Why practising Mindfulness is doing nothing to improve your life.
Having trained and worked for several years as a Clinical Psychologist, I was already experienced in a number of techniques aimed at changing various thoughts, behaviours and emotions which can cause difficulties in life. I hoped that Mindfulness training would provide me with another toolkit of great techniques that I could use in a professional capacity. The thought that the practice could be personally beneficial to me also seemed like an added bonus.
My initial mindfulness training did not live up to these expectations however. One of my tutors, who had been a Buddhist Monk until recently, was particularly frustrating. We would meet regularly in a small tutorial group to discuss our practice. If I, or one of the other students mentioned a difficulty that we had experienced in our practice, maybe that we had drifted off to sleep, become bored, lost in thought or felt extremely anxious, he would simply respond in the same way. 'Maybe it's OK to let it be that way. Maybe that's just what's right for you just now'.
Frustration is a word that puts it mildly. None of us wanted it to be OK to experience the difficulties that were there for us. I was not the only member of the group who was impatient to know the key to responding in a way that would help to change these aspects of my experience or to learn better how to do it right. As a Clinical Psychologist I could think of lots of ideas that might help. My tutor however would have none of it.
Despite my reservations I stuck with it. I became a little more able to follow the advice of my tutor, and to simply allow and accept what was going on for me during a practice. Increasingly, as I allowed myself to do nothing, I found that things changed on their own.
I came to realise that there was a difference between doing nothing and resting as normal. Initially I had assumed that nothing could change unless I did something. Many of us who live in the UK, Europe or America may hold similar assumptions. In fact, I started to notice that doing nothing was a far cry from my usual habits of mind. The more I practised and learned to stay in the moment and simply allow things to be as they were, the more things were changing on their own. Instead of doing something that might be good for me, the practice of mindfulness was helping me to stop doing some of the things that I had never even realised I did in the first place and that I came to see had been unhelpful.
This is the paradox of Mindfulness. It is easy to dismiss a practice which essentially involves doing nothing. But if we are able to stick with it, this practice can naturally, without effort, start to change and unravel some of our habitual mental patterns. It's not about doing anything at all. Rather it is about an undoing and a letting go of ways of thinking and habits of mind that are simply not good for us now.
It turns out it was a good decision to stick with the frustration I initially felt. Despite all of the years I have spent training and working as a Clinical Psychologist, I have never engaged in anything that I have found as personally beneficial and therapeutic as practising Mindfulness.