Posted by Lissa Carter, LPCA
I have a new client. He is NOT feeling the mindfulness practice. In our last session, when I asked him if he’d like to take a few moments to breathe quietly and check in with his inward landscape, he went along with it, but I could tell it was a struggle—heavy sighs, eye rolling, squirming. I asked him about it afterward.
“The thing is,” he told me, “I know a lot of people who are really into this. And it’s just not real life. You don’t get to just check out and hum when things get real. And I’ve watched some of my friends just refuse to interact with the real world, they just go off and meditate or do yoga and disappear when things get tough. I’m not interested in being like that.”
Do you know anyone like that? Anyone who uses meditation or mindfulness or chanting or yoga or self-care or self-compassion as a way of avoiding life? Anyone who has used spiritual bypassing to duck out of difficult conversations?
OH MY GOODNESS ME TOO. Her name is ME. But I’m working on it.
When I was first introduced to meditation, it felt like water in the desert. I practiced ALL the time. I murmured mantras on my way to work and practiced deep breathing exercises in the bathroom. When friends or family complained to me I would breathe in light and breathe out compassion, so I could rise above the problem. When hard conversations or difficult feedback landed in my lap, I would go shut the door and meditate until I felt good again.
Yeah, I entirely missed the point.
The point of mindfulness isn’t to feel good all the time. We don’t meditate to avoid life, but to be more present to it. The practice of meditation is not intended to keep you in a state of bliss.
I shared this with my client, and he nodded.
“Well why do you still do it then?”
Here’s what I explained to my client:
Imagine that right before an important meeting at work, a close friend calls and reminds you that you flaked out on meeting her last night and her feelings are hurt. She tells you that you are insensitive and that she wishes you would be more considerate in future.
You don’t have time to explain yourself or even apologize the way you would like to before you have to rush off to the meeting. You are feeling emotional and completely distracted by this unexpected feedback. Your mind races, sorting through multiple experiences in the past and present, looking for evidence of thoughtlessness and insensitivity, then rapidly changes gears, trying to find proof for the counterargument that you are actually a highly thoughtful and sensitive person.
How do you think you are going to perform at that meeting?
One of the unexpected drawbacks we humans unleashed upon ourselves when we developed language is the ability to cycle a feeling of threat from the past into the present and the future. By thinking about a negative experience in the past and giving language and interpretation to it, we can cycle that experience of threat forward from the amygdala (where emotions are designed to last no longer than a few moments) into the prefrontal cortex, where we can ponder and interpret, generating all kinds of new and prolonged emotional experiences in the limbic system, which we then pull into the prefrontal cortex again, ad infinitum.
We do this threat-cycling for a simple reason: to prevent the threat from happening again. We think, if we can analyze the experience and understand why it happened, we may be able to avoid similar experiences in the future.
Great! Except… it doesn’t work.
When we experience a threat, whether it is a threat to our most valuable relationships or a threat to our livelihood, that feeling generates very specific physiological responses in the body that make it extremely difficult to attend to anything other than the threat. This happens for a reason: it serves our survival to pay attention to something that threatens us!
But…we do not do our best thinking at these times.
Coming back to the story of the meeting, chances are you are not going to be able to concentrate in there. You’ve brought an imaginary threat into the room---the feedback you got from your friend—and, ironically, it will probably keep you from being thoughtful and sensitive during the meeting. So, if the point was to solve the problem by analyzing it, threat-cycling did just the opposite and guided you into repeating the behavior you were hoping to avoid!
This is exactly where mindfulness shines.
Not to help you avoid that feedback from your friend and meditate until you are convinced you are a good person again. Not to take deep breaths and “transcend” the conversation.
Rather, a mindfulness practice can help you soothe the nervous system enough to get your intelligence back on line in time for the meeting, to be present moment by moment in that meeting while compassionately noticing the emotions that arise from the phone call, and then to kindly, courageously, and intelligently decide how your best self wants to respond to your friend.
From a calm place, our full intelligence is available, and we are better able to see the broader patterns of cause and effect. We can get that languaging brain on our side and use it to imagine how we would like to respond to situations like this in the future.
This is why we practice mindfulness all the time. Not to avoid real life, not to bliss out, but to build the muscle of a flexible mind so that when we need to react from our full intelligence, it is available to us.
My client took this in quietly and thought about it. “But do you get people using it the other way? To check out?”
“I think most of us fall to one side or the other, most of the time,” I said. “We are either actively avoiding negative feelings, painful situations, and people who force us to face uncomfortable truths about ourselves, or we are punishing ourselves with those very things, pushing away the good and comfortable and enjoyable experiences in our lives from a sense that we don’t deserve good things because there are parts of us that are not yet perfect.
Mindfulness is that balancing point, the middle ground between those two reactions that allows us to stay in the present moment and make decisions from compassion instead of avoidance or punishment.”
“I do that other one all the time!” he said. “I feel like I’m wrong to be happy if my wife is sad. Or to have a good day if my son is mad at me.”
It is so hard to find that middle ground, that flexible-brain response. It’s so hard to get the languaging brain to drop that threat-cycle bone it’s been chewing on for a decade and help you to imagine what you’d like to do instead.
So in those moments when you feel you are not acting from your best self, take a little time to close your eyes and breathe. Imagine a wise, kind version of yourself wrapping an arm of compassion around you.
Then look honestly at your behaviors. Are you avoiding something, or are you punishing yourself? How would your best self like to respond in this moment?
The full exercise, which I’ve borrowed and adapted from Compassion-Focused Therapy, is downloadable below.
If you find it hard to imagine feeling calm when someone is mad at you, or facing criticism without beating yourself up, you just might benefit from taking the time to complete the whole thing!
As always, we love to hear from you if you want to drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below. And if you need a little help navigating this middle ground of mindful self-compassion, Maeve's 6-week meditation course is starting up next month! You can learn more or register by clicking the image below.
Thank you to my brave client for his willingness to share his story.