Mindfulness Is Not Enough

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You have undoubtedly heard a lot about mindfulness by now. Mindfulness shows up in the news every day in one form or another. This morning, I saw an article on Forbes.com about using mindfulness to treat social anxiety. “Does Mindfulness Actually Work in Schools?” was in The Atlantic earlier this week. If you Google “mindfulness” today, you will get some 39 million hits and over half a million hits for “the mindfulness cure”.

I have been practicing mindfulness for some 20 years, and I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but in my experience mindfulness doesn’t cure anything except perhaps the need to cure something. Our endless need to cure ourselves and others of our “problems” is what causes us the most suffering.

Consider religious wars, family feuds, and our constant self-improvement projects. Within all of these is the subtle or not-so-subtle desire to reach a kind of plateau of happiness, ease or morality. We tell ourselves that the moment this (whatever this might be) changes, I will have it all together.

One of my favorite books from childhood was Dr. Seuss’ I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew. Solla Sollew was on the banks of the beautiful river Wahoo, where they never had troubles, at least very few. Mindfulness is our newest route to Solla Sollew. We believe learning enough about and practicing mindfulness will allow us to reach a problem free and eternally cheerful state. We might even believe this perfect place is nirvana.

Like Dr. Seuss’ book, there is just one little problem – there’s no key to Solla Sollew. there’s no way in. This is the real truth and the life changing wisdom that mindfulness can and does give us. Practicing coming back to ourselves –- to our breathing, our footsteps, our emotional reactivity – over and over again, we discover there really is no way to get out of the messiness of our lives.

Once we really get that, then even when we have social anxiety, illness, or relationship troubles, we don’t need to immediately try to cure ourselves of them. We won’t ever have a perfect relationship, perfect body, or perfect life, but we can still be happy. That is the real secret -- we can be content and at ease even in the midst of our unstable messy lives.

Buddhist Philosopher Alan Watts puts it this way, “What I am really saying is that you don’t need to do anything, because if you see yourself in the correct way, you are all as much extraordinary phenomenon of nature as trees, clouds, the patterns in running water, the flickering of fire, the arrangement of the stars, and the form of a galaxy. You are all just like that, and there is nothing wrong with you at all.”

I was recently told in a book review “This woman is a hot mess, and I don’t know why anyone would take advice from her.” Reading the review gave me an initial feeling of shame and I thought, I can fix this! I’ll start sitting longer meditations or go on more mindfulness retreats.

But my years of mindfulness practice quickly shifted my perspective. Whether or not we recognize it, each of us is a little bit of a hot mess. Loving myself as I am, mistakes and all, is a lot more pleasant than trying to cure myself of being human. In this state of acceptance I can see clearly what the next right step is for me without the deluded belief that I am ever going to reach Solla Sollew. This is the true state of nirvana.

Try this: Next time you are in a difficult situation, check to see whether you believe that acting in a certain way now will provide you with some kind of permanent safety from suffering. Remind yourself that this is not the truth.

Regardless of what you do next, you will continue to experience difficulties in your life. This will help you decide what the best next step is for you without the baggage of trying to “get it right.”