Mindfulness made me the person I am today.
When I graduated from college four years ago, I had absolutely no idea how to live. I was torn into opposite directions by (i) my own fleeting ideas, (ii) my family’s expectations and (iii) my friends’ opinions. It felt like living a life of internal conflict was going to be my destiny.
But the simple act of observing my experience exactly as it was at the time saved me. Since I discovered the possibility of “living from within,” my external reality started transforming, too.
I think that mindfulness is not just a helpful skill to have in today’s frantic world. Rather, I conclude that it is a must if you want to navigate this world skilfully. After all, everything starts with getting to know yourself, doesn’t it?
But as much as I know mindfulness to be incredibly valuable, I also realize that it is perfectly possible to misunderstand and misuse this practice. To enter a dead-end street which eventually forces you to turn around and go back.
When this happens, pausing your practice altogether may be a good idea. Letting go of the assumption that you need to be mindful all the time can open your eyes to the roadblocks that you’ve been putting on your own path.
Do you experience tiredness stemming from the need to “be aware” all the time?
Do you perceive other, “less aware” people to be annoying distractions on your way to enlightenment?
Is sense of failure the most pronounced feeling each time you catch yourself not paying attention?
If such experiences ring true with you, it may be a sign that you could use a little break from mindfulness. Sometimes, that’s the best thing you can do to strengthen your practice in the long run.
The two common missteps on the mindfulness path
Having been a consistent meditator for almost four years, I’d love to say that I am fully mindful all the time. This is, of course, not true. The problem is that a part of me firmly believes that by now, I should be way more skilled in this practice than I am.
This part speaks to me with an unkind voice, whenever her expectations aren’t being met.
For example, I sometimes mindlessly ask someone a question without listening to their answer. My conscious mind doesn’t even register that I said it out loud. As a result, I repeat the same question five minutes later — and, in a not so nice voice, the person next to me lets me know I’ve asked them that question already!
The shame and self-depreciation I experience when something like this happens are very telling. My typical inner chatter goes something like this:
And you call yourself a “mindfulness practitioner”? Look, you failed at it again. How can you be writing about self-awareness and even preparing your own workshop, when you can’t even pay attention in such ordinary moments?
The truth is that it is most difficult to be mindful in ordinary moments. I know that. You know that. We know that learning to be fully present is a lifelong journey that doesn’t offer many shortcuts.
I believe this happens due to two common “programmes” our culture imposes. Most people internalize them early on in their childhood — and then are unconsciously driven by them all their lives. When you start practising mindfulness, these programs often hijack the practice and diverge you from the course you charted for your inner growth.
Program number 1: Competition.
Since you were a child, the world has been training you to compete. Not only against others — but also, against yourself. This made you treat virtually every pursuit as a “win-or-lose” game, in which you attach your self-worth to the outcomes.
When this program surfaces in your mindfulness practice, you may become tense, disappointed and judgmental about your “level of awareness.”
Program number 2: Not good enough.
This program is a natural extension of the first one. Because the idea of competing is omnipresent, you quickly realize that there is always a possibility of doing better. For many of us, this knowledge breeds the perpetual sense of inadequacy which translates to our unique insecurities. Chances are, you have been working hard to cover up these insecurities all your life.
As you practice mindfulness, however, they inevitably come to the surface — and you may not be very well prepared to deal with them.
Because of these two programs, I’ve hit the wall in my mindfulness practice many times. Eventually, I understood that as I focused my practice on self-awareness, my other personal skills got neglected. I needed to periodically let go of trying so hard to be mindful — and focus on other competencies to regain balance.
Here are 5 signs which may indicate that you need to do the same.
1. You have become more self-conscious.
If your confidence levels are decreasing as you practise mindfulness, you shouldn’t ignore it. Chances are, you have entered the self-consciousness street — instead of the self-awareness one. The difference between them is huge.
One of the main “principles” of mindfulness is to start paying more attention to your thoughts and feelings. It’s great to be more aware of what’s going on in your head and heart. But as you start seeing your patterns and automatisms more clearly — they may get magnified to an extent that’s disproportionate to what is really happening.
You are losing an accurate perspective of how your internal experiences show on the outside.
This happens due to the cognitive bias that psychologists call “the spotlight effect.” In the words of Nathan Heflick, spotlight effect is “the tendency to think that more people notice something about you than they do.” This tendency may amplify as you yourself start noticing more — and conclude that there’s no way other people can’t see it.
For example: let’s say you recently realized that you hold on to your money in an obsessive, unhealthy way. When it’s your turn to buy a round of drinks at the bar, you become acutely aware of your discomfort. As you observe the thoughts and feelings surrounding it, you may assume that what’s happening in your head is also obvious to your friends.
This leads to self-consciousness, which doesn’t bring you closer to mindfulness at all. Instead, it keeps you locked in your own head even more.
When this happens, why don’t you take a break from “being aware” of your shortcomings — and focus on finding the resonance of confidence instead?
2. You beat yourself up for the “lack of progress.”
For me, this is the biggest challenge I regularly face. The problem with it is this:
The more you punish yourself for “not being mindful enough,” the less effective your practice becomes.
The culture of self-improvement largely encourages judging, tracking and evaluating your progress in anything you do. The pursuit of mindfulness is, usually, no different. It is, therefore, very easy to fall for the trap of thinking that you’re not doing it “well enough.”
That’s why you need to make a deliberate effort to consider your practice as valid — no matter the outcomes. Associating feelings such as frustration or anger with practising mindfulness are counter-productive.
