Mindfulness Means Letting Go

​Mindfulness Means Letting Go

Whenever I ask clients whether they’ve tried practicing mindfulness before, the response is often the same. I’m met with a look that is part frustration, part guilt. As if I’ve asked them if they’re eating enough green vegetables. Typically, they’ve given it a shot at some point (or maybe have thought about giving it a shot) but were not able to sustain a routine. I get it.

When I was in graduate school and learned that just 7 minutes a day of structured mindfulness could lead to countless benefits for my mental and physical health, it seemed like a no brainer. I certainly had 7 minutes a day to spare. I could take it out of my time reading celebrity gossip, checking social media or watching Bravo. Life changing advantages for only a few minutes a day seemed like a massive return on investment. Despite this, I couldn’t seem to translate my commitment in to action. In that way, it really wasn’t too different from my previous attempts to eat more green vegetables. The truth is that it took me two solid years of trying before I was able to create a consistent mindfulness practice that worked for me. I used apps, scripts, went to classes and workshops and still was only able to keep it up for a handful of days, not weeks, at a time.

I share my experience to normalize the angst that comes from trying and flopping. It is no-doubt challenging to create a new habit. Whether it’s starting a new workout, writing in a gratitude journal, or waking up 30 minutes earlier (all of which I’ve tried…and failed), it is difficult to change our routine. However, for myself and many of my clients I had a lot of trouble integrating mindfulness in to my life because I just felt like I just wasn’t any good at it. Attempts to sit and be still left me frustrated and antsy. I lost count of my breath after 3 or 4 inhales and exhales. I got distracted from my body scan after my ankles. I felt like a mindfulness loser.

One day I consulted with my yoga teacher. He said bluntly that I was missing the point. “There’s no good or bad way to brush your teeth, right? It’s just something you do every day. It’s part of your routine you would never forget to do.” Mindfulness was meant to be the same way. While part of me was considering challenging whether there was indeed a better way to brush your teeth, I got the point so I kept my mouth shut.

I didn’t realize how tightly I was holding on to expectations, assumptions and judgments about what being mindful should look and feel like. It was these very head trips that were blocking me from being present. At this point in my relationship with this practice, mindfulness has been a lesson in learning to let go.

Mindfulness means letting go of the expectation that you can be good or bad at it:

In our society, there are few reasons to initiate a new habit that don’t include achieving some sort of mastery or end result. If we are going to start something new, the objective is certainly to do well at it rather than to do poorly. We join a gym to get in shape. We read a book to learn something or to be be stimulated. Even engaging in a self-care activity with the aim of decompressing entails an attachment to some sort of mental state. The true benefits of mindfulness are reaped once we stop viewing it as a means to an end. This act is a major challenge in our goal-oriented, competitive society. We are a culture fixated on productivity and comparing ourselves to those around us. What’s worse, when we believe that we are not doing well at something, we tend to beat ourselves up in a way that is uniquely sadistic. There are dozens of times I’ve cut a mindfulness meditation short because I felt too distracted to sit still. Yet it wasn’t the feeling of distraction that was most difficult to sit with. It was my mind telling me that I was a failure, a fraud, that this was pointless and I was waiting time. It was feelings of frustration and embarrassment that I wasn’t able to finish what I had started. We have difficulty being for the sake of being, rather than getting somewhere or accomplishing something. In the case of mindfulness, it is when we stop looking for improvements that they are more likely to emerge in subtle and beautiful ways. We have to be still, quiet and attentive (read mindful) in order to perceive them.

Mindfulness means letting go of the expectation that it has to be a seated meditation:

Several years ago, I attended a workshop led by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the seminal writer, scientist and mindfulness teacher. After leading us through a long guided meditation, he commented that he was not going to ring a bell or gong to signify that the experience was over. He shared that it was our job to now “fall awake” and carry the pure awareness gained in the seated mediation into our everyday life. It makes sense that people picture a seated meditation when they hear the word “mindfulness.” It is an amazing way to ground our awareness and sync with the present moment. It is much more difficult to maintain this mindset during a busy day. While I have developed a seated practice over time, I find myself most aware of the present moment when I am listening to great live music, playing with my dog or feeding my baby. It feels like there is nothing else happening in the world except for what is right in front of me. All of my senses are engaged and I feel a fullness in my heart. I crave more of these experiences because they are personal and emotional, sometimes unforgettable because of the impression they leave. Seated meditation provides the foundation to generate these meaningful experiences in everyday life. Taking a hot shower, eating a favorite food or curling up in bed after a long day are moments often missed because our mind is stuck in the past or future. For me, this is where I reap the rewards that mindfulness has to offer.

Letting go of the expectation that it will make you feel “better”:

The first time I did a full-day mindfulness meditation retreat I almost left early. During the introduction to the workshop, the teacher mentioned in passing that he had recently lost a friend in her 30’s to cancer. He said that he had shared mindfulness with her when she was dying to help her let go of anger and fear. This teacher probably shared a dozen other anecdotes, but this one stuck with me. I was expected to spend six hours that day in silence either sitting or walking. My headspace was full of anxiety, thoughts about death and illness, fear that I would get sick, that I already was sick or that someone I loved would get sick. I really detested every minute of it, and if I hadn’t driven with a friend I probably would have snuck out. It wasn’t until long afterwards that I realized that sticking it out, and continuing to observe, describe and ground in the face of unpleasantness was true mindfulness heavy lifting. Many people may be drawn to a mindfulness practice because they believe it will help them feel more relaxed, calm or “better” in general. When that doesn’t happen it can be an easy reason to give up. Our thoughts are like the weather. Some days there is peace and ease, other days it is turbulent and violent. Mindfulness means not playing favorites and watching it all from a place of nonattachment. The hardest but most empowering lesson I’ve gained from mindfulness is that any thought or feeling is time-limited, that I can hold it all loosely and watch it pass without any lasting damage. I’m not always able to have a welcoming stance toward my mind, but most of the time I’m able to be open.

During our conversation, my yoga teacher also reminded me that mindfulness is a practice that is thousands of years old. Over the course of my lifetime I may only hope to chip away at this ancient exercise. I realize I am at the inception of this journey and the work in front of me right now is in letting go. Whenever I’m wondering whether or not I’m holding on to something I look at my shoulders. The closer they are to my ears, the tighter my grip. I squeeze them tightly, ball up my fists and with a deep exhale say the word “release” to myself and let it all go. Maybe it comes from years of training dogs to fetch, but this word comes naturally to me.

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