I used to believe that meditation, and its close relative, mindfulness, were supposed to make me and my life better.
Wiser. Calmer. More spiritual. Happier. And more besides.
In other words, I looked upon mindfulness and meditation as akin to exercise. I put in the work of training my mind and I benefit from that workout. Maybe not instantly, but over time I'd reap the rewards.
I can't say that I've totally discarded that perspective. However, it isn't as strong in me anymore.
Instead, I've come around to the notion that the idea of gaining something from mindfulness and meditation is at odds with what these practices are all about: being in touch with here-and-now reality.
When part of me is resting contentedly on my meditation cushion (which happens to be attached to a chair) and part of me is expecting to become someone better than I am now, there's a disconnect.
It's difficult to embrace what is happening inside and outside of me now, while also anticipating that what I'm doing now will lead to future positive changes.
I recall that Buddhists speak of this sort of thing as having "gaining ideas." Meaning, an expectation that mindfulness and meditation will help the practitioner gain something.
Another way of putting it is being attached to the outcome of mindfulness and meditation, as contrasted with simply pursuing those activities without desiring particular changes.
Here's a few passages from Seth Gillihan's book, Mindful Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, that get at what I'm trying to describe.
My patient Jon had stopped meditating when he found that it didn't get rid of his anxiety. Many of us expect that meditation practice will get rid of the less desirable parts of our lives, such as stress, anxiety, and other difficult emotions.
Sometimes that happens, given the calming nature of mindfulness practice. But feeling more comfortable is not the purpose of openhearted presence -- and it is less likely to happen if we make it the goal.
Expecting certain outcomes from our mindfulness practice will get in the way of our experience. Expectations lead to evaluation -- Am I relaxing? Is my mind quieting? Am I having a mystical expericnce? -- which pulls us out of the present.
Instead, we can approach each moment of meditation as if it's the first time we've experienced it, without preconceptions or goals.
Mindful awareness is about relationship. In my work with Jon, he practiced a new way of relating to his anxiety. When the anxious spells came, he opened to the experience with curiosity rather than resistance.
Instead of telling himself, "I can't stand this!" and "I have to make it stop," he said, "Let me see what this is like. What's happening in my body? How does the anxiety shift over time?" Jon discovered not only that he suffered much less but also that the attacks came less often.
Mindfulness changes our relationship with our experience, not necessarily the experience itself.
...As you invite mindful presence, you don't have to force anything or try to make it feel "spiritual." Keep it very ordinary and uncomplicated, and just notice what's happening. See what you're seeing. Hear what you're hearing. Take in colors and textures around you.
You can turn inward, too, seeing what emotions are present and watching what your mind is up to. This can all happen in real time as you go about your activities. You can try it with cooking, cleaning walking, bathing -- anything at all, including reading this book.
As you pay attention, open to anything that comes your way. Receive it. Proactively say yes to it all. Release the constant drive to improve your situation. Settle into it instead: "This is what's happening. This is my reality."
That doesn't mean you don't fix something that's wrong or tell someone no. Just stay open to all of the experience as it's happening, even the uncomfortable parts.