In his book The Mind Illuminated, John Yates explains that the only effective approach to cultivating mindfulness is positive reinforcement of the desired states of mind. This helps you overcome the tendencies that prove practical in daily life (i.e. competitiveness or multitasking), but hinder the development of mindfulness:
“In daily life, these so-called hindrances actually serve necessary and useful purposes. Once you’re familiar with them and how they work, it becomes obvious that neither suppression nor self-punishment will help you surmount such established and often helpful conditioning. On the other hand, positive reinforcement of other natural tendencies of the mind that oppose these hindrances works very well.”
If you witness yourself becoming negative about your practice, unable to untangle yourself from these feelings — step away for a while. You need to find something positive you could reinforce.
Temporarily putting aside the tedious “struggle” for mindfulness can help you do just that.
3. You are holding back from doing what you love.
As you “mindfully” observe your experience, it may make you so preoccupied with your sense of self that you become distanced from the rest of the world. This can happen in two ways.
The first scenario is similar to what I already mentioned above. You have become so acutely aware of your “flaws” and “bad” behaviours, that this stops you from acting. You start living in fear that others may discover all your dirty secrets — so you start hiding, ashamed of yourself.
In the second scenario, you find the self-exploration to be so profoundly important that all the other pursuits — such as your work, relationships, hobbies — suddenly seem shallow and meaningless. You limit your engagement in those things, so you can focus on self-discovery.
Both scenarios lead you to the same predicament — excessive self-absorption. This is not healthy because, over time, it renders you disconnected and disempowered. It stops you from entering the famous flow state, in which you experience whatever you’re doing as effortless but at the same time — meaningful.
To enter the state of flow and do your most valuable work, it requires you to forget your sense of self. In the words of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:
“You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.”
When you become too serious about mindfulness and focus your attention exclusively on the self, the state of flow becomes virtually impossible to enter. Your world narrows down to you, and you only. As a result, you fail to see the bigger picture.
When this happens, why don’t you try to shift your perspective by forgetting the concept of mindfulness — and allowing yourself to simply be, without any effort?
4. You start identifying with your behaviour.
One consequence of increased awareness is that you begin to see thoughts and behaviour patterns that are most prevalent in your life. This gives you precious insight into your unique psychological wiring. But it may also become a trap.
By seeing that you act out the same drama, or enter specific emotional loops over and over again, you may assume that this is something that you are doomed to experience for the rest of your life.
Because some patterns are so repetitive, you start viewing them as “who you are” — rather than “what you experience.”
For example, if a particular comment about your looks from someone you fancy makes you cry — you may assume that your physical appearance is your weak point. And that it always will be.
If you discover that you have been procrastinating on your dream goals all your life — you may assume that procrastination is just a part of your personality. And that it always will be.
It is quite an art to be able to use mindfulness as a means to collect information about yourself, without letting this information define you. Learning this art takes time. And it helps to remember that virtually all your mental and behavioural habits are subject to change.
Your self-identity can be — and inevitably is — updated over time. Mindfulness practice serves you to recognize your current position — so that you can chart the course for the rest of your life from where you’re really at.
But there is no need to confuse your position with your identity.
If this is what’s happening — try easing down on your practice a little. And remember: whatever experience you are having right now is eventually going to pass anyway.
5. You are looking at other people as “obstacles” or “distractions.”
Because mindfulness is a very personal and internal pursuit, you may see your practice as isolated from the rest of the world. This experience is intimately yours — and therefore, other people have nothing to do with it.
In a way, this is true. The responsibility for your level of awareness is entirely yours. The problem begins when you are so obsessed about the gravity of your individual practice that you start seeing other people as “roadblocks” on your way to enlightenment.
This can happen if you’ve read a lot of self-improvement content which talks about the importance of surrounding yourself with the “right” kind of people. You may get an idea that the people close to you are somehow “toxic” or “distracting” — and therefore, you should avoid them, since they hinder your mindfulness.
My stance is that the people who make you feel most uncomfortable are usually valuable messengers. They aren’t doing anything “wrong” — but merely reflecting what you should pay attention to in your practice.
When you begin to see them as “distraction,” chances are that you are missing the whole point of the mindfulness practice. For example, you may become annoyed at them for “not understanding” what you are trying to do. This is just one step away from putting yourself on some sort of a “pedestal” and looking down on the other, “less aware” mortals.
This kind of judgment is in itself a hindrance to your mindfulness practice. It is precisely what limits your ability to accept your experience just as it is — i.e. be equanimous.
So if this kind of attitude arises, maybe you should loosen your grip on the efforts to be blissfully mindful — and sit with your discomfort and distraction “caused by” other people instead.
Here’s the takeaway
If any of the above rings true to you, it may be useful to give up your “serious” mindfulness practice for a while. Redirect the focus from your inner world to the outer one — and do a reality check. See what is actually going on and whether you are on the right track.
Remember that you are not practising mindfulness to achieve or prove anything. This is not a competition. The motivation for your practice — be it formal meditation or everyday mindfulness — is to improve the well-being of the collective.
That’s impossible to do when you yourself are feeling self-conscious, tense or stuck. You are not helping anyone — least yourself — if you are clinging to your ego-based identity or perceiving other people in your life as “distractions.”
If you see this happening — give yourself a break. Step away from your mindfulness routine. Do things differently. Allow your mind to wander for a while. Get distracted.
And please — don’t judge yourself for that.
Meanwhile, you can still focus on enhancing other competencies — such as compassion, confidence and kindness. These skills need to match your current level of awareness. Mindfulness alone is not enough.
I’m sure that after you have taken a break, you will be able to come back to your mindfulness practice with a more relaxed, positive and compassionate attitude.