Mindfulness & Personal Growth
Updated: Oct 19, 2021
The role of meditation and mindfulness
Mindfulness is all the rage these days. That's mostly a good thing. I'd like to say a bit about the important role it plays in personal growth. But first, let's get clear on the terms mindfulness and meditation.
MEDITATION The word meditation tends to conjure up images of sitting on a cushion with your eyes closed. There are some common myths about what we’re supposed to be doing while sitting there, but the frequent assumption seems to be that we’re trying to calm our minds. Often this involves banishing thoughts, which turns out to be a pretty tough ask!
There are practices aimed at this, but that is just one aim among several. It’s only part of the story.
Meditation practices fall into two broad types. Let’s borrow from the Buddha and call them the two wings of personal growth.
Wing 1: Serenity The first wing includes practices aimed at serenity, that is, calming the body-mind. I use the term body-mind here because the body and mind are so interconnected that calming one, calms the other. A very common practice of this kind is paying attention to the breath, but it includes any practice that attempts to focus your mind on something.
Calming the mind is super helpful, partly because it dials down the stress in our lives, but also because it helps us with the other half of the story….
Wing 2: Insight The second wing includes practices aimed at gleaning insights about our experience, or our patterns of experience. They help us answer the question: what’s going on here? By here I mean in our inner world – our mind activity, emotions, and body. Many of these practices allow thoughts to go on, but bring curiosity to them to see and understand our own processes.
A lot of people start meditating because they want to reduce the stress in their lives. That’s great…. except if we adopt the idea that ‘good meditation’ is thought-free, calm meditation, we can judge ourselves badly when our mind is busy. Or worse – we can give up! Instead, try thinking of a 'good meditation' as one where you genuinely did your best to pay attention with curiosity and compassion.
By compassion I mean empathy, good will, and a desire to help. So if what you find is some kind of stress, or even distress, direct care towards yourself as you would a good friend, and just accept that what's coming up is coming up. We actually have no say in what arises a lot of the time. So allow it to be there and know that even if it's not pretty, it's probably your mind's attempt to protect you in some way.
And if you're seeing it clearly, then that's REALLY GOOD PRACTICE! So it’s important to know about, and be able to draw on practices from both wings (serenity and insight), so that if our mind’s not calming down, we have other options at our fingertips.
Also, if we only stick with serenity practices, we can miss out on building our insight – we need both wings to fly. More on that in a sec…
MINDFULNESS Strictly speaking, meditation is not just sitting on a cushion watching our breath. It’s the practice of bringing awareness and an attitude of curiosity and compassion to our experience, whatever that is.
This includes what we find on the cushion and off of it. Indeed, in the only teaching the Buddha gave about meditation (yep, out of the 5,434 recorded dialogues of the Buddha, only one of them was about meditation practice!) he included all of our physical and mental activities as things we can focus our attention on in meditation. Focusing on the breath is just one possibility.
In today’s language though, the word mindfulness has come to mean awareness of our experiences in daily life. So, essentially, the two terms could be used interchangeably. We’ll use them this way for clarity:
Meditation = bringing awareness, curiosity and compassion to our experience in formal meditation (dedicated periods of sitting, walking or lying-down meditation)
Mindfulness = bringing awareness, curiosity and compassion to our experience in daily life (all experience outside of those dedicated meditations)
Their importance to personal growth Personal growth is about changing the way we receive and respond to the world – the way we experience it and act in it. To make changes, we need to see the process of our experience in detail. If we don’t know how it works, we’ll have a huge amount of trouble changing it.
The problem is, we live such busy lives these days, and have so many entertainments and distractions readily available, that we’re unlikely to see much of the detail unless we deliberately slow down and look. We need to slow down, because speed and mindfulness just don’t go together! This is why it’s important to join PAR (People Against Rushing).
For example, let’s say one of my personal patterns is that I get reactive if I’m ever seen to be wrong. If I’m not mindful of this experience, when someone questions my view on a topic, I can get defensive, argumentative, maybe even unpleasant – perhaps belittling the other person.
However if I bring mindfulness to this I might see that this is a personal sensitivity that’s emerged in my body-mind from my family history. I’d see the association I have between being wrong and being seen as un-intelligent, or lacking credibility. I’d see the fear I have associated with these judgments because of my past experience that left me feeling disconnected and unimportant when I was ‘shown up’ as wrong. I’d see my fear around the human needs for Connection and Belonging – that’s where my pain is. This is insight!
As I grow, I’d recognise this as it happens, and with time and practice I’d be able to cultivate a different response – different thoughts, different behaviours, and methods of soothing the outdated fears that have been stored as emotional memories.
There’s a lot of seeing and recognising going on here isn't there?! Mindfulness and meditation are essential tools for this. Without them, we just continue our habitual reactive patterns.
So if you haven't already, I’d encourage you to start on the path of meditation and mindfulness yourself. With meditation you might want to start with a 15 minute meditation twice a week - some research shows that as little as 12 ½ minutes can yield some stress-relief benefits!
You don't need candles or incense, and don't get hung up on which practice to use. Just find a quiet space where you won't be interrupted. Sit so that you're relaxed but alert. Try anything and notice how that is for you. There are loads of guided meditations available on the internet (one of my favorite apps is insighttimer.com) or you can try simply counting your outbreaths, and when you lose focus, just start again. You can try focusing your attention on sounds for one meditation, feelings in the body in another, or just let your mind roam and try to notice where it goes and what it does.
Whatever you do, if you're paying attention to your experience with an attitude of curiosity and compassion for yourself, then you're meditating. It'll be patchy at first, for sure. Expect that. It's no problem. Mindfulness is a habit, it'll take time for the mindfulness muscle to grow. Just accept it as it is, and keep going.
You might want to start a meditation journal and note down what each experience is like (what you remember of it). The goal is to build up your own toolkit of meditation practices so that over time you can develop skill in deciding which is most helpful for you in this moment.
With the more general mindfulness practice, simply try and bring the same thing to everyday experience. Whether that's your work, doing the dishes, interacting with people, your exercise or sport, your socialising - just pay attention with curiosity and compassion.
Soon we'll be releasing some short videos on common meditation myths, an overview of practices, and a simple 'how-to' - we'll let you know as soon as they're ready. But in the meantime, just start the habit!