I decided to write this post after reading an article in a national newspaper by a journalist who describes how she tried to fit in 5 minutes of mindfulness a day using an app but it made her feel more stressed because she couldn't find the time to practice, and when she did, all she could think about was what she was going to have for lunch. It didn't 'work' for her.
The problem with wanting mindfulness "to work" for something, goes against its very nature. It is not a pill we can take to cure depression, or make us feel less stressed. This kind of thinking, is unfortunately a symptom of our modern society: we are looking for a quick-fix, an easy solution that will make us feel happy and take away our pain. Mindfulness is not there to dissipate negative feelings. If anything it encourages the opposite; sit with these feelings, let them in even.
I've heard mindfulness described as many things, from a relaxation technique to a way to stop unwanted thoughts and an antidote to stress. Now some of these are by-products of a regular mindfulness-meditation practice, but they do not serve as a definition. So what is mindfulness?
When I hear people saying that mindfulness didn’t work for them, I usually try and dig a little deeper to find out what exactly didn’t work and what their expectations were.
Let's talk about why perhaps it didn't have the desired outcome. Firstly, using mindfulness to try and 'fix' a mental health issue is a recipe for disaster. Many people suffering from high stress or a mental illness turn to mindfulness to help them, but unfortunately it's not that simple. Trying to meditate whilst experiencing moderate to severe mental illness is generally not advisable. The feelings are often too intense and the turning inward, which we practice in mindfulness, can simply make you feel worse.
What I see all too often is people wanting a result without acknowledging that something will have to change. People want to feel less stressed, but would like that to happen without having to make any changes in their life. Guess what, we may be mindfulness teachers, but we are not magicians. I cannot make you feel less stressed, but I can teach you some tools, that you can implement to help you manage stress in your life. But you’ll need to use the tools, i.e. do the meditations. If you don’t, nothing will change. Simply learning about mindfulness is not enough, you need to practice it.
Mindfulness is also more than just a ten-minute meditation every morning. If you’re operating at a thousand miles an hour in the rest of your life, then no amount of mindfulness is going to make you feel good. It should be part of a wider, healthier and more conscious way of living. A qualified instructor will explain this to you, an app may not.
When people sign up for the mindfulness based stress reduction course you will often be told: in the beginning, this may make you feel more stressed initially. We openly tell you that. We are asking you to find more time when you say you have none, we are asking you to add another commitment to your no doubt long list of commitments, without a guaranteed result or outcome. It's a significant investment, there is no denying it. The results we hear about; less stress, more happiness, better productivity may come, but not after 5 minutes of sitting on a park bench.
So when can mindfulness help with mental health? It should be part of a preventative strategy and it has already been shown to help with people who are vulnerable to a relapse of depression1. When the fog of a mental illness lifts, it's a good time to try and integrate a practice into your life. The MBCT course (mindfulness based cognitive therapy) has proven to be effective for this.
Guess what? It's not a magic pill. There are no magic pills; not the ones you get from your GP nor any app will instantly make you feel happier and less stressed. If you're looking for a quick fix, then mindfulness is certainly not it. But, if you can develop the patience and motivation to carry out a regular practice, then over time you will no doubt see some benefits. You may indeed feel less stressed, happier and more present in your life, so before you give up and say it hasn’t worked for you, understand that like learning any new skill, it doesn’t come overnight. It requires hard and often uncomfortable work. But like many things we work for, when we do that, the results are often sweeter.
Luminate runs 8-week MBSR and MBCT programmes in the workplace.