It’s a no-brainer that we should do our best to show up for and enjoy our finite lives. This is not a spiritual or esoteric idea, it is simply common sense. Mindfulness is all about training our minds to be able to show up and get to know more about how we, ourselves work.
This article is one of a series based on what an 8 week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course delivers. I am a qualified mindfulness teacher, researcher and practitioner, and I offer courses regularly in London, UK. In my 21 years of playing around with this stuff, I am still amazed at how challenging it can sometimes be to practice.
Why is this seemingly logical thing so difficult, especially for beginners? The answer is that although mindfulness is very simple – we are very complicated! I put this down to the fact that we have not evolved exclusively to be present and contented, we have evolved to do whatever it takes to survive. Therefore it is not our fault, it is just our programming.
We often have to learn to be present and contented and this involves training our minds. In the last article, about Session 1 of the course, I described how we start this training by doing a daily practice that returns our attention repeatedly to a particular focus. In week 2 we explore the difficulties that arise when we practice being present.
The first major obstacle to being focussed and present is that we are trained to be otherwise. Our busy, over-stimulated, information-rich, environment creates formidable mental patterns and habits. We have also learned to derive a short term fix from this. Over-stimulation gives us a nice adrenalin kick. Busyness makes it easy to brush over any residual sadness in our lives, and lots of information is interesting. This means that when we challenge these habits with a training that is inverse to them, our minds often struggle.
Participants often report that they ‘could not practice’ because there was some kind of external disturbance like noise. However, in mindfulness we are not trying to create a separate, insulated bubble in which to practice. We use the real world disturbances as part of the practice, working with them and not against them. We are learning to be with the reality of things as they are right now, not the fantasy of how we would like them to be.
It is the same for the internal events that disturb our focus. Emotions such as boredom, irritation, etc, can be pretty overwhelming when they arise. In mindfulness we simply watch without the need to encourage or get rid of them, and return to the focus when we are ready. We do not miss the opportunity to learn about them, and with good reason: we do not want to be a slave to them.
Thoughts can be another internal disruption. We perceive the world and create our version of reality with interpretation and thought based narratives. It seldom matters to us whether these are accurate or not: we most often take our thoughts as gospel. Not so in mindfulness. When practising we just watch these mental events arise, stay for a while and dissipate. We fully acknowledge them and reserve judgement. They are what they are and they, maybe true and maybe false. Then we return to the focus when we are ready.
The third in this trilogy of common disruptions is uncomfortable body sensations. These often get us ruminating, and once again (when appropriate) we learn to look past the label of ‘pain’ and gently investigate the sensation itself. Just watching it can be fascinating, even if it is only for a few seconds before we shift position back to comfort.
We begin to see that real, authentic change is not easy and that we sometimes struggle. Nevertheless, mindfulness practice is a shrewd and logical investment in ourselves. These difficulties are genuinely worthwhile. Maybe, not experiencing them will prove more difficult in the long run.
Christopher Gaia is a mindfulness teacher, teaching courses in Chelsea, London. He has a 5 year MSc. Training in Teaching Mindfulness Based Courses from the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice, Bangor University. He has over 20 years of experience of mindfulness practice and has completed post graduate research into mindfulness and self-compassion. He is also a registered Osteopath, working in Chelsea and Balham.