Mindfulness is not an escape

life is difficultLife is difficult to quote M. Scott Peck. Those diffculties come in many shapes and forms. To name a few:

  • difficulties meeting our basic needs (food, shelter, love etc)
  • difficulties meeting our wants (bigger, better, more stuff)
  • difficulties responding to uncertainty and change
  • difficulties of illness, ageing and death
  • difficulties from being excluded/rejected
  • difficulties caused by our internal reactions to external conditions.

Suffering usually arises when we don’t have what we want, and when we have what we don’t want. Mindfulness reminds us that peace and ease is possible, even when we are having a moment where we might say: “I didn’t sign up for this.”

Mindfulness is not an escape from reality to a place free from difficulties. Rather, it is a slow process of developing a different relationship with what we are experiencing (both externally and internally). This probably does not sound as attractive as living in a world free from difficulty (fantasy land). Perhaps the only advantage is that at least it is attainable.

So, what is cultivated through mindfulness that enables us to experience greater peace and ease with life’s difficulties?

A starting point is the acknowledgement that difficulties are a normal part of life. They are not a mistake. And while he did not sign up to the 10,000 sorrows of life, we also did not sign up to the 10,000 joys. They are simply the stuff that life is made of.

It is in our reaction to the difficulties of life that a significant amount of suffering is created. Yes, our very understandable reactions to what we don’t want, in fact cause additional suffering. When we are faced with what we do not want, we generally reject, resist or numb. We get caught in an aversive reaction and try to escape. This is a stressful state to be in. It is usually accompanied by a “story” that plays in the mind about the situation being wrong/bad and shooting blame outwards to others or inwards at ourselves.

Through mindfulness meditation, we develop the capacity to “be with” all sorts of experiences we do not like, without feeding the aversion – without creating additional suffering. It is not uncommon during meditation for irritation, boredom, frustration and judgement to arise. These opportunities are gold. They present (in the laboratory of the mind that is created through meditation) the possibility of relating to these unwelcome experiences in a new way. Usually when we experience irritation and boredom we act (often unconsciously) to dispel the discomfort. During meditation, we might feel like jumping up, stopping the meditation, blaming the meditation practice or ourselves. But we don’t. We pause and acknowledge what is present… bringing curiosity and acceptance to our experience. Instead of trying to push it away, we make space for it. Instead of seeing it as wrong, we see it as a normal part of human experience. Instead of needing the situation to be different, we patiently allow the experience to be known, understanding that what has arisen is impermanent and will pass.

This process is described as “turning towards.” By staying open to the uncomfortable experience with acceptance and care, we do not fall into the trap of adding extra suffering through resistance. As they say, “what we resist persists.” An important caveat is to exercise some caution in the process of turning towards difficult inner experiences. If the experience feels like it could be overwhelming or potentially traumatising, a more skilful response might be to identify a supportive alternative.

Unlike the false “solutions” of instant gratification, distraction, avoidance and numbing through eating, alcohol/drugs, social media and surfing the Internet, mindfulness invites a growing capacity to tolerate discomfort. In the process of turning towards difficulties, we have the possibility of addressing and learning from these problems. If we continue our usual aversive reactions, those same problems will be there for us tomorrow, waiting patiently until we are ready to open to them.

Go well

Kathryn Choules (PhD)

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1 thought on “Mindfulness is not an escape

  1. Thank you for sharing this beautifully nuanced comment on the subtle process of ‘turning towards’ the difficulties of life.

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