If you’re interested in self-development, you’ve probably heard the term “mindfulness.” Over the last decade, mindfulness meditation, sometimes called mindfulness-based therapy, has been researched as an aid to anxiety, stress, depression, chronic pain, and other human conditions.
Once largely confined to the realm of therapists’ offices or yoga studios, mindfulness has begun to show up in popular culture, with articles appearing in O magazine, TIME, and Prevention magazines (among others). The United States government has begun to use mindfulness-based programs to help returning vets deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and readjustment to civilian life. It’s become somewhat of a buzz-word these days, with even big corporations like Nike, Apple, and Omni Hotels offering lecture series in mindfulness meditation to help their employees deal with stress.
Historically, mindfulness has been part of contemplative practice, spanning several faiths and traditions. Its use in recent times links back to its contemplative roots: in psychotherapy, addiction recovery, and stress management, specific mindfulness practices are used to help you drop in to your inner world, hear what is true for you in that moment, and help you respond to life with skill and compassion.
With its gain in popularity however, the whole practice of mindfulness has lost some of its depth. In a culture that favors quick-fix solutions, many people use mindfulness slogans – like “be here now” or “you create your own reality” – without actually using the practices themselves, or understanding what the practices are for. Mass popularity of movies like “The Secret” introduced audiences to the idea of mindfulness practices (watching your thoughts) as a way of getting what you want.
A recent magazine article ended with the suggestion: “when you get into the habit of watching your thoughts, you just might find that suddenly everything starts to go your way.” As it becomes more common, mindfulness is seen as a way to get things (including happiness), rather than as a tool for helping you live.
Even when mindfulness is presented with more thought, it is often misused as corrective rather than supportive. So much of meditation, guided visualization, even basic yoga classes, stresses the idea that if you would only breathe and relax, you would see that everything is perfect just as it is.
Everything is unfolding for your deepest good, and this moment, itself, is beautiful. If you are having difficulties, all you need to do is see where you might change your perspective, and all will flow freely again. Where this modern interpretation of mindfulness fails, for me, and maybe for you, is how it is presented as a cure-all: any pain or trouble will be transformed if you think about it right, as though being in the present moment will fix everything.
While this perspective may be true and useful for many things, there are times – like in grief – when that message is un-useful at best and offensive at worst. As a psychotherapist trained in many mindfulness-based techniques and practices, I found this misuse and over-simplification grating even before I became a widow. When I reached for the support of mindfulness practice as a widow, I found the generalizations even more offensive.
Sitting in a coffee shop, just months after Matt drowned, I began to read a book on mindfulness by a popular author. Not three paragraphs in, I began to clench my jaw. I felt my forehead wrinkle, my eyes narrow to slits. As I read the story of her divorce, how she has learned that anything bad that happened to her was because she wasn’t “awake” enough, I had to stifle the urge to hurl the book across the room. I snarled as I read her claims that she experienced pain only because she needed to learn about gratitude. All those useless “mindful” platitudes: You created your reality. You must have really needed to learn about this. Stay mindful. Practice gratitude. Change your thoughts, be in bliss.
I didn’t hurl the book. I did stab through the pages, with deep black exclamation points and underlines, as I refuted all of her “points.” I wrote emphatically big statements like “I’m not widowed because I wasn’t awake enough,” and “I already was grateful, thank you very much.” And then I tossed the book in the recycling, not even wanting to leave it behind for someone else to read. I didn’t want anyone else to feel blamed for their grief.
As a culture, we seem to believe that you somehow earned any difficulty you experience, and that the most reliable indicator of true wellness is how pain-free you are. These misunderstandings can make people think that grief is a problem, and worse – that it’s a problem you can fix by becoming “more spiritual.” In the mainstream language of mindfulness, if you would only change your thoughts, your grief would disappear. If you would only be here now, you would see that everything is okay, exactly as it is.
What I longed for, in that coffee shop, was an acknowledgement that things are not okay. Watching my partner die, being powerless to help him or stop it, becoming a widow at age 38 – these are not things that can be made better by changing my thoughts. It can’t be made okay by practicing gratitude. I wanted someone or something to meet me in the reality of that, and help me use mindfulness there. I needed to hear how my previous meditation practice, my belief in mindfulness practice, could possibly relate to what is Now.
Does the practice of mindfulness apply to grief? I think it does, when it is disentangled from cultural mis-application and confusion. At its core, mindfulness does not try to talk you out of anything, nor does it judge what you feel. The pure practice of mindfulness is to bring your attention to exactly what is – whether that is pain or bliss, peace or torment. Mindfulness is meant to help you acknowledge the truth of the moment you’re in, even, or especially, when that moment hurts. Acknowledgment of the truth is a relief, and it heals.
The true path of mindfulness is to help you stay present to the pain – when pain is what is – and to witness it. This is especially true in grief: the work is not to overcome pain or to remove pain, but to bear it, to be strong and soft enough to be beside it, to find peace alongside it. The question is not “how can you see this as okay?” but what will you do when things are not okay? How will you stay present to yourself? How will you keep your eyes on love inside your pain? There are no answers. No real answers, no one size fits all answers. The only answer for how to live here has to come from you. One way to listen for those answers is through mindful practice: just becoming aware of what is true for you right now is healing, in and of itself.
You do not create your reality; life will be what it will be. What is in your power is how you respond to reality. A practice of mindfulness can help you respond with as much kindness and grace as you can; it can help prepare your heart and mind for living this. You are here. Where you are is not perfect. It may or may not be okay. But here you are.
This is the life you are called to be present for. This is the moment that asks for your awareness. Not because you are improved by what has happened, not because you needed it, not so you can turn it into some kind of gift. You are called to be present to it because it is what is. Because it is here Now, and so are you. Everything is unfolding. Good or bad is not in your command. You come to your practice to sit beside what is – both joy and sorrow, goodness and not. You come to your practice to be here for yourself. That’s what the tool is for – to be in relationship with what is real, right now.
Be here now.
Grieve here now.
That is mindfulness, and it does have power.