Is This Where Your Mindfulness Practice Is Going Wrong?

Interview with Ryan Niemiec

In a world that seems to grow increasingly loud, distracting and busy, the idea that we can create an oasis of calm in which our problems melt away is not only appealing but has a growing evidence base proclaiming it's benefits. It seems from managing stress and anxiety, to improving depression and a range of health issues, mindfulness can help us.

But I have to confess despite all the research and courses I've attended, I still struggle to find a way to make sitting in mindful meditation a joyful process. I begin with nothing but the very best intentions. I take a couple of nice slow deep breaths. I imagine leaving behind the stress and busyness. I tune into how my body is feeling. And then my mind runs away worrying about all the knots in my shoulders because the presentation I was meant to have finished still hasn't been started.

I gently acknowledge that my mind has wandered away and kindly bring it back to the breath moving through my body. Until about thirty seconds later I realise my teeth are now gritted and there was a really important email I forgot to send yesterday. And so it goes on for a disciplined twenty minutes, until I'm done and can finally relax.

And while I feel like a complete wellbeing flop, I don't believe I'm alone in my struggle to mindfully meditate. So what can we do to make mindfulness easier?

"Unfortunately, most mindfulness programs tend to have a starting point of what's wrong or a problem that needs to be recovered from or a deficit to be cured or managed," explained Ryan Niemiec, Director of Character Education at the VIA Institute and an award winning psychologist when I interviewed him recently. "The focus is often on using mindfulness to improve our stress, recover from chronic pain or deal with recurrent depression, an eating disorder, substance abuse or a medical condition. But what if we started with what is strong in us, rather than what is wrong in us?"

Having researched and practiced both mindfulness and strengths-based approaches for some time, Ryan created an eight-week Mindfulness Based Strengths Program (MBSP) to see what impact this shift might have. At its core the program includes an examination and exploration of what's best in each of us - character strengths like gratitude, honesty, kindness and curiosity - and ways to mindfully live, express and practice these strengths be it with problems we're facing or opportunities that are unfolding.

The early findings and anecdotal feedback suggests that without diluting the established benefits of traditional mindfulness programs, participants are reporting two unique outcomes. Firstly, people seem more open and willing to connect and appreciate the differences in others and this is positively impacting their relationships. Secondly, people seem able to reframe their problems so even though the program is strengths-focused they are finding it helps them navigate the challenges they're facing.

But as Ryan rightly noted, there is still much to be learned.

Here is what I took away from our conversation about ways to make mindfulness a more joyful practice:

  • Build on what's strong - use your strengths - the things you're good at and actually enjoy doing. Take the free VIA Survey and then use your best qualities to make your practice engaging, energizing and enjoyable. For example, the strengths of kindness and love may help you embrace a daily practice of loving kindness meditation.  The strengths of curiosity or judgment may help you practice mindful walking or mindful driving.  And the strengths of perseverance and forgiveness may help you establish a practice of mindful breathing.
  • Practice mindful pauses - Practice pausing throughout your day and just breathing for ten seconds. As you breathe become mindful in this moment and then ask yourself one simple question: "What of my character strengths can I bring forth right now to what I'm doing?"
  • Let your mind deliberately wander - Deliberate mind wandering - where you're aware or choose to let your mind roam - has been found to help improve people's ability to solve problems and to be more creative. Allow your mind to have time to deliberately wander, but try to avoid mindless wandering where automatic negative thoughts may lead you towards anxiety, isolation or depression.

What can you do to bring more joy to your mindfulness practice?

For more be sure to grab Ryan's book Mindfulness and Character Strengths: A Practical Guide to Flourishing (this includes a detailed guide on the MBSP program and lots of wonderful tools) and for details on MBSP training or groups near you visit his website.