In Defense of Mindfulness

mindfulnessLast week, I was talking about mindfulness with one of my patients. I mentioned the series of articles in The New York Times on topics like, “How to be mindful with your cat,” “How to be mindful at airport security” and “How to be mindful doing the dishes.” I am currently catless, but I’ve tried both the others, and find that they can make a less-than-pleasant task more tolerable, or even enjoyable.

She asked if I had seen the editorial, “Actually, let’s not be in the moment.” I hadn’t, but of course looked it up after she left my office, and found it to be a thought-provoking read. I tend to agree with the author that there’s merit to letting the mind wander rather than focus on icky tasks like scrubbing congealed egg off dishes (although I do find benefit in being attentive to the shape of a favorite mug or the gleam on a freshly washed-and-dried pot while doing dishes). However, I think her dismissal of mindfulness is based on the unfortunate co-opting of the term, which in many people may contribute to the pursuit of being “perfect” about being mindful.

I believe wholeheartedly in the benefits of mindfulness. I’ve experienced them in my own life, I’ve seen them in my patients, and I’ve read about them in research journals. But I don’t believe that mindfulness needs to be a 24-7, black or white, all-or-nothing deal. Personally, I wouldn’t want it to be.

Deploying Mindfulness

Practicing being mindful is like flexing a muscle: when you do it regularly, it gets stronger. I don’t do bench presses and squats and shoulder presses in my basement weight room every second of the day. Among other reasons, it would be tedious, and I would end up injured. No, I do it so that my body can do what I need it to do with relative ease. I reap the benefits when I’m climbing stairs, moving furniture, hauling groceries and hoisting a suitcase into the overhead bin.

Similarly, because I can bring my mind back to the present moment, I can more easily appreciate those moments that are worth appreciating. I prefer that to being stuck mentally on something that happened yesterday or might happen next week. Flexing my mindfulness muscle allows me to pull myself out of unhelpful thought loops about past or future events that I have no control over. I can only control the moment.

Mindfulness in Moderation

I make a point of practicing mindfulness, but I don’t attempt to live every moment mindfully. One reason is that I am a magnificent daydreamer. I quite enjoy having a very active imagination. I can entertain myself endlessly, even when alone (no electric shocks needed, thank you very much). I also do some of my best thinking in the shower and on walks, and often look forward to giving my mind free rein. That said, I do make a point of bringing my attention back to the present moment at some point, especially when the weather is fine and the birds are singing—or the water temperature is just perfect.

Just because mindfulness is often evangelized as a cure-all for what ails you, turned into another avenue for competitiveness, and (even worse) used as a marketing gimmick by those who want to part us from our money, shouldn’t take away its value. As with nutrition, a “progress, not perfection” attitude is important when cultivating mindfulness. It’s important to provide our bodies with nutritious food, and I think it’s important to provide our minds with the ability to be still and focused. It’s the antidote for that state of “monkey mind” that can get in our way.