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Has Mindfulness Become Yet Another Marker Of ‘Success’?

I’ve become a little wary of blogging about mindfulness recently; I fear I’m at risk of becoming something of a cliche, if I write another piece about how great mindfulness is, and how everyone should practice it.

Because it’s everywhere right now, isn’t it? And I do worry that it could be turning into yet another thing that people feel they have to achieve.

But life for most of us is hard enough without that burden.

I’m beginning to prefer to use the word ‘awareness’ – it doesn’t seem to carry the weight of expectation, there’s more room for not getting anything right.

We can grow awareness very very slowly, and we can become more aware without even having to change anything. The habits we’d like to change are often so deeply entrenched because the idea of doing anything different is, quite frankly, terrifying.

If what we’re shooting for is simply awareness, we really don’t have to change the habit until we’re ready: just bringing compassionate awareness to those times we catch ourselves in the act is enough. It’s more than enough. It kickstarts the process of real change.

Because with awareness, we start to truly understand our habits. We begin to see what it is that we’re avoiding (or seeking) through particular behaviour. This can show up in the things we actually do, but also in our mental and emotional patterns and habits. I speak here from personal experience – many of my own habits are attempts to escape uncomfortable feelings like uncertainty, confusion, insecurity or fear (to name just a few).

Once we have this kind of insight into our own patterns, a positive change can begin to unfold naturally. And that will likely not be a neat and tidy movement towards ‘success’. A gradual growth as a human being may occur that is meandering, back-sliding, acceptance-requiring – and quite astonishing.

What’s more, there is no particular end-point that we need to reach. In my own practice of ten years, the more awareness I’ve developed, the further away I’ve moved from needing to evaluate my own success, at anything – including meditation.

I hope that as mindfulness becomes more embedded into our culture, we can embrace it as a simple invitation towards greater awareness, as we tread this tricky and amazing path of being human.

If you liked this piece, you can find out how to explore my approach further here

How Mindfulness Soothes ‘Red Alert’

When I first learned about the 3 emotion systems, I wished I’d know about it earlier.   Having experienced several years of high stress and anxiety, I could see how this knowledge might have helped me navigate such a difficult period.  Here’s a brief introduction to what these systems are, and why they are key to balancing stress.

In his book The Compassionate Mind, psychologist Paul Gilbert outlines these systems, which I’ll describe here as:

Threat zone

Striving zone

Contentment zone

When something makes us feel threatened,  typical feelings are fear/anxiety,  or defensive feelings like anger and resentment.  The stress hormone cortisol is very much associated with this system.  In the striving zone, we’re focussed on trying to achieve things.  When we get what we want, it feels good.  But constant striving is exhausting and can lead to burnout.  The contentment zone is the one we were designed to return to when the tiger that was lurking has gone away.  This is when we feel calm and at peace, and we’re just Being, not trying to achieve anything.  Affiliation is also an important aspect of this system: connecting with others helps us to feel safe and soothed.   We need a bit of each of these systems to function well and stay alive, but often they become out of balance.

So, taking an overview of these three zones – where do you spend the most time currently?  When I looked back on my infertility struggles, I could see clearly that I constantly bounced between Threat and Striving.  Even worse, I had no control over what I wanted to achieve, which amplified the negative effects of both those zones.  During that time, it was safe to say that I pretty much NEVER spent any time in the Contentment zone.  I hardly even knew that such a state existed.  All I felt was scared, frustrated and isolated.

The good news is that even when we’re experiencing stress, there are ways to bring ourselves into the Contentment zone a bit more.  And spending more time there can rebalance the depleting effects of the other two zones.  Practising meditation regularly is one way to do this.  This is partly because it moves us away from the Doing mode that is associated with striving, and into the Being mode which is more characteristic of contentment.  When we practice mindfulness meditation, we’re not trying to achieve anything or get anywhere.   We’re just Being With our experience.   Practised over time, regular meditation can also help us ‘dial down’ the threat system, so that we feel more calm generally.

