I tried mindfulness in the past. It didn’t work, and I developed reservations about the purpose and direction of mindfulness as a movement or fad.
I’m not alone in being critical. Edwin Ng wrote a great piece from a Buddhist perspective, critiquing aspects of the mindfulness movement:
this initial reception of sensorial and perceptual impressions with non-reactive awareness has to be followed through with the ardent application of what is described in Buddhist teachings as appropriate attention and the clear comprehension of the conditionality of phenomenal reality-selfhood…
In this way, mindfulness is guided by an ethical imperative which requires the practitioner to cultivate a wise and compassionate ethos of care and engagement towards self, others and the world. Mindfulness is, therefore, not exactly non-judgmental but rather entails an ongoing evaluative task of being heedful and discerning about the intentions driving the actions of body, speech and mind.
I think this is the difficulty I encountered in practicing mindfulness. It’s generally promoted as non-judgemental awareness, but I think people are either misunderstanding what non-judgmental means, or merely repeating a principle they don’t literally apply to their own practice.
Non-judgmental could mean “don’t beat yourself up for having bad thoughts”. In other words, don’t judge if judging adds another layer of reaction to your awareness.
But mindfulness can’t be truly non-judgmental in the sense of not preferring some states of mind over others. At the very least, mindfulness practice must prefer being mindful over being unmindful.
Mindfulness and positive thinking
I’ve begun using mindfulness as part of my positive thinking work, because I finally understood that the relationship between thoughts and feelings is immediate.
In other words, if I’m feeling bad it’s because I’ve just had a negative thought.
Today I walked past the mechanic and felt bad, because my mind turned to the thought of when I need to get my car serviced, and from there to a general thought about all the hassles and responsibilities I have in life.
That train of thought is guaranteed to make me feel bad, and produce a greater sense of life’s burdens in me.
But if I’m mindful, I’m paying attention to each and every thought I have, and noticing the immediate emotional reaction to it.
Esther Hicks’ material refers to this as our “emotional guidance system”, which tells us whether our thoughts are in alignment or out of alignment with our desires and the perspective of our “inner being”.
Without getting into the metaphysics of that system, the point is that your emotions are always giving you immediate feedback on the direction your thoughts are taking you.
The self-aware mind
What happens in mindfulness is that the mind itself becomes aware of the connection between thoughts and emotional feedback.
I began paying attention to my thoughts – all of them, one after the other – and to my surprise it was as though my mind began regulating itself, diminishing the intensity of negative thoughts as the correlation between thought and feeling became clear.
If we are not aware, we don’t see the connection, and we persist in focusing on thoughts that make us feel worse and worse.
Hicks explains that if you put your hand on a hot stove you know immediately what is wrong and pull your hand away. That we don’t do the same for negative thoughts is due in part to lack of awareness of cause and effect, and in part to the insistence of others that such thoughts are necessary, realistic, and somehow virtuous to hold.
So practicing mindfulness in the context of positive thinking really is valuable, because it amounts to a highly focused and disciplined application of the basic principles. You wouldn’t consciously put your hand on a hot stove, and you won’t consciously focus on thoughts that make you feel bad either.