by Adele Somma
What I have to say about mindfulness is incomplete if I don’t tell you this first: I am a therapist who used to hate mindfulness.
I hated mindfulness, in part, because it simply didn’t feel good to me- the tense, overwhelming energy of the present moment, the constant babysitting of shifting thoughts and feelings, so many of them painful and sharp. Mindfulness, really being here, really witnessing my own experience, seemed to hurt too much. Having such direct contact with reality frightened me, and although the worlds of past and future were their own unique sort of hells, I seemed to prefer them over what seemed like an unacceptable present moment.
But perhaps more profoundly, I didn’t like mindfulness because I felt compelled to pretend to like it. I wanted to be someone who liked mindfulness, who lived it, who could drape that concept around themselves loosely and naturally, as if to communicate, Yes, I have it together, I am okay, I am at peace, I am non-reactive. This felt especially important given my profession, and I felt a deep sense of personal shame about unresolved feelings of anger, depression and anxiety that were (and often still are) a part of my consistent experience. But my efforts to practice mindfulness, whether it be in meditation or something less formal, often resulted in a surge of painful sensations - both emotional and physical - that I felt unequipped to handle. The healthy, glowing woman with a slight smile on her lips, her legs crossed easily at the ankles, wasn’t showing up. Mindfulness became another reminder of self-rejection, another thing I wasn’t good at, another symbol of how I could not help myself.
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These days, when I bring up the “M word” during therapy groups, a subtle groan generally can be heard from some corner of the room. My response is typically to laugh, because, I get it.
My clients make fun of me not infrequently, cracking jokes about my hippie dippy ways, my apparent serenity when I guide them through a meditation. They show me Buddhist memes on the internet, pictures of cats wrapped in lotus pose, because, that is so YOU. Every one of them has a substance abuse addiction. Every one of them at some point made an enemy of the present moment. For some, sitting with themselves in sobriety for more than a few seconds creates feelings of terror, anger and panic.
I try to soften the blow by listing the benefits: “It helps with depression, anxiety, sometimes even chronic pain. It gives us the ability to choose a response instead of just reacting.” I emphasize that this is the research. “This isn’t me saying this, it’s the research.” I also assert that you are not necessarily supposed to enjoy it - although you might – and I compare it to the likes of exercise in that it is a skill, a cultivated habit that becomes easier with time.
For people healing from addiction, not pitching forward into your next fix or lingering in the wreckage of your past is a tall, uncomfortable order. So I explain: Mindfulness is not just some buzzword in psychology, it is not simply serene images pulled from brochures. Mindfulness is raw courage. Being with our own experience and making the choice to stay with it, even if only for a few seconds, is no less than genuine bravery.
I also tell them my dark secret: I used to not like mindfulness. In fact, I hated it. This gets their attention, because it doesn’t fit with who they think I am.
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What I tell them is that I had forgotten about compassion. I had a vague, intellectual understanding of non-judgment, but non-judgment felt emotionally austere and was unable to create the sense of safety I needed most. With so many years of self-loathing accumulated behind me, I needed more than non-judgment; I needed compassion.
Compassion sees hurt, and holds it. Compassion understands and forgives, is gentle and tender in that it cradles our wounds, but fierce in that its power is transformative and real. Only when I allowed myself to experience this quality within myself, toward myself, have I been able to embrace mindfulness. Only then did my experience of myself become, in moments, one of deep love and tolerance. Compassion doesn’t see our pain and run. Compassion sees our pain and sits. Ultimately, not running from me makes me less quick to run from others, and this is what all therapists strive to do with their clients: Be present, stay.
This is what I tell clients, when they say they hate mindfulness: Mindfulness is a path back to self-love. For now, this may or may not include tranquility, and that is okay. It may not be what you think it’s supposed to be. Your experience may feel less than serene, your internal world stormy and ragged. Even this can be held, like a sobbing child or an injured animal. In this way, we offer love to our whole selves, not simply the parts of us we have labeled as deserving.
Everybody still groans, because intuitively they know that this is difficult work. But then we sit up. We close our eyes, if that’s what feels right to do. We ground our feet on the floor. We breathe.
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