Mindfulness is Stupid!

Mindfulness is StupidMindfulness is stupid in many ways. It’s stupidly easy. It’s stupidly simple. And in some cases, it’s just plain stupid.

Our minds make mindfulness meditation complicated. Really, it’s just sitting still paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment. Stupid-simple. But our minds want things fancy. We try to achieve some special state, or having encountered a state we think is desirable, we try to maintain it. But mindfulness meditation is not about achieving or maintaining any particular state. Mindfulness meditation is about being fully present and joining in with our experience, just as it is–“nothing special,” as Zen master Charlotte Joko Beck used to say.

Mindfulness Is Stupid-Easy

It’s really not hard under most circumstances to sit still. We all learned to do it in grade school. Stupid easy. It’s the first thing we need to do to get started: find a place to sit and sit quite still. How hard is that, really?

Next, we find somewhere to send our attention when our mind starts wandering away from where we are, into thoughts about other things. We can pick a spot on our body, or follow the movement of the breath at our belly, chest or nostrils. We can choose sound, alternatively. And then come back to that when our mind wanders. Stupid easy. But we don’t perceive it that way, because our minds have expectations that we should be “good” at it and “succeed” at keeping the awareness grounded in the present moment, without having practiced having done so much before. If we adjust our expectations to include the mind wandering frequently, and frequently having to bring it back to our bodies and the present, then it’s just plain easy. Simple work, stupid simple.

Our Stupid Minds Make Mindfulness Hard

My IQ is high, but my mind is stupid. No matter how smart we may be, our minds are stupid. It’s just how we are, it’s neither good nor bad, just the way our minds are. I think of my mind like a big, dumb dog that loves me and has very little idea of how to be helpful, or a big, muscular doofus of a guy who intrudes and tries to help me, bumblingly, and usually messes things up. When I view my mind that way, I can be more skillful with it and with my life activities. My mind’s suggestions are usually stupid. For example, if I have something I important that need to do and haven’t gotten to it yet, my mind will remind me about it hundreds of times. Once or twice would be fine. Hundreds of times is excessive and exhausting. But I don’t find I can stop my nagging mind. Rather, I can just remember how very silly and even stupid the mind is. Then it doesn’t bother me so much that it keeps reminding me — just as I might not be bothered by a dog who keeps trying to sniff my butt. It’s annoying, but it’s not a big problem.

Our minds make mindfulness hard because our minds tell us we have to “get” something from practicing. This is only natural, since we want so much out of our lives. But part of the point of practicing is to accept life more for what it is, rather than what our minds tell us it “should” be. So the attitude of “I’m going to get soooo much from this!!” is counterproductive. But even though I KNOW this, I TEACH this for crying out loud, my big, dumb mind still doesn’t get it. I still get stuck with the thought “this meditation isn’t good enough,” sometimes. So stupid, so Human. But, I can keep practicing, and I always benefit whether my stupid mind perceives that or not.

Sometimes Mindfulness is Really Just Plain Stupid

Mindfulness really IS stupid when it’s misused and misunderstood. If we treat it as a sort of “behavioral Xanax” as I call it, and teach it to people as a sort of “calming down” technique and nothing else, that’s pretty stupid. Not like, paradoxically stupid-yet-clever, but just plain stupid. It may help for a little while to learn to calm down, and it’s a good start. If that’s all we intend when we meditate though, it’s basically a waste of time. It then just amounts to another self-brainwashing session of believing, more strongly than ever, that “bad feelings and thoughts are to be avoided” and “I must control my inner experience.” Well-designed behavioral studies demonstrate that these attitudes are highly associated with problems like chronic anxiety and depression (I am referring to the literature on “Experiential Avoidance.”)

A study by a colleague of mine some years back showed that 10% of “Mindfulness” therapists practiced meditation regularly, and 1% had been on an intensive meditation retreat. This is pathetic. This means that mindfulness has been reduced to a set of techniques and not a way of life. It means that psychology is in danger of gutting everything useful in mindfulness and leaving it a hollow shell. That would be stupid. But it wouldn’t be the first time my field turned good ideas and practices into useless, stupid bullshit.

Let’s Get Stupid – Skillful

Practicing simply, holding lightly our thoughts about achievement and excellence or even quality, would be skillful practice. Just sit still and do your best to follow the breath or sound. Just be stupid. Simple, stupid, sitting quietly. And being open to our experience, and holding our stupid minds lightly. Our mind really, really means well, but in some situations it’s just too stupid to help.

Practicing well means practicing simply. The teacher is the present moment, and the best way to learn is to hold the mind lightly, hold all thoughts lightly, believe nothing you hear in your mind and concentrate awareness in the present moment. This can be deeply satisfying and, over times, it can change our lives into a richer, deeper, more meaningful experience. Now that’s smart.

Do you practice regularly? Does your mind make it hard for you?

Do you teach mindfulness without practicing it? What do you make of that?

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Joseph Rhinewine, PhD. People collaborate with me to live life fully: with principle, passion and vigor. My expertise is providing and teaching Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an evidence-based, experiential and relational behavior therapy. I also apply Acceptance and Commitment processes to coaching those who wish to take their lives to a new level.

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