Mindfulness Myth: It’s about being in the present moment…. and having a good time when you’re there
“The present’s bad enough without the past getting mixed into it. Live in the moment. He’d put that on a giveaway calendar once, some fraudulent sex-enhancement product for women….So here it is then, the moment, this one, the one he’s supposed to be living in. His head’s on a hard surface, his body’s crammed into a chair, he’s one big spasm. He stretches, yelps with pain.”
– Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood (2003 pp.312)
Coming into contact with the present moment is often deeply unsatisfactory. As I’m writing this now, I’m aware of feeling slightly too warm; that the dry skin around my knuckles feels sore, and that the light in my office is somehow too dim and too glaring at the same time. If I chose to break off from my writing and take what is known in mindfulness courses as a “3 minute breathing space” I would be choosing to deliberately come into contact with whatever thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations that are arising in my experience, moment by moment. What I wouldn’t necessarily be coming into contact with, would be inner peace, zen-like calm or existential bliss (experiences not commonly encountered whilst sitting at my computer I must confess…) There are times in my life when I have felt peaceful, calm and blissful. However, I know that simply bringing my awareness to the present moment won’t induce or conjure up such experiences, if they weren’t there in the first place.
The two contrasting quotes above beautifully illustrate the theme of this blog post – which is the myth that mindfulness is about being in the present moment, and always having a good time when you get there. Empty platitudes urge us to enjoy, treasure, savour, and appreciate every moment of our lives. Yet so often, the moments of our lives are filled with pain, discomfort or plain boredom. In Atwood’s dystopian novel Oryx and Crake, our protagonist Jimmy is a survivor of a catastrophic event, and the novel follows his struggle for survival in the bleakest of situations. His physical pain “He stretches, yelps with pain” – is matched only by his emotional pain of grief, loneliness and despair. Ironically, it is often physical or emotion pain which drives people to want to try a mindfulness course in the first place. If people then learn skills in opening to what is present, in body, mind and heart, no doubt a shock lies in wait if they expect “mindfulness” to be a magic portal to a state of mythical bliss.
The following excerpt from Clinical Psychologist Paul Chadwick’s book explores the use of mindfulness with people with distressing psychosis. Distressing psychotic experiences may include for example, hearing voices which are critical or threatening. An acceptance of the experience just as it is in the moment, is crucial. This is often a challenge for people at first as they think they have “done it wrong” or can’t “do” mindfulness, because they were unable to block out voices, or to create an empty or a blank mind. This is of course the opposite to the attitudinal qualities of a mindfulness practice, which include non-judging, acceptance and letting go.
“A common misunderstanding clients make is to think that mindfulness has only occurred (or worked) when they feel relaxed and have a clear and calm mind. Mindfulness is ‘choiceless attention’ – that is, it is to be aware of accepting of whatever is present in that moment. If you are feeling cold and miserable, it might be relaxing to imagine a beach on a warm day, but this is avoidance of that which is present.”
– Person-Based Cognitive Therapy for Distressing Psychosis, Paul Chadwick (2006, pp.96)
So why bother developing skills in being in the present moment, when the present moment is often such a difficult place to be? This is a big question and one probably beyond the scope of what can be explored in a brief post such as this. One answer may simply be that we are only ever alive moment by moment. So to come to the present moment is simply to live. One of the concepts which is introduced in week 1 of a standard mindfulness course is that of recognising when we’re on “automatic pilot”. Automatic pilot certainly has its uses and we all need to switch it on sometimes. The difficulty comes when we aren’t able to even notice when we’re in automatic pilot – or we forget where the switch is altogether. Amongst other things, cultivating mindfulness skills allows us to move from reacting to responding, which is also known as wise action. For example in Oryx and Crake, when Jimmy opens up to his feelings of grief and isolation, this also allows him to open up to the choices he has in how he continues to lead his life. The book ends with him happening upon another group of survivors; are they potential allies or enemies? Should he approach and extend the hand of friendship, or attack first before they can attack him? Atwood is too subtle a writer to give us a definitive answer. However, Jimmy’s musings as the sun rises over the horizon gives us a clue I think to what his next step may be.
“On the eastern horizon there’s a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow. Strange how that colour still seems tender. He gazes at it with rapture; there is no other word for it. Rapture. The heart seized, carried away, as if by some large bird of prey. After everything that’s happened, how can the world still be so beautiful?”
– Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood (2003, pp. 429)