Mindfulness is not a practice that, in any of its forms, comes at all naturally to me. I have grown programmed to extremes, through an intense fear of being “mediocre” and an even stronger burning to do something “worthwhile” with my life and potential. What that really means is that I never do things half assed: when I want to start running, I start with long distances; when I want to change my diet, I eliminate food groups entirely rather than ease them out; when I am into whomever I am with, I commit to that person and time almost wholly. All of these things have had, and continue to have, clear and sometimes severe consequences on my physical and emotional state. And because I am hyper aware of this personality “quirk”, shall we call it, I have tried, tested and reconfigured an embarrassing number of “ways” of doing it better. In the end, none of them have really “worked”. Here is why:
The content of an approach is never as important as its intention.
It is here, perhaps, that the real issue arises: the search for external ways of fixing internal problems. It is a fallacy that has typified societies and the ways in which they’ve structured themselves to deal with inevitable dysfunction, from the monarchies to the religious institutions, to the health movements sprouting up at every corner. Change is good, but it is all too easy to forget that not all progress is actually progressive.
Take the recent evolution of a body of specialists, literatures, and practices rejecting parts of traditional Western medicine, and re-embracing ancient, predominantly Asian ways of healing. Everything from Ayurdevic medicine to Buddhist meditation, from yoga as a form of exercise to organic as a way of eating-all of these are reactionary movements to what are real systemic issues in nutrition and human well-being. Yet, not a single one is grounded in the value of these processes as much as in the care with which individuals adopting these lifestyles choose to take: all of them require more than just passive acceptance of societal trends. It is this care that is paramount, and in perverting that message by exaggerating the value of these lifestyle choices, we begin to perpetuate the same harms that are being reacted against.
Three years ago, I became party of a community loosely identifying itself as sugar-free. The characteristics of its members were fairly ubiquitous: it was mostly women struggling with their relationships with food, removing fructose as much as feasible in their diets, and taking more mindful approaches to the way they ate and moved their bodies. Almost every member raved about, and regularly practiced, yoga, in particular, a vinyasa, flow-based yoga, that was generally higher paced and often mildly heated.
I will be the first to admit that, the 18 months I was in that community were truly great: I lose weight, my skin started to glow, and I had a mental clarity that I have found difficult to reclaim. I converted several of my friends to this way of eating, and together we would achieve some sort of weird catharsis from subscribing to that way of life. Yoga, something I had absolutely hated for years, brought me an immense level of joy and calmness. For a little while I even meditated, and found the ability to “still my mind”, even in the most awful of moments. When I moved to New York my lifestyle completely changed, and I began to wonder if it was the absence of these practices that were the issue.
Let me be abundantly clear about the main difference between my life before I moved here and now: I dedicate far less time to my well being. That, alone, is enough to completely change the way I physically feel. Yet it is all too easy to think it is the lack of yoga in my life or the increased sugar content in my diet that are the real villains, instead of taking personal responsibility.
Alternative well-being, as is so commonly promoted, shares a very key attribute with religion: it demands faith. Faith is about bridging the gap between what you know and what you’d like to be true; it is about trusting that what you are doing is the right thing to do. As religious institutions require sacrifices, in the form of time, money, dietary choices and questions of modesty, the mindfulness movement demands that people take extra care in all that they do. When you eat out at a restaurant, you deconstruct the ingredients; when you meditate, you guarantee 20 or so minutes aside for yourself, every single day, to just sit still; when you practice yoga, you focus on your breathing for at least an hour. Every single one of these are mechanisms through which you can connect more to yourself in a given day, but they’re not miracles.