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Can Mindfulness Really Improve Our Lives?

…just breathing. Well, not ‘just breathing’ because I’m thinking about breathing. And repeating the word breathing to myself…

My earliest attempts at meditation were accompanied by a constant internal commentary. I preferred guided meditations to being left alone with my mind. When I was given a mantra at a Satyananda retreat in Rikhiapeeth I was relieved to have been given something to do. It took me (and it is taking me) a long time to get comfortable sitting quietly with my breath and the thoughts without trying to do something with them.

Renewing a commitment to myself a few years ago, I enrolled in an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course at Mindfulness.ie, The Mindfulness Centre for Professional Studies, in Dublin with Niamh Barrett. The word mindfulness has become so prevalent in conversations about anxiety and stress and I wondered how or if it was different than the meditation practices I’ve had experience with.

On the first day Niamh asked us to introduce ourselves and to express our intentions and expectations for the course. Each of us came with thoughts around improving. Improving ourselves, our health, our relationships, our attitudes. Could I learn not to shout when I have to peel one flailing, red faced child off the other? Or can I react with more grace to the multitude of life’s intense moments? Mindfulness as a means to an end.

Apparently, it doesn’t really work that way. Niamh went on to describe the mindfulness practice as trying to be open to whatever arises in the moment, rather than trying to accomplish something. To be curious and accepting of thoughts, emotions or even nothing, if that is what comes up, as we sit quietly experiencing the sensations in each breath.

Pema Chodron, a well-known Tibetan Buddhist teacher, makes a similar point about meditation. “Practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already.”

Though mindfulness sets itself apart from Buddhist meditation, it is underpinned by Buddhist philosophy. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine and the man at the heart of the mindfulness movement, drew from Buddhist principles as he was shaping the MBSR program. As a scientist, he placed a fair amount of importance on documenting the benefits of mindfulness through empirical research over attributing them solely to a specific set of spiritual practices. In this way, mindfulness has become an incredibly successful secular meditation practice capable of permeating the institutions of western medicine, large corporations and even education.

Echoing the Buddhist concept that desire is the cause of human suffering, Naimh explained, “much suffering comes from grasping at what is pleasant and pushing away those experiences that are unpleasant.” As she guided us away from our collective desire for results, she introduced us to the concept of non-striving, one of the seven attitudinal foundations of mindfulness.

Kabbat-Zinn defines non-striving as “allowing things to be held in awareness without having to make anything happen or trying experience some special state, whether relaxation or well-being.” He acknowledges that this is a particular challenge for Westerners who are, “always on their way to some better moment in the future or trying to escape something in the past.” Pursuant to the ethereal. Happiness.

“We are wired for survival, not happiness,” Niamh explained. We are biologically programmed to give more weight to negative thoughts and experiences than positive ones in the interest of self preservation. This negativity bias is thought to have kept our ancestors from bounding joyously into dangerous situations. “Mindfulness reveals to us how we do this. When we become aware of our wiring as human beings then we have the ability to step outside of it. We can choose not to follow those negative impulses and we have a choice to respond in different ways. We can choose to respond in a way that increases self compassion and compassion for other people”.

Mindfulness brings light to these unconscious behaviours and we begin to see how powerful they are. Not only are some of the thoughts reactionary and negative, many of them aren’t true. To illustrate this Niamh asked the group what we say to ourselves in the context of a stressful experience. The thoughts varied from “I’m an idiot” to “I can’t do this” to “I’m not good enough” to “insert your negative track here”. It’s hard to imagine a biological imperative that manifests in fictitious self abuse but once I became aware of it, something shifted. One person even expressed relief, “It’s nice to know that this is happening for everyone. I thought something was wrong with me.” And there it is again.

There are still plenty of unpleasant thoughts, to-do lists and insurmountable obstacles pinging around behind my closed eyelids. After the MBSR course I feel better equipped to deal with them. Now when I notice this negative chat the thought that often follows is: “Wow, and that’s not even true.”

In many ways mindfulness is not all that different than some of the meditation practices I have worked with in the past. As I approached it I felt a sense of familiarity and ease but something about it seems to have more resonance with me and I am more committed to it. Maybe it’s my western mind that likes the science and discussions around responding to stress, the negativity bias and relating to thoughts. It’s slightly more digestible than the ‘sit and all will be revealed’ requirement of faith.

One thing has become very clear. Mindfulness isn’t really an improvement tool as much an acceptance tool. The benefits are a by product of our willingness to sit with what is already there.

Mindfulness isn’t really an improvement tool as much an acceptance tool. The benefits are a byproduct of our willingness to sit with what is already there.

Photography by Malcolm McGettigan

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