July 24, 2013

For Better or for Worse

Warning: Mindfulness isn't always fun.

Often when I recommend mindfulness practice to a friend or client, we end up talking about the joys of being more present and less distracted, the wonderful feeling of really connecting during a conversation, or the gratifying experience of actually paying attention to what you're seeing, reading, or eating. Mindfulness is associated with pleasure, and rightfully so.

Mindfulness isn't always that pleasurable, though. Being mindful involves willingness to be present and aware of all of our experience--even when it isn't fun or exciting, and isn't what we hoped for. This includes awareness of what's going with the people around us and what's happening in our environment, but it also means being aware of what's going on inside us, i.e, our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations.

But what if what's going on inside is unpleasant? Do we really want to be aware of hateful or embarrassing thoughts, unpleasant body sensations, and painful feelings? My answer is yes and here's why:

It's a beautiful sunny day and I'm working from home and actually being quite productive--yet I don't feel good. I woke up with belly and chest pain, and the physical sensations and accompanying anxious mood persisted through meditation, breakfast, errands, and several espressos. Because I've been practicing mindfulness for a few years and because I meditated this morning, I know what's wrong: I'm upset about a conflict with a friend that happened last week, an issue I thought was resolved. Because I checked in with my thoughts, feelings, and body sensations, I know that I feel sad and uncertain, that there's a paring knife slicing through my chest and something heavy and round sitting behind my belly button, and that my mind is repeating "It's your fault" over and and over.

You might be thinking that all of this sounds quite unpleasant and you're right. The physical sensations hurt, it was uncomfortable to realize that I'm still upset about the conflict, and it's irritating that the discomfort is present on an otherwise nice day. In this case, mindful awareness is only making me aware of physical and emotional pain. So why am I glad to have tuned in to it?

Despite the discomfort, awareness of my distress is worth it because the awareness
a) helps me avoid making it worse, and b) helps me decide what to do. A few years ago, if I woke up with this feeling I might have eaten an entire jar of peanut butter for breakfast, gone to work in a zoned-out state of anxiety/peanut-butter stomach discomfort, been short with my colleagues, called my sister at work to complain about my undiagnosable free-floating anxiety, come home and automatically gone for a run whether or not I felt like it, and then gone to bed and woke up feeling even worse the next day. I might even have spent time with the friend I'm in conflict with and acted passive-aggressive or self-effacing without realizing it.

In contrast, today I noticed that something was weird as soon as I woke up. I purposely selected a guided meditation designed to help me look closely at my feelings and physical sensations, which made it clearer what was wrong. I made a good breakfast, decided to work from home, and strategically chose to work in the living room rather than the kitchen to avoid my habit of mindless overeating when I'm stressed. I resisted the temptation to call my friend and frantically make amends. I'm making decisions based on the fact that I know I'm upset; in so doing, I'm exercising self-compassion and avoiding making things worse.

Mindful awareness that I don't feel well doesn't take away the not feeling well. None of this is pleasant and I would much prefer to enjoy this gorgeous day without symptoms of anxiety and without a stressful conflict. But given that this seems to be what's happening today, I'd rather know about it.

Mindfulness can be unpleasant, but not as unpleasant as mindlessness and its repercussions.


  1. Hi Sarah, I found your blog after reading your article on Berkeley Science Review (http://berkeleysciencereview.com/can-mindfulness-make-you-happier/). I've been grappling with a question about mindfulness and non-reactivity and was hoping to get your insight.

    I understand that the idea of non-reactivity helps us feel less sad/depressed/negative when "unfortunate" things happen in our lives. But, in turn, will this lead us to feeling less joyful when happy things happen in our lives? Because we know it is impermanent and that our moods shouldn't be directly related to things which happen? What's your take on this?

    Thanks so much.

    -a solitary meditator