The other aspect of mindfulness that helps us plug into the contentment system is connecting with others.  When we engage in Connection meditations, we can reduce feelings of isolation by focussing on our shared humanity:  just like us, everyone wants to be happy, and wants to avoid suffering.  Taking it further, mindfulness often offers an environment that enables us to connect with others in a very human way.  Over time, I’ve come into contact with lots of people who’ve turned to mindfulness to help with their own suffering.  Even during difficult times, it has helped me to feel part of that human community, among others who also suffer but for different reasons.

If you want to read more about the emotion systems, I would highly recommend the book Mindful Compassion by Paul Gilbert and Choden.

My Top 10 Mindful Reading List

I often recommend some of these books to people – and I’ve found them all so helpful personally. Some are on mindfulness, others on self-compassion – but they all have something valuable to say about being human.

If you’re looking for some inspiration for your reading list, you might like to try some of these.

1. Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff – a fantastic intro to self-kindness, & how it can replace poor self-esteem.

2. Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson – great for boosting positivity.

3. Mindfulness: Finding Peace In A Frantic World by Mark Williams & Danny Penman – I recommend this as an intro to mindfulness for those who are curious but haven’t yet tried it.

4. The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert – fascinating explanation of our emotion systems and why we find life difficult.

5. Calming Your Anxious Mind by Jeffrey Brantley – a good book to progress to once you’ve already started practising mindfulness.

6. The Mindful Path To Self-Compassion by Christopher Germer – again, I’d say best read once you’ve already started practising self-compassion meditations.

7. The Mindfulness Solution by Ronald D Siegel – I found the sections about learning how to be with difficulty especially helpful, after I’d attended a mindfulness course.

8. Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn – I read this once I had a fairly established practice as a way of developing further.

9. Breath By Breath by Larry Rosenberg – A good book for people who already meditate regularly and want to go deeper.

10. Get Out Of Your Mind & Into Your Life by Steven C Hayes – practical exercises that help build discomfort tolerance, based on the ACT approach. The chapters on Values are great if you want to make some changes in your life. I’d suggest learning a bit about self-kindness before doing the other exercises.

If you’ve read any of these, what did you think?

Which books would be on your Top 10?

(At some point I might do a ‘part 2’ to this post – there are definitely more I could add since I first wrote it!)

Choosing Love Over Power

At some point I stumbled across the idea of ‘Love Mode vs Power Mode’. It made a big impact on me. I could quickly see how I operate from each mode in relationships with others. At work. As a parent. In close relationships.

I noticed that when I’m in power mode, that’s about trying to control someone else (usually in the service of making myself feel comfortable).

Love mode, on the other hand, is free of any such motive. I’m fully present to the other person as a being in their own right, and often I’m in service rather than in control.

And then there is the relationship we have with ourselves. The practice of self-kindness has helped me to shift from the power mode of self-improvement to the love mode of self-acceptance.

I first came across the poem below via Tara Brach (it’s credited as the words of Bapuji). To me, it’s an invitation to move more deeply into this space of self-love, whatever obstacles get thrown up along the journey.

“My beloved child, break your heart no longer.

Each time you judge yourself you break your own heart.

You stop feeding on the love which is the wellspring of your vitality.

The time has come, your time to live, and to trust the goodness that you are.

There is no wrong in you.

Your true essence is pure awareness, aliveness, love.

Let no one, no thing, no idea or ideal obscure this truth.

If one comes, even in the name of ‘Truth’, forgive it for its unknowing.

Do not fight. Let go. And breathe – into the goodness that you are.”

~ Bapu-ji

You can find various self-kindness practices on my meditations page.

If you liked this post, you may also be interested in these links:

How To Be Happy, Just As You Are

Why Mindfulness Needs Kindness

My resources site Lollipop Wellbeing

Should I Sit Up Or Lie Down To Meditate?

