A Telltale Sign You’re Not Mindful about Mindfulness

by Melissa Karnaze

Mindfulness meditation can be used to dissociate from your unwanted “negative” emotions.

Did you read that sentence mindfully?

Did you see the word “can?” (It makes a huge difference in your interpretation.)

So how can you use mindfulness in ways that thwart your emotional health?

It’s really simple: by not being mindful about mindfulness, itself.

The simple order of events

In cultivating mindfulness, you essentially pay more attention to your present experience.

In rudimentary terms, you ultimately want to experience the absence of mind-chatter, or whatever normally fires off in your brain (in potentially maladaptive ways).

The problem is, even if you get glimpses of that blissful state — “total” awareness of your present sensory experience — thoughts and feelings can still interrupt you without warning. And what are you to do? Be mindful of those interruptions.

When you “observe” them instead of react to them, you abstain from perpetuating them by stirring the pot with more thoughts, feelings, assessments, judgments, etc.

Did you read that mindfully?

Did you notice the word “interrupt?” It presupposes negative judgment of “intruding” thoughts and feelings — as not being of the “present moment,” and “bad.” (You have to read between the lines to see this contradiction.)

Additionally, when a thought or feeling arises, you have (at least) two paths before you. Following it, or noticing it. You could follow it mindfully, finding out “where it leads.” You could also “notice” its structure, which would be traditional mindfulness in action. One could argue that by not following it, you interrupt its natural process of unfolding.

Thoughts and feelings are dynamic — their beginnings and ends are up to us to decide. This makes them complicated (as if they weren’t already).

Thus, it’s important to be mindful of the reasons for practicing mindfulness, because without mindful reasons, you could very well assess and respond to your thoughts and feelings in ways that contradict your original goals for practicing mindfulness in the first place.

Why observe intruding thoughts and feelings?

Sure, you could argue that you observe the “nature” of thoughts and feelings — because that’s what mindfulness is about, and we’re discussing an example where mindfulness is what you practice, after all.

However, this dodges the question.

As far as we can tell, thoughts and feelings seem to pop out of “nowhere.” And it’s not like we can so easily pin them down and inspect them under a microscope. (At least not yet.)

How you respond to your thoughts and feelings is key. Your reasons for a particular response are key.

The telltale sign

So why practice mindfulness?

To “get rid” of pesky intruders? Get “control” of your mind? Lose your “ego?” Calm down? Feel good? Avoid feeling bad? Become more “free?” Expand your perspective? Experience enlightenment? Experience the “present” moment? Understand the nature of the universe?

Each of these reasons is underpinned by cognitive assumptions about how you and/or your world operates. Are you mindful of those assumptions?

Are you aware that many, if not all, of those assumptions actually contradict the reasons that follow from them?

For instance, Buddha said that you can’t comprehend the “nature” of the universe, firstly, because there is no nature or essence, and secondly, because all you can know is your sensory experience. As another example, by trying to experience the present moment, you can actually distance yourself from your thoughts and emotions — do they not qualify as being part of the present?

The telltale sign that you’re not mindful about mindfulness is that your reason for engaging in mindfulness contradict your original aims.

Only you can assess your reason. And only you can assess how mindfulness works for you in that regard.

Be mindful about “mindfulness”

Mindfulness, as it’s often defined by pop psychology and mainstream Buddhist psychology, implies that by observing your “present experience,” you can, in many ways, transcend it.

However, mindfulness, in itself, is a mental activity.

There are benefits and costs to engaging in various mental activities, across many different situations. The ticket is in learning from experience what’s most helpful for you at a particular time — given your particular intentions.

So in order to be mindful about mindfulness, you have to do at least two things:

  1. Consciously assess why you want to practice mindfulness in the first place, so that you can do so for healthy reasons
  2. Mindfully observe how you respond to unwanted experiences, like intruding thoughts or negative emotions, so that you can respond in increasingly healthy ways
  3. Take mindful note of how your responses are ultimately healthy and/or harmful to you, especially after your practice

“Healthy” and “harmful” are for you to define; you’re the only one you’ll really listen to, anyway.

This is the 7th article in the series, “Mindful emotion regulation: An integrative review.”

What do you think?

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