start bricklaying your wall, hear me out: unlike many of the other large religions, Buddhist teachings are based on finding wisdom and truth rather than having faith. As I have come to understand mindfulness, it’s about experiencing what’s true through awareness. In some sense, it’s even the opposite of having faith, because it means stopping to believe our thoughts, ceasing to pretend that we can resist pain, and freeing ourselves from the illusions of control and permanence. The truth is that our thoughts are – at best – biased and partial representations of reality, that pain in life is inevitable, that we have very little control over the things that happen to us, and that everything is impermanent. Mindfulness means embracing this truth by ‘simply’ being present with the mystery and possibility of any given moment.

Down-to-earth instead of airy-fairy

‘Airy-fairy’ (in Dutch ‘zweverig’), what does that even mean? Mindfulness seems to be inextricably linked to this word. But can you truly explain what you mean when you say mindfulness is ‘airy-fairy’ or ‘zweverig’? Does it mean that you don’t fully understand it? Hopefully this blog will help with that. Do you think its effects are not scientifically proven? Perhaps take a look at the many studies that show beneficial effects of mindfulness on mental and physical health.1,2 Do you feel it’s all just in your head? That’s funny, because the whole point is to stop running with our thoughts and root right in our bodies and direct senses. I daresay practicing mindfulness – more than many human concepts, ideas, or ideals – is very much down-to-earth.

Deliberate instead of passive

So, being mindful means being present with our moment-to-moment experiences – with acceptance. Now, acceptance is often mistaken for being idle and passive. But acceptance within mindfulness is actually related to attitude and not to (in)action. It means that we say ‘yes’ to reality without (pointlessly) fighting it. When we’re fighting with reality we flee into thinking and judgments that make ourselves, others, or the world bad. Consequently, we react in a way that separates us from ourselves (by rejecting undesired characteristics), from others (by using them to make us feel better), and from the world (by trying to control it or otherwise disengage from it). It’s from an accepting attitude that we can create space to sense what’s really happening and choose to respond with wisdom and compassion – a deliberate and liberating action.

Wholehearted instead of disconnected and dispassionate

What image comes to mind when you think of mindfulness? A monk sitting on a lonely hill in silence and solitude? Trying to disengage from human emotions, interactions, and life? It’s true that it helps to practice mindfulness by sitting down, quietly and by yourself. In the buzz of daily life it’s hard to stay aware and not go into autopilot. But we can be mindful in many different ways and likely you are already practicing it without knowing. For instance, when you go for a walk, do you notice the little ducklings playing in the water and the sun kissing your skin? Or when you’re listening to music, do you hear the meaning of the lyrics and the rippling of the melody? In contrast to what is often believed, the goal of mindfulness is not to disconnect from life, but the practices (in solitude) serve to fully engage with life. Yes, that means feeling emotions. Many people think mindfulness is dispassionate, because we practice to not chase pleasant emotions or run away from what’s unpleasant. Paradoxically, it’s the non-grasping and non-avoiding that makes it possible to experience our feelings exactly like they are. And in contrast to what many people believe, mindfulness is about connection. By resting in an awareness that is larger than our personal thoughts and beliefs, we let go of the separate ego and may feel a true belonging to humanity and life. So there it is, my love declaration to mindfulness: to me it’s the only way to wholeheartedly experience what it’s like to be alive.

“You are not wanting too much, you’re wanting too little. Why not want complete fulfilment, joy, and freedom?” – From the Tara Brach podcast

Perhaps take a look at the many studies that show beneficial effects of mindfulness on mental and physical health (Dunning et al. 2019; Paulus, 2016).

*Dunning DL, Griffiths K, Kuyken W, Crane C, Foulkes L, Parker J, Dalgleish T. Research Review: The effects of mindfulness-based interventions on cognition and mental health in children and adolescents – a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines. 2019; 60(3): 244–258.

*Paulus MP. Neural Basis of Mindfulness Interventions that Moderate the Impact of Stress on the Brain. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2016; 41(1): 373.

Source: Amsterdam UMC Doctoral School