I’m not here to say whether mindfulness may be right or wrong for you. Only you can explore that for yourself. However, I would really, really like to share the stuff I’ve come across during my mindfulness journey in the hope that it will give you a greater understanding of what mindfulness is and isn’t.
I find that one of the biggest issues with mindfulness is that there are a lot of people out there claiming to be mindfulness experts, teachers or gurus who are really just creating “McMindfulness”. It’s like the fast-food version where you know it’s been processed and doesn’t really resemble the ingredients from which it was made. Yes, it’s still “food” but you can tell that it’s not the natural and organic experience of food that you’re really looking for. Don’t get me wrong, some of these “McMindfulness” teachers have good intentions. That’s where it can become a very confusing journey.
This video here is the best I’ve ever seen on looking at what mindfulness is in a succinct way. In it, Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.”
I think it’s the “non-judgementally” bit where it’s so easy to get caught up. It’s as though we think that if we just stopped having judgemental thoughts that we’d be “all good”. So then we try to supress those judgemental thoughts. I did this A LOT at the beginning of my mindfulness journey. I have also spoken with a great number of people on my mindfulness journey who are judging themselves for having judgements.
Where mindfulness really comes in is watching the judgements go by, and just noticing them. As in “oh look, a judgement” and letting it pass without judging it, or judging yourself for having a judgemental thought. It has nothing at all to do with the absence of judgements, as these will continue to arise and pass, arise and pass, arise and pass, on and on, forever and ever.
So how does this all relate to practice as a health professional?
The judgements we are talking about here are not the clinical judgements we as clinicians make every day. I’m talking about the stuff that happens in our interactions with patients that really aren’t helpful.
So let’s go with an example that’s close to home for me. The scenario being that I’d put on quite a bit of weight and was feeling very self-conscious about it. How is that going to play out when someone who is obese comes in for a consultation?
I have had so many experiences around this over the years, most of them in the form of judgements coming up in my mind. Anything from “how could they let themselves get like that?” to “they should go and get surgery” to “don’t they know how to look after themselves?” to “they are so ugly” and “how can they live with themselves being like that?”.
So really I was just projecting my own “stuff” onto these patients. It’s a pretty normal human thing to do, and it happens all the time. Having these judgemental thoughts made me very anxious and awkward, because they were feeding the belief that I was a horrible person and an awful health practitioner, because we’re supposed to treat everyone with respect.
However, over the course of my mindfulness journey I realised that the issue wasn’t with these thoughts themselves. It’s that I was judging myself for having these thoughts. The day I realised that was when everything really changed.
It occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, I’d be able to bring compassion to myself for having these judgemental thoughts instead of judging myself for having those judgemental thoughts. That is quite a distinction, and, I feel where many of those claiming to be “gurus” but area really just perpetuating McMindfulness get it so very wrong.
So many of these “gurus” spout ideals that we need to change our thoughts to be more positive so that we can be “happy”. However, once you really get into a deeper mindfulness practice, there is the realisation that the joy of simply being is always there, regardless of whether whatever is happening in the present moment is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. It’s the simple joy of being alive and actually having these experience that flows like a river in experience itself.
This leads me into another way in which not only mindfulness, but the practice of meditation is often misconstrued. There seems to be this myth that it’s all going to be sunshine and lollipops. That you “should” be feeling more relaxed after you meditate.
The reality is, that when the mind is really still during meditation, sometimes the most painful memories come up with an invitation for them to be explored. At 4 of the 5 meditation retreats I’ve attended in the last 12 months, I have cried. No, wept. No, sobbed uncontrollably. Sometimes in the meditation hall when everyone else is quiet. It’s just the way in which my body lets go of stuff. When the mind has really settled it’s given me the opportunity to look at some of the experiences I’ve had in a new light, and let go of the old way of seeing them. Inevitably this process can get pretty messy.
Letting go of these old ways of seeing things has changed the way I see myself and interact with others and the world. Being in the present moment as it is, without some story about how it should be or how I want it to be is an entirely different way of practice as a health professional. In many cases it has allowed me to have a much deeper listening of what the patient is communicating during our interaction, and allows me to be a lot clearer in my communication.
So yes, meditation and mindfulness practice has helped me to find a greater sense of calmness in so many situations, but that has been the by-product, not necessarily the aim.
I hope you enjoy our Mindful May theme this month and see it as part of your exploration as to whether taking up the practice might be right for you.
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