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Mindfulness Schmindfulness: Reality Is a Pain

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Beth Anstandig

Mindful eating. Mindful drinking. Mindful working. Mindful napping. Mindful this, and mindful that. Mindful purchasing of mindfulness-branded goods and services. If you’ve been to a grocery store, a mall, a school, the internet, anywhere, in the past year or so, you’ve been pitched mindfulness. Heck, if you’ve read this blog in the past month, you’ve been pitched mindfulness. By me. I stand as guilty as anyone of encouraging you to be mindful as an antidote to being zombified by modern life.  And I do think we should be mindful. But, I also think we need to talk about what “mindful” really means.

For many, being “mindful” means something like “paying attention while being aware that you’re paying attention.” This is a valuable skill and not one that comes to many of us naturally. So, yes, we should be mindful of our being mindful.  But we should also be mindful of the promises of buzzwords hidden in the pop culture concept of mindfulness, words like relaxation, serenity, peacefulness.  These are certainly positive sensations, worth pursuing, it’s just that “being mindful” will not necessarily get you those things.  In fact, truly mindful practices will likely get you further away from those sensations than you expect.

“Buddha” means, loosely, “enlightened one” or “awakened one.”  The Buddha didn’t teach meditation as a means for relaxation. Instead, meditation is a means for awakening.  And unfortunately, awakening doesn’t mean waking up to rainbows and unicorns and peace on Earth. Awakening means recognizing the reality of life, just as it is: messy, conflictual, and persistently, dizzyingly, changing from moment to moment. Life, you might say, is hard. Real mindfulness means waking up to that fact and then refusing to hit snooze.  The kind of mindfulness you read about in line at the grocery store is the snooze button.

In couples therapy a few years back, our therapist called me out for wanting to live in “Happy Valley.”  In Happy Valley, you are mindful of every morsel of every cookie you eat, you breathe deeply and take in the sound of passing birds, and you never fight. Meanwhile, in Reality Valley, your life can burn down around you as you refuse to engage with the undebatable fact that your spouse is unhappy. As someone who subscribes to multiple magazines about mindfulness, attempts to teach it, and “practices” it myself, I still struggle with engaging with life as it is.  I love Happy Valley. And Happy Valley, my friends, does not exist.

My post last month, suggesting some steps to being mindful in the office, stopped a little short of the mark.  I do think that learning to breathe in the office will help you. I believe that learning to relax in the office will help you.  But what happens next? Let’s say you wake up a little and step out of your trance. What then? We’ve been developing our trances our entire lives to help deal with things like overwhelming workloads and asshole bosses. If you get truly mindful, if you really wake up, you’re going to see some uncomfortable aspects to reality. Maybe your desk really is buried, your boss really is a jerk, and you really do have to answer to him or her. Ouch. So now what?

The answer is a surrender. Reality will not bend to even the most attentive meditator.  Reality remains. Sure, you may be able to alter your interpretation of reality, and that’s something. You may be able to “realize” that the jerk you work for is just a flawed human being with problems of his or her own, and from that, you may stumble into compassion. But the jerk will still act like a jerk. It’s what jerks do. And you will still report to the jerk, day in, day out. Here is what you can do about the situation, when aided by your mindfulness practice:  you can accept it.  You can put down your ineffective sword or drop your hair-shirt.  You can see that the situation is exactly the situation, and own your place in it. And, once you own your place in reality, you can act appropriately.

The Buddha talks about two arrows. First, you’re wandering through the world enjoying the scenery when out of nowhere, zing, life hits you with an arrow.  This is unpleasant, very unpleasant indeed. But what’s worse is what comes next. You pull out a second arrow from your ample supply and, so upset by the first arrow, you jam the second one into your heart, crying out, “Oh woe is me, I have life’s arrow to contend with … why me? What did I do to deserve this? I do not deserve this.” The first arrow is both inevitable and survivable. But the second arrow destroys you. As you lie there bemoaning your cruel fate you are unable to respond to it. You don’t remove the first arrow, you don’t protect yourself from the next arrow, you don’t get up and move away, you just keep twisting arrow number two. This is just a metaphor of course and it can be stated perhaps more clearly for the modern reader: when life hands us something unfair we have choices. One choice is to freeze consumed by the injustice of the situation. Another choice is the lash out and react. A third choice, if we have some mindfulness on board, is to assess and respond.

But mindfulness will not remove either arrow for you. What it can do is show you that the first arrow is inevitable and that the second arrow is a choice.  It can help you see that “woe is me” is both painful and avoidable. Anytime we choose to relate to reality as its victim, we lose our ability to respond to reality.  We lose our agency. Anytime we choose to relate to reality as Happy Valley, we lose just the same. We’re not actually changing our life by ignoring our reality. “Oh, that arrow wasn’t so bad. Actually, it was a blessing. It’s helping me realize the precious nature of my life.” Not true. The arrow was an arrow and it needs to be removed. Reality is hard. It just is. Painful things happen to humans. We feel stuff, deeply. In Happy Valley, everything is hunky dory, except for all that isn’t, lying just beneath the surface. In victim world, everything is horrible and coming at us around every corner. It’s scary. And since it’s scary, we elect not to see it nor feel it. Until we meet true mindfulness, not that sold in the checkout line as the path to peace and bliss.

Mindfulness is a pain in the ass. It is not a path to bliss. You do not learn how to levitate above your problems. You learn how to recognize your problems. The problem with learning to recognize your problems, though, is that you still have to do something about them. And doing that something is still up to you.

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