This a question that comes up alot in classes, and it also comes up alot for me in my own practice too!  And with good reason.  Choosing a posture for meditation is in itself an exercise in being mindful.

This is because there are no simple, black-and-white, right or wrong answers in this area.  I realise this may not be what you want to hear if you’re looking for an ‘how to’ guide.  I used to love a good set of rules to follow (in any area of my life), but learning mindfulness is very much about developing inner wisdom and trust in our own instincts.  With time, we can become more responsive to what’s happening in our own experience.

Picking a posture is a good example of this responsiveness.  While I won’t give a prescriptive list of right or wrong, I’m happy to share a few things that may help you experiment while you find your feet (or bottom, or back…)

What do I need right now?

When you prepare to meditate (whether that means self-guided or listening to a recording), check in with yourself.  What do you need right now?  Some other considerations that may be useful are:

If you’re feeling resistant – what will make meditation feel more appealing/do-able?

If you’re feeling sluggish – what will support a quality of awareness?

If you’re feeling physical discomfort – what does my body need?

If you’re feeling emotionally fragile – what will give me the most support?

When you check in with yourself, you may discover that you need to sit in a chair, lie down covered by a blanket or make an adjustment for your particular body.  The wisdom of the poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver comes to mind: ‘You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves’.

Sitting and lying – what’s the difference?

Meditation is an awareness practice, and your posture will ideally support your ability to bring awareness to your present-moment experience.  There are a few pitfalls when it comes to picking a posture that can interfere with this, and a few benefits of certain postures that are useful to know about.

Sitting

One pitfall here is the belief that it’s the only ‘proper’ meditation posture, and to force yourself to stay in a position that feels uncomfortable.  Although we don’t necessarily avoid unpleasant experiences in mindfulness, if you add discomfort in your posture, you’ll be sitting with a whole load of extra distraction.  Plus meditation will seem like an endurance test, and you might stop doing it at all eventually.  Also if you find yourself slumping when you sit, it may be that lying down enables you to get a more supported posture.  Where sitting up is useful is that being upright brings a quality of alert awareness that can support curiosity.  Sitting in an upright chair is usually a comfortable option for most people – you definitely don’t need to sit cross-legged, and I would advise getting the advice of a meditation teacher (in person) before you do so.  Many of my own teachers who have been meditating for decades choose a nice upright chair when they practice.

Lying

When we first learn to meditate, we might need to lie down (and even fall asleep!), as we begin to seek the support of the ground and let go.  This isn’t a problem, but do be aware that over time, lying down to ‘relax’ could be a way of avoiding parts of your experience.  Meditation isn’t about escaping our thoughts, feelings and body sensations – but about learning to relate to them with more kindness and awareness.  When we lie down, we are more likely to drift off, and become less aware of thoughts, feelings and body sensations.  BUT – this is also where lying down can be helpful.  If you are experiencing unpleasant feelings, then lying down may help you to get in touch with them, without getting overwhelmed.  Feeling the support of the ground underneath the body in itself can be quite calming.  This is totally personal (for some people, lying down may not create a feeling of ease).  Body awareness may also be explored more deeply while lying down.   Personally, I have found that after many years of practice, I am now able to lie down to meditate without a significant loss of awareness or drifting off.

As you become more responsive to what you need in each moment, you’ll get to know which posture will support your practice on any given day.  And of course there is always the option of starting off a meditation lying down, and then transition (mindfully) to sitting for the rest of that practice – or vice versa.   A bit of both within one practice can give you the full range of benefits.

If you really want a rule, I’ll concede and give you just one to close with.  As any good teacher will tell you, ALWAYS ALWAYS choose a posture that feels comfortable for your body, and NEVER EVER stay in a posture that causes physical pain or distress.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like the following resources:

For a little more on posture, here’s a piece from Mindful Online called How To Find The Right Meditation Posture For Your Body

My website for blogs, meditations and free resources – Lollipop Wellbeing

My blog on Everyday Mindfulness called ‘4 Ways To Make Meditation Easier’