Mindfulness Practice: Problems and Solutions
Although only recently embraced by Western psychology, mindfulness practices and techniques have been part of many Eastern philosophies, such as Buddhism, Taoism, Tai Chi, Hinduism, and most martial arts, for thousands of years. The various definitions of it revolve around bringing non-judgmental consciousness to the present experience, so it can be considered the art of conscious living. Mindfulness is said to be:
“Bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis” (Marlatt & Kristeller, 1999, p 68)
“Paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p4).
“Consciously bringing awareness to your here-and-now experience, with openness, interest, and receptiveness” (Harris, 2007).
Mindfulness interventions have been shown to be beneficial for a wide range of psychological and physical conditions such as anxiety, depression, chronic pain, personality disorders, and addictions. Controlled trials of normal populations have also demonstrated positive changes in brain function and immune response, self-awareness, perceived stress, and increase in self-compassion (Shapiro, Astin, Bishop, & Cordova, 2005; Beddoe & Murphy, 2004), and there is more. Some of the benefits are not directly obvious, but they lead to recognizable clusters of improvement.
But mindfulness — especially at the beginning of practice — can also present many challenges. So that you know that what you are experiencing is not “just you”, and so that you will have some responses ready when you are coaching or instructing clients in mindfulness practice, we pose several problems which occur initially and throughout a person’s practice and we propose solutions. We address these to you.
Fidgety; can’t sit still; physically tense or unable to relax.
Relax! The part of you that fears change is putting up resistance. Remember, you are not traveling to some weird planet in another galaxy; you are just exploring the frontier within.
“I can’t meditate; every time I sit to do a mindfulness meditation, nothing happens.”
“Meditation doesn’t work for me.”
Again this might be resistance because change is scary. Look to the possibly frightened part of yourself that might be resisting it. What might happen if you start being in the “now” instead of living in the past (with memory) or the future (with imagination)?
“I get a headache or tension when I do mindfulness practices.”
This happens sometimes when people are straining with their minds. Try changing the source of your concentration from your head to your heart by using your breath. Consciously feel that you are breathing into and out of your heart as you watch your breath.
“I’m not sure I’m doing it right. Shouldn’t my practice be more??”
Just let it be. In the same way that you are accepting your thoughts, sensations, and emotions even if you are not sure you like them, so, too, can you accept that your mindfulness practice is unique. It shouldn’t be any particular thing except implemented regularly.
Can’t get comfortable.
Body is sore, itchy, cramping, or otherwise resisting your efforts. There are at least two possibilities here: (1) that part of you is resisting the experience of going within (see points 1 and 2, above), or (2) that you actually do need to pay a bit more attention to the body’s needs. If, for example, you would love to sit in lotus posture because it looks cool and you’ve seen really “advanced” people do it but you have very inflexible limbs, you are looking for trouble if you insist that your body curl up this way when it cannot do so without pain or discomfort.
Lying down tends to induce sleepiness, however, so your best bet might be sitting in a straight-backed chair or on cushions (if you can fold your legs up somewhat to balance upright). See what works for you. Remember, it is about being with and accepting what is, and part of that might be acknowledging the body’s current limits. Staying seated in cross-legged position gets easier over time.
“Thoughts keep coming; I can’t concentrate; my mind is like a chatterbox.”
There is bad news here. This is not “a problem”; this is normal. Stop beating up on yourself and return to observing what is happening without getting caught up in the thoughts. To worry about having thoughts is to multiply the number of the thoughts you noticed you had by the number of worry thoughts you have about those noticed thoughts: a multiplicative effect taking you away from the experience of the moment! Part of the art of mindfulness is to take your attention away from the thoughts and give them no importance.
No time to for mindfulness practice; too much to do.
Time is not the problem; fear might be. Again, part of you is probably resisting change. Go to bed 10 minutes earlier and get up 10 minutes earlier. Now you have 10 whole minutes to explore being in the spacious present with the most profound and inclusive sense of yourself. Beyond working with scheduling issues, you can get creative. Try some of the mindfulness exercises designed to be practiced when you are walking the dog, on the train going to work, or washing the dishes. However you do it, try to link your practice into your everyday routines.
“I keep thinking of all I have to do.”
Take a few minutes before or at the start of your mindfulness practice and write down everything you have to do later on. You can even include items that you want to worry about. Then when the pressured, worry thoughts arise during your practice, you can tell your mind, “Don’t worry, Mind; this is being dealt with.” You can then release the thoughts and return to observing what is happening.
This, too, is all too common for practitioners! Some even have a name for it: “sleepitation”. Sometimes taking about six long slow breaths (like: 20 counts in, 20 counts holding, and 20 counts out — if you can with comfort) will help this, as will affirmations that you are breathing in powerful energy and alertness. Spend the first 30 seconds of every practice with the most intense concentration you can muster. If still feeling sleepy, you can add in music, a guided meditation, or mantras which you repeat, but if the issue persists, make sure that you are getting enough sleep and consider shortening your mindfulness practice sessions (you can schedule in more sessions).
Hmmm. Westerners, especially therapists (!), have great difficulty letting go of striving for specific outcomes. In mindfulness the idea is to focus attention on the breath and then open to awareness of other phenomena (including mental ones). In the mindfulness paradigm, we must acknowledge that the urge to “get somewhere” does not generally catalyze change or growth, because it springs from non-acceptance of the present reality/moment without having awareness and full understanding of that reality. Beyond that, impatience is somewhat unrealistic. After all, you don’t plant your favorite vegetable and then pull it up by the roots every day to check if it is growing, do you? You must similarly allow your practice the time it needs to unfold into ripeness and maturity.
Feeling stuck and/or “dry”.
Are you being self-critical or impatient (see above)? Practice mindfulness daily, remembering to notice the benefits in your life. “Stuck” or “dry” mindfulness practices can also indicate that you are forcing your mindfulness time into a mold, a pattern that is the same every time. Again, if this happening, it runs counter to the core assumption of mindfulness, which is that we can gain the greatest benefit from accepting what is with gratefulness, and not attempting to force reality to be different.
Many are the meditators who have “confessed” (usually years later) that they had an extended stuck/dry period. One, a monk, claimed to have had such a period continuously for seven years! (Personal communication from a Self-Realization Fellowship monk to author, circa 2004) (Problem list adapted from Meditation Society of Australia, 2013; Walsh, 2006).