There's a thin line between "being in the moment" and purposely avoiding difficult emotions.
As a Buddhist, I have watched in horror for the past decade as the concept of mindfulness went from being a traditional practice of dealing with reality to becoming an excuse to mentally check out. Mindfulness, which used to be a gloriously demanding approach to life, now seems like some kind of lazy cousin to the manifestation craze that promises to make you feel happy all the time. Turns out that I’m not wrong in finding the way people are using mindfulness a little sus. A new study suggests that, actually, most people are using mindfulness to avoid dealing with difficult emotions, which is basically the opposite of what mindfulness is meant to do.
A new study, published yesterday in Clinical Psychology Review, looked at the ways that laypeople interpret and apply the concept of mindfulness in their everyday lives. According to the research, while most people seem to understand the idea of mindfulness as a concept, the way they apply it is off base, EurekAlert reported. The crux of the matter is that many people seem to be conflating the idea of acceptance — an integral aspect of mindfulness — with passivity or avoidance.
Mindfulness, as defined by the researchers — and also me — has two main principles: Awareness and acceptance. The basic idea of mindfulness is that you stay tuned in to the world around you and practice radically accepting the world as it is. Acceptance, in this context, though, is not passive. Mindful acceptance requires deep engagement and participation with your experiences, and that’s the part that many people seem to be getting wrong.
“Scientific understanding of mindfulness goes beyond mere stress-relief and requires a willingness to engage with stressors,” Igor Grossmann, co-author of the study and a professor of social psychology at Waterloo, told EurekAlert. “Our results suggest that laypeople may understand what awareness is, but the next step of acceptance may not be well understood — limiting potential for engaging with problems,” added Ellen Choi, lead author on the paper and an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Ryerson University.
In other words, most people seem to understand that mindfulness practice requires paying attention to the world, but instead of taking the next step — engaging with acceptance — they check out. Any psychologist will tell you that that’s not a sustainable way to find happiness.
Grossman used political divisiveness on social media as an example of how people are misusing the concept of mindfulness. A mindful approach to dealing with people whose opinions differ from your own would be to engage with them kindly, intentionally, and with respect. But, it seems that people interpreted a mindful approach to disagreement as staying passive or not engaging at all, according to EurekAlert.
“Mindfulness might not provide an easy answer to the divisiveness that surrounds us, but an accurate understanding that includes the practice of acceptance may herald the re-emergence of sincere discussion and authentic connection,” Grossman told EurekAlert. In other words, while misunderstanding mindfulness definitely isn’t the cause of all our societal problems, it does make what could be a way of creating understanding of difference into something of a barrier.