When I first meditated, sometime in 2000, I was self-conscious enough about my weird new hobby that I did it in a locked bathroom.
Today, mindfulness has gained pop culture acceptance, and has become the subject of serious scientific interest. My fellow “nerds of the mind” and I have become the cool kids, and we don’t have to be self-conscious any more.
Even most non-practitioners seem to believe that mindfulness can somehow calm our nerves and clear our heads, and that it’s probably an all-around good thing.
Beyond that though, it’s not clear how it’s so helpful. How, exactly, does watching your breathing, or tuning into the ambient sounds of neighborhood birds, produce the drastic improvements to everyday life that mindfulness nerds like me are always talking about?
The proclaimed benefits of mindfulness practice are wide-ranging, almost suspiciously so. Aside from the impressive clinical reports—reduced stress, better sleep, lowered blood pressure—mindfulness practitioners credit it for untangling problems that seem much more personal and situational: relationship troubles, motivation issues, bad habits and addictions.
Significant energy, money and time are being invested in mindfulness by organizations who obviously aren’t after spiritual enlightenment. Its mysterious powers to make human beings generally more effective and resilient are currently being explored by corporate productivity experts, police agencies and even NFL teams.
Many times on Raptitude I’ve credited my daily meditation practice for transforming my social life. I used to have such intense social anxiety that I could barely phone a store to ask their hours without hyperventilating. Today I feel free to talk to almost anyone anywhere. I’m still a happily introverted person, but that particular kind of suffering, which once dominated my life, is almost entirely gone. It’s obvious to me, and probably nobody else, how this happened.
I also credit mindfulness as the main factor in curbing my impulsive spending, improving my eating habits (and drinking habits), allowing me to be fully rested on less sleep, and virtually eliminating boredom from my life. Others credit their practice for their success in quitting smoking, overcoming pessimism, or repairing their relationship.
This rainbow of purported benefits might actually be a liability for mindfulness’s public image. It sounds too good to be true, first of all. And if it’s doing that many things, it only makes the how it works question murkier.
It’s famously hard for us meditators to explain what it does for us, beyond saying, “I just feel better.” Even now, I often start my answer with “Well, uh, it’s complicated…” which can only signal to the explainee to begin politely nodding.
Mindfulness practice itself isn’t complicated, but explaining how it changes a person seems to be. How do you describe a different, less habitual mode of experiencing the world, and how it changes your relationship to your feelings and your behavior? It’s all internal, so to talk about it makes it seem so abstract.
Once you’re practicing consistently, the mechanism behind this kind of growth is easy to feel, but it remains hard to explain. It seems like all you can do is describe how your life has changed, glossing over whatever magic must connect the practice to the benefit.
To daily practitioners, how these improvements happen is quite intuitive, but not easily expressible. I might put it like this:
For a short time every day, you practice observing present-moment experience unfold, doing your best to refrain from the habit of evaluating it or trying to control it.
You can’t help but notice that your sensory and emotional experience is constantly changing. Feelings and experiences are perpetually arising and fading, second by second, and you become a lot more relaxed about that. You become less clingy towards the pleasant experiences, less distressed by the unpleasant ones, and less bored with everything else.
This “openness to experience” begins to feel increasingly natural. It becomes much easier and less scary to operate outside of your habits and comfort zones, whenever it makes sense to do so.
That’s part of it, anyway. This is how the shy can become confident, the clingy can become easygoing, the frantic can become patient, and the bored can become satisfied with ordinary moments.
Meanwhile, to the uninitiated, it’s not at all clear why sitting on the floor with your eyes closed, or paying undivided attention to your Cheerios, might transform your social life or make it drastically easier to stick to a fitness regimen.
Despite mindfulness having become a kind of cultural darling, “Why do it?” is still an open question for most people, and “because it’s good for you” isn’t a complete or particularly useful answer. The traditional contemplative response is often even worse: just do the practice and all will be answered in time.
That response might suffice for a group of novice monastics, who are already committed to spending a lifetime, or several, exploring their minds. But for everyday Westerners—who have very little time, and a thousand things they could be doing other than sitting on the floor, observing nostril-related sensations—it’s just more encouragement not to bother.
Knowing how easy it is for us not to practice mindfulness, I’m determined to give potential practitioners detailed, straight answers to both the “Why bother?” question and the “How can it possibly do that?” question. More or less, that’s the purpose of this blog.
Rather than make this too long-winded, I’ll get more specific in the next post. While I could easily describe twenty concrete ways it’s improved my life, there are three main benefits of mindfulness practice that I believe are universal, and each one alone is worth the price of admission.
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