Mindfulness for change. Does that sound like a contradiction? After all, isn’t mindfulness about ‘being in the present moment’ and accepting what we find here? Well, yes it is, but while mindfulness is indeed about connecting with, and accepting, our ‘here and now’ experience, it’s not about passive resignation or sitting back and doing nothing while life runs amok around us. Nor does it mean that mindfulness doesn’t ‘permit’ us to think about the past or the future. Rather, mindfulness recognises that our difficulties arise from the evaluative relationship we have with our present moment experience, and from the ruminative or anxiety-laden thoughts which can arise when our minds wander, unheeded, into the past or future. For example, if we evaluate an experience as unpleasant we reject it, fight against it and crave something else, while unwanted or challenging thoughts and emotions are repressed, avoided or obsessively dwelt upon. Furthermore, our evaluations of what is good, bad, desirable or undesirable are often habitual and biased, based on years of conditioning and repeated, unquestioned thought patterns… and our automatic emotional reaction to these evaluations can be highly charged.
However, when we stop and observe our present moment experience, including our thoughts and emotions, without evaluation and from a position of acceptance, our long held automatic reactions are no longer in charge. Instead, we begin to see things as they truly are, with greater clarity and unclouded by habit or high emotion. From this position, we can identify whether change is required, possible and reasonable.
Of course, becoming more mindful and using mindfulness to help identify and enable change requires a bit of work. Many of us have a persistent and noisy inner critic which is used to being listened to. It pushes us to do more, work harder, be perfect, strong, self-reliant or better than anybody else. It tells us we don’t deserve nice things, that everything always goes wrong for us or that we’re just not good enough, preventing us from stepping outside of our comfort zone. The inner critic can drown out the whispering voice of need which says, ‘I’m exhausted’, ‘This isn’t good for me’, ‘I can’t do this anymore’. The first thing to know on your path to mindful change is that the thoughts coming and going in your head are simply that…just thoughts. They are not you and they do not necessarily represent reality. In mindfulness, thoughts are noted simply as events coming and going in the mind. Instead of giving thoughts the stage, we simply watch without evaluation as the thoughts come and go, like clouds (whether the pure white fluffy kind or the darker, angry-looking ones) passing across the sky. Likewise, any associated emotional response is simply observed and allowed to arise (and pass) with acceptance. This observational stance creates a sense of space so that we are no longer entangled with the thoughts and emotions, or subject to emotion-led decisions.
This new relationship with our inner experience puts us in a better position to see through the unhelpful inner chatter and identify which thoughts genuinely need to be responded to. In addition, implicit within the practice of mindfulness is an attitude of compassion towards ourselves which helps us to recognise the importance of responding to our own needs. With a clear mind and a more compassionate stance we can start to notice when our needs aren’t being met and take considered, mindful action beneficial to our wellbeing. This may involve consciously and compassionately reflecting on the past, without judgment or self-criticism, in order to apply past learning to present decision-making, and will certainly involve intentional considerations about the future – what we would like to work towards, where we would like to be and what action is most likely to get us there. This intentional, mindful way of reflecting on past and future is very different from unconscious mind wandering which can lead us into unhelpful patterns of rumination or anxiety-provoking ‘what if’ scenarios. Instead, in mindfulness we review the past and our present options with compassion towards ourselves, forgiving our mistakes and gently releasing the voice of our inner critic so that we may be open to a full range of future possibilities.
A mindful approach to change can also aid the decision-making process itself. For example, mindfulness can help us understand how our decision-making may be influenced by our habitual responses, such as wanting to please other people or fear of trying something new. In moving beyond our automatic evaluations and responses we can start to uncover our true values and make choices more aligned with what’s important to us and what’s most beneficial to our well-being. Noticing the body’s response when we consider our options can also be enlightening. Maybe there’s a tingling sensation or a feeling of tightness which may suggest some anxiety. But is this a conditioned response to trying something new, which perhaps could be worked with? Or is it a genuine indication that perhaps something’s not right?
An important element of mindfulness when making change is not to be too attached to the process or the outcome. As we go through the process of change we may need to refocus, reflect, redirect and ‘bend with the wind’ as life, in all its richness, presents situations which we may not have foreseen or wished for. While mindfulness can do nothing to alter the unpredictability of life, it does, however, enable us to sit better with uncertainty and the unexpected, conversely providing a sense of stability and enabling us to meet whatever arises in a more open and accepting attitude.
Of course, at times change is simply not an option, so learning to accept our present moment experience is the lower stress, lower frustration option. Fighting against the experience can heap additional unhappiness, stress, anxiety and frustration onto an already challenging experience. But where change is possible, mindfulness can help us to identify our strengths and capabilities or recognise when we may need somebody to help us through the experience, such as a friend, manager, coach, mindfulness practitioner or therapist. Interestingly, research suggests that mindfulness increases activity in areas of the brain associated with cognitive flexibility (supporting the ability to contemplate various options) and decision making, suggesting that a mindful approach to change is… a good option.
© Michelle Drapeau, 2018