That’s Not Mindful- And Other Misinterpretations of the Mindful Movement By Jennifer Dauphinais
I was inspired by a recent blog written by Lisa McCrohan on raising girls who are “includers” instead of “mean girls”. In the article, Lisa reveals her own experience through a narrative of her life as a younger girl bullied in grammar school. She discusses the significance of providing emotional transparency to her daughter and other women as a way to dismantle the limitations that occur as a result of feeling victimized. More importantly, McCrohan enlists relational modeling as an essential part of creating the space for her daughter to be empowered.
Lisa’s suggestions mirror many of the same I have come to in my work in both education and recovery settings. Through talking with teachers, many of whom are experiencing differing levels of burnout symptoms, I find that sharing our own stories and examples of attempts to cope function as one of the biggest tools of support. Teachers are more likely to take up their own burnout repair when they hear stories matching theirs but more importantly, when someone is willing to put shame and guilt aside and model being vulnerable. The same principles work throughout various realms of recovery. The reason why support groups, wellness workshops, and 12 step programs offer so much “success” is that the people there are willing to see past differences and access the commonality of coping with something adverse and life changing. The point being, this kind of work isn’t something we ever need go through alone and more importantly, our children should never feel they have to either. In fact, recovery of any kind is best served in the arms of a supportive fellowship.
A key point of McCrohan’s piece balances on the idea of mindfulness being about confronting and transposing difficult emotions. She notes how the imperfections of her healing process and challenges in parenting are included as part of her practice. In Buddhist meditation, one of the fundamental principles of the practice is to come back to focus when the mind wanders. In embodying this principle as modern practitioners taking up the notion of mindfulness, this idea occurs when we “keep coming back” to our intention to change, heal, release, or focus on something we have waivered from. These small moments of deviation aren’t something to punish ourselves over, rather it’s the norm. In fact the lash back we unleash upon ourselves for perceived failures is what Buddhists call the “second dart”, the true root of suffering. Instead, we return to the practice. We return to the difficulty. We stretch through the aches and pains. We breathe through the challenge. What is yielded is the emotional and spiritual software necessary to regulate the hardware of living in the physical world. It feels counter intuitive to what we’ve been trained to believe we should do, which is seek a remedy from the outside- a substance, an expert, a rescuer, a product. But the truth is, we have to undo the social training to avoid discomfort and instead study our discomfort very closely. The truth is this whole “mindfulness” thing isn’t about shiny books and pretty CDs and succinct seminars- it’s an incredibly sloppy inside job.
As a practitioner of meditation and compassion working within the current trend of “mindfulness” in non-secular settings, I often here the phrase “that’s not mindful”. The concepts behind this phrase silently run alongside the publicized mindful trend as a counter movement. I see this kind of labeling as an outer manifestation of the “second dart”. This collective recanting keeps us separate from the beneficial vulnerability and transparency that Lisa McCrohan talks about. For example, I’ve seen people interested in the idea of having a more mindful life, sit down for the first time to write or meditate or try yoga, and literally say “this is not working”. I believe this is because we have a lapsed understanding of what the process entails. We want results, but remain unwilling to embrace the real discomfort of the practice. I feel the tendency to label “it’s not working” or “it’s not mindful” comes as a result of confronting the initial discomfort we face when we finally sit still. A friend described this as driving with a fish tank in the back seat. When you put the brakes on, the tank (our body) sits still, but the water (our mind and emotions) remains in motion. Everything gets drenched in the back seat so to speak. If we don’t know this upfront when beginning a practice, the idea of sitting still and looking inward can quickly become an incredible turn off, especially when we are faced with the contrast of the ideology of yoga and meditation in public media. We immediately compare ourselves to the images we see and say, that’s not me. Can you imagine then, what this must be like for children, when asked to “sit still” and then to “confront” anything that may feel uneasy…How can we expect this to be beneficial for them unless we ourselves have traversed it?
If we have not investigated our own discomfort, or engaged in the analysis of our own dis-ease, we cannot model that process for our children, nor should we expect them to “be mindful” or to “meditate” or to self regulate in the way we project they should. McCrohan’s exploration of bullying suggests that the second dart doesn’t just occur as part of inner self-harm, but is projected onto others around us to create a culture of judgment and exclusion. We must ask ourselves then, what do we know of ourselves that we allow our children to see? Do we verbally judge others? Are we openly prejudice or competitive? Do we push back on others when they display emotions? Do we label peoples’ feelings or experiences as worthy or invalid? These small yet routine acts are the social curriculum of our relationships. What are we hoping to teach?
This is where I argue for contemplative, self-engaged exploration… This is where I tell you it has improved my ability to think before I speak, let go of baggage, try new things, and change the direction of my life. This is where I tell you I’m happily imperfect. And this is something I truly desire for others, and especially for the kids I teach. Yet at the same, I offer a word of caution to those embracing or critiquing self-awareness practices in any setting other than our own mind. On one hand, we should be leery of practices imposed upon us or upon others to be resilient in order to endure difficulties or injustice (be on the lookout for that double standard). On the other hand, we should not limit ourselves from embracing meta-cognitive skills and social dispositions that could liberate us from self-oppression.
Lisa’s piece moved me in that she’s owned the difficult shifts that arise from mindful self-awareness. She has found a new possibility for facing social problems injuring so many children generation after generation. She recognizes that the root of this problem is having the emotional equipment to change our self-relationship first, rather than putting it on the child, or the school, or the teacher to fix or improve based on idealistic or performative measures. Like Lisa, I believe we are the makers of the map, and we can partner with our children in giving them the gift of our own emotional transparency and social fellowship in hopes to evolve “the culture of mean”. In modeling these personal-health behaviors and skills to young people, we provide them with the essential building blocks for meta-cognition, mutual respect, and resilience. From this example, I ask how powerful and instrumental a self-practice could be in surfacing unknown solutions and self-efficacy that could deeply change our relations and social spaces to incur less harm.