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Sunday, November 1, 2015

7 Reasons Mindfulness Might Not "Work" for Everyone


1. A lot of people don't understand how mindfulness “works.”

Some people think mindfulness doesn’t really work because "it doesn't take away my problems."  But that isn’t what mindfulness is designed to do.  It’s like claiming toasters don’t work because you can’t use them to make milkshakes.

No, mindfulness won’t get rid of all the challenges in our lives.  What it can do is help us figure out how best to deal with them, and it can certainly help us avoid doing things that make the situation worse.

As Matthew S. Boone puts it:
"Troublesome thoughts become just thoughts...  Painful emotions… come and go without overwhelming us… New possibilities can emerge.  Maybe we pause for a moment before saying the first thing that comes to our minds.  Maybe we finally acknowledge the pain we run away from by working all the time.  Maybe we begin to notice what actually matters to us rather than what we have been taught to care about."   (Mindfulness & Acceptance in Social Work)

   photo source: David Castillo Dominici for

2. In fact, you could be "successfully" practicing mindfulness without realizing it.
"Have you ever sat down to meditate, watched your thoughts whirling around your mind--and felt like maybe you were meditating "wrong?" Well, guess what? You're not doing anything wrong. When thoughts arise during meditation, it's completely normal."   ("Don't Stop Thinking,"  by Jennifer Howd at The Huffington Post) 
Traditionally, the constant movement of thoughts is referred to as “monkey mind.”  In Mindfulness & Acceptance in Social Work, Matthew S. Boone uses the image of “trying to get cats to pose for a picture… just as likely to end up chasing an imagined mouse… as sitting still."

This isn't a problem; it's just part of the process.  As Bart Van Melik puts it,
"The great thing about mindfulness is that as soon as you notice that you’re not mindful, you’re doing it. Even being mindful of your own lack of mindfulness can be part of your practice."   

3. You may simply be trying to do too much, too soon...

Jennifer Howd explains that "it’s a lot like going to the gym."
"If you’re new to weightlifting, you don’t want to start with a 100 pound weight. You’re apt to try and pick it up, get discouraged, and never hit the gym again... When I first started meditating I could barely sit for 3 minutes! So, I’d say a great place to consider starting is 5 to 10 minutes and then build from there." 

4. Or you could be learning about mindfulness without really practicing it.

In Full Catastrophe Living, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn compares cultivating mindfulness to the process of eating:

"It would be absurd to propose that someone else eat for you.  And when you go to a restaurant, you don’t eat the menu, mistaking it for the meal, nor are you nourished listening to the waiter describe the food.  
You have to actually eat the food for it to nourish you.  In the same way you have to actually practice mindfulness in order to reap its benefits and come to understand why it is so valuable."

5. You can't (and shouldn't!) make someone else meditate or be mindful.

In The Mindful ChildSusan Kaiser Greenland explains:
“You can insist kids sit still, be quiet, and exert boundaries and control in connection with their bodies, but it is impossible to exert boundaries and control over what is going on in their minds.   
If kids are not interested, they may sit quietly, but the likelihood that they are meditating is slim." 
It's also important that parents and teachers be very careful in how they present mindfulness to kids.  Ronit Jinich of Mindfulness Without Borders is concerned "now that the word 'mindful' is everywhere."
"The word’s being used without people necessarily understanding the meaning of it, and they can use it in a way that’s not accurate...  
If you keep telling kids, “Oh, you’re not being mindful,” it can be understood as scolding. They may see mindfulness as a form of self-criticism or judgment, and that could keep them from wanting to practice."

6. Mindfulness won't necessarily make you feel good, at least not all the time.

I cringe every time I see an ad for a mindfulness workshop that’s “guaranteed to make you happier.”

As Paul Gilbert and Choden point out in Mindful Compassion, when we begin to practice mindfulness it can release a lot of negative emotions because we're finally allowing ourselves to feel them.
"A useful metaphor for mindfulness is going into a darkened room and gradually turning up a dimmer switch so that the light reveals more and more of what is in the room.”

Or, to put it another way, 
“To seek truth is always to run the risk of discovering what one would hate to see.” 
(Rollo May, Man's Search for Himself) 

Not being happy all the time doesn't mean that mindfulness isn't working.  It means that it is working.

In an essay on The Importance of Sadness at, Susan Piver points out that awareness of suffering may not make us feel "good" but it can make us more compassionate.
"When you look out at this world, what you see will make you very, very sad... You are seeing clearly. Genuine sadness gives rise, spontaneously, naturally, completely, to the wish—no, the longing—to be of benefit to others...  whether it takes the form of activism, leadership, charitable work, making art, prayer, and/or simple, basic kindness to all."

7. Finally, it's important to remember that one teacher or class or practice doesn't represent "mindfulness."

I've heard a couple of odd complaints about mindfulness recently.  The first is, "I find it harder to concentrate when I'm being mindful." 


Mindfulness basically means being fully present with whatever is actually happening right now. 

While listening, just listen.  

While walking, just walk.  

But nobody in their right mind would pause in the middle of crossing a busy road in order to focus all their attention on the bottoms of their feet, or to contemplate in a calm and nonreactive way the sound of a screeching car horn.  

This complaint isn't really about mindfulness.  It's about trying to do a particular type of practice at an inappropriate time. 

The second complaint I heard recently is, "I can't stand mindfulness.  I took a class once and it was just a bunch of liberals sitting around staring at a candle."

Again, this isn't really about mindfulness.  It's about the way a particular teacher chose to present the activities in a particular class.  

Personally, I don't stare at candles all that often, but I don't find it at all objectionable.  On the other hand, I got the creepy-crawlies when I was visiting a church and the minister insisted everyone hold hands and sing Kum Ba Yah before the sermon.  

But I understand that's a personal preference. And I certainly don't define Christianity as "a bunch of people sitting around holding hands and singing Kum Ba Yah." If you don't happen to like looking at candles, there are dozens of other ways to meditate and/or practice mindfulness.

So I can't take that objection very seriously.  On the other hand, I am quite concerned about anyone feeling mindfulness isn't for them because of their religious or political beliefs. 

In the class with the "candle-watching liberals," the teacher introduced lovingkindness meditation by joking that when it's time to focus on someone she doesn't like, she chooses a conservative politician.  It was intended as a light-hearted moment, but at least one student was deeply offended.  

Perhaps you've been feeling like "mindfulness isn't for me," or perhaps you're having trouble convincing someone else.  I encourage you to look at the variety of perspectives presented in the activities, books, and interviews.  

People from different backgrounds use different techniques, but with the same goal: being more present and more compassionate.  I don't know anyone who couldn't benefit from that.


related posts:

Advice for Mindfulness Teachers and Practitioners (interview)

The Eightfold Path in Everyday Life (poster)

How to Cultivate a Joyful Mind (interview)

7 Ways to Teach Mindfulness Outside of a Mindfulness Program

What's the Best Mindfulness Practice for Me? (quiz)