Can mindfulness REALLY be the key to total transformation?
In the work that I do, I’m often asked the question: Why mindfulness?
In other words, of all the things someone might try to heal, grow, rewire their limiting beliefs, transform their relationships, and overhaul their life, why this one practice?
The research on mindfulness—committing to a regular and consistent practice of shutting up and sitting—shows that it allows you to reduce stress, manage anxiety, fight addictions, improve sleep and control. It promotes emotional health and enhances self-awareness, decreases heart rate and blood pressure, reduces memory loss, and can even lengthen your attention span.
Some studies even show mindfulness helps generate kindness, compassion, and equanimity.
But despite any detailed studies or fancy terminology, mindfulness is nothing more than shutting up and sitting down to look within yourself and pay attention to yourself inside a meditative experience. It’s a practice that allows you to cultivate a relationship with yourself in which you connect with your wisdom and learn to live from your most authentic truth.
Let me demonstrate with a story…
At the beginning of 2021, over nine months into a global pandemic and in need of a change of scenery, I traveled to Monticello, Virginia, for a three-day silent, solo meditation retreat. When I arrived at my lemongrass-infused cottage, with a pre-planned retreat schedule provided by my meditation teacher in hand, I was determined to retreat “right.”
In other words, I was determined to prove what a badass I was at wellness.
I have spent my career in health and wellness, first as a personal trainer and currently as a consciousness coach and consultant and the author of Shut Up and Sit: Finding Silence and All the Life-Changing Magic that Comes with It. Really, I was only competing against myself.
On the first day of my retreat, from sunup to sundown, my schedule alternated between 30 minutes of sitting and 15 minutes of stretching, with two hour-long yoga practices in the morning and evening, one mid-day walk, and brief meals. I completed everything on the schedule one practice at a time, leaving satisfied little checkmarks next to each as I went: The sitting, the stretching, the yoga, the walk, the meals; repeat.
I am excellent at this, I thought to myself. Look at me go.
But by mid-morning on Day Two, my enthusiasm was starting to wane. Devoid of Wi-Fi, reliable cell service, or another human being to even glance at, I was itching for something—anything—to keep me motivated.
In my luggage, I’d packed a meditation headband that advertised benefits like promoting calm, increasing focus, improving sleep, and boosting the quality and control of your meditation practice—basically everything that meditation is designed to do, but up-leveled by a futuristic gadget and color-coordinated charts courtesy of a cell phone app. Resting the little black halo across my forehead and tucking two of its seven EEG sensors behind each ear, I began yet another 30-minute sit. After all, if meditating is replenishing and reenergizing, meditating while measuring five of my brainwaves in real-time—gamma, beta, alpha, theta, and delta—was bound to be even better.
There is a lot about the impacts of mindfulness and meditation that we still don’t understand—particularly in the global West. From 1970 to 2010, there were only around 200 studies on meditation conducted by Western researchers. Then, in 2019 alone, scientists conducted over 1000. There is evidence that mindfulness impacts human brainwaves, changing how we relate to our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, changing how we relate to the world. Yet, we have learned just enough to know we’ve only scratched the surface.
The terms “mindfulness” and “meditation” are often used interchangeably, but they are hardly the same; mindfulness is a form of meditation, but mindfulness is only one practice, while there are hundreds of different meditation practices. If you are brand new to either, at first glance, the breadth and depth of meditation practices can seem not only overwhelming but downright terrifying.
So, if you have ever begun a meditation practice, only feel that meditation “just isn’t for you,” you’re not alone. Studies on meditation have shown that people do not sit in still silence and learn to connect with themselves because it can be painful. In the beginning, all that awareness can even exacerbate any suffering or trauma. A 2014 study at Oxford researched the most common reasons people do not stick with a meditation practice. In addition to the potential exacerbation of trauma, they include things like difficulty learning meditation, trouble experiencing “the self,” challenged reality and the subjectivity of happiness.
That’s why I recommend mindfulness meditation as a more accessible, relatable, and enjoyable practice than the catch-all, wildly diverse array of techniques that “meditation” encompasses.
Unlike many other forms of meditation, the purpose of mindfulness is not to empty your mind or get one step closer to reaching enlightenment. By paying closer attention to yourself—asking questions like How do I really feel right now? Why did I just say that to that person? or Where did I learn this belief?—you can significantly increase your self-awareness. With that increased awareness, you can see more—and more objectively—more honestly assess what’s going on within and outside of yourself in any given situation and live your life with better clarity, truth, and authenticity. It’s a practice that allows you to cultivate a deeper and more honest relationship with yourself, in which you can connect with your wisdom and learn to live your truth into the world.
Mindfulness isn’t about accomplishing or achieving or reaching anything—it’s simply about noticing. It’s about paying attention, getting to know and understand your true self, so you can be your true self. That’s it.
So, if you’re one of the many who are searching for something—even if you’re not totally sure what that something is yet—and didn’t find it in meditation, you’re not alone. Just consider mindfulness instead.
Now, as it turned out, the meditation headband was pretty cool.
Except if you happen to be utterly alone in the Virginia woods on a silent meditation retreat.
Taking constant measurements, my headband cheerily recorded how many minutes my brain was active, neutral, and calm, rewarding each relaxed state by emitting a gentle bird chirp. After my headband-assisted sit, I could not wait to dive into the data. 179 instances of active brain activity and 63 bird chirps, it read.
That wasn’t going to do it for me.
Shifting directly into a judging mindset, I started to give myself a pep talk. I just have to meditate harder, I thought. I need more birds. I am better than 63. Over and over, I sat for 30-minute meditations, listening intently and practically willing the headband to chirp. Over and over, my results left much to be desired: 72 chirps, then 54, 58, 61, 67. I finally got so frustrated I tossed the headband onto my meditation cushion and, fuming, left the cabin to hit a trail.
As I walked, the voice of my inner critic walked with me. You’ve been doing this work for so long, she said. You should be better than this—better than 63 measly chirps.
Suddenly, trudging along, something caught my attention. I looked up and found myself in a gorgeous little clearing in the woods, deep in the Blue Mountains. Pausing, I stopped to take in my surroundings.
I had never heard so many birds chirping in my life.
They were everywhere, flitting from tree branch to tree branch, hopping along the earth, singing with their entire bodies, and taking little notice of my presence. I sat down right there on the chilly January ground, in the middle of it all.
It was as though the universe were saying: “You don’t need to make the birds chirp. That’s not what you’re here for. I take care of that.”
That is what mindfulness is all about.
*A version of this blog post first appeared as an article in Say AMOMĒ, a site dedicated to holistic wellness, particularly amid a global pandemic. You can find the original article, Which Form Of Meditation Is Right For You? here: https://sayamome.com/blog/struggling-with-meditation-try-mindfulness-instead.
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