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I’m Rubbish at Mindfulness

“The best way to be in the present moment is to be aware that you’re not in the present moment. As soon as you’re aware that you’re not in the moment, you’re in the moment”

Deepak Chopra

When I first read this quote, I realised that I’d actually been practising mindfulness for a lot longer that I thought I had and that I wasn’t actually rubbish at mindfulness after all!

As I first started out on my mindfulness journey, I found it so difficult. ‘I can’t get my thoughts to stop wandering’, ‘why can’t my head switch off for just 10 minutes?’, ‘how have I managed to get to 102, when I was supposed to only be counting my breaths to 10’, ‘I’m never going to get to grips with this’, ‘maybe it’s just not for me’, were all common thoughts that surged through every inch of my mind and body, each time I attempted to meditate.

Given this ‘battle’ that I felt I was in (mindfulness – 0/Kerry’s chaotic chatter brain – 10), I guess it’s no wonder that I only dabbled in formal mindfulness practice for the first couple of years. It was something which I’d been told could help my mental health and I was forever striving to try and conquer my long term battle with episodes of depression and anxiety. However, when it feels like something you’re rubbish at, it becomes so easy to want to give up. Rather than building a daily practice, I tended to just turn to mindfulness for a quick fix solution, when I felt particularly stressed or anxious.

However, now as someone who meditates every day (Or at least almost every day – remember there is no such thing as perfection in mindfulness!), I reflect on the significant barriers that used to hold me back in learning the skill of mindfulness and developing a regular practice.

I used to believe that mindfulness meant stopping thoughts or clearing your mind completely. However, as the quote above suggests, it is actually the concious awareness that our mind has wandered and the practice of bringing it back to the breath each time we notice this. On some days we might have to do this 10 times during a 20 minute meditation. On other days, we might need to do this 10,000 times. Each day is different. And being patient and accepting of this, is all part of mindfulness.

Unlike most other areas of our lives, where we have generally been conditioned to strive or to be goal oriented; a culture where our purpose of doing something, is to get somewhere else. For example, ‘I want to go to the gym 3 x per week, in order to lose a stone’. Or, ‘I’m going to work here for the next 3 years, in order to get that promotion’. Mindfulness takes a very different stance.

One of the 7 attitudes of mindfulness is ‘non striving’, something which people can often find hard to get on board with and reflecting on my mindfulness journey, clearly I did for a while too. I look back at how I first started out with mindfulness, in an almost desperate attempt to ‘get somewhere’. ‘If I can only start meditating every day, then I’ll hopefully never get depression again!’. Being so focussed on this goal and purpose of practicing mindfulness, brought about a sense of forcedness, which in combination with my self critical thoughts of ‘being rubbish at mindfulness’, left me continually frustrated and feeling impatient with my mindfulness practice.

What’s interesting is that it’s the very same thoughts that I think contribute to my vulnerability of depression and anxiety, that in fact I was carrying with me in to my mindfulness practice. ‘I’m not good enough at this’, comparing myself to others or the idea of perfection. However, as my mindfulness learning and experience progressed, I soon learnt that when I am being self critical of my mindfulness practice, I am not practicing mindfulness at all.

Sometimes I feel a great sense of joy, calmness and clarity when I meditate. Other times, I experience frustration, boredom or reslestless. However, I have learnt that the idea of mindfulness, is to allow all of these feelings and experiences to arise and not to judge them. Not to cling on to certain ones and push away others. Just to experience things, exactly as they are, in the present moment. What we find by doing this, is naturally we feel more at ease, rather than distressed by perceived difficult feelings and emotions. It is to sit and be OK, with whatever is present, that is true mindfulness, as opposed to striving for the perfect state of clear mind and relaxation.

So today, my relationship with mindfulness and indeed myself, is one of much greater peace, compassion and understanding. I know longer feel in a battle with mindfulness and my mind. Instead I see it as an ongoing journey; with its ups and downs, in which help me to learn and grow each day. But by developing an awareness of this and learning to manage those ups and downs in my meditation practice; I am far better able to apply this to life’s ups and downs, enabling me to cope better. Simply knowing that things will pass; that each moment is different and that life is simply just made up of many moments, one after the other, has truly been transformational to me.

I have learnt that wandering thoughts are part of mindfulness and that simply noticing when your thoughts wander and then gently and kindly (without self criticism!) bringing your awareness back to the breath or your body, means that you are indeed actually in the moment and practicing mindfulness.

A friend that I met on my mindfulness teacher training course explained to me that during a 6 month mindfulness retreat in NZ, guests were actually made to refrain from practicing formal mindfulness every so often, having to have ‘mindfulness days off’. He explained that a lot of people really struggled with this idea. However, the mindfulness teachers explained that missing the odd day of meditation and to feel OK about this, to accept and not criticise oneself, is all part of mindfulness practice and so they deliberately incorporated this into the retreat too.

I now see the importance of this myself. Occasionally, for example if I have friends visiting, I might not carry out a formal meditation that day. However, unlike before, I no longer criticise myself for this or feel guilty. I simply accept, trust that this is OK and carry on the next day. Being kind to yourself and aware of any self criticism, really is an integral part of mindfulness and just as important as actually carrying out formal meditations.

So next time you attempt to carry out a formal meditation, ask yourself: am I being self critical? If the answer is yes, first acknowledge the thoughts and let them arise, rather than trying to resist them. Then try, as best you can, to refocus on the breath, in a kind and non judgmental way. And then see if you notice those self critical thoughts start to slowly and naturally ease off.  It’s perfectly natural to experience these thoughts and mindfulness is not about the achievement of eliminating such thoughts, it is about how we engage with them and our ability to mindfully direct our attention elsewhere.