Warning: Mindfulness Is Not Perfection

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By Bryan Cadel, guest contributor

Much has been written in the popular press about mindfulness, including one of its primary tools - meditation. We can’t go far without seeing yet another article extolling the virtues of the practice, or the beginning of the inevitable backlash that stems from its burgeoning popularity. While far from universal, a great number of self-help books, monthly subscription online apps, mindfulness magazines, and expensive retreat courses explicitly or implicitly make a promise: if only we buy their product or service, they will make us happier, wiser, more focused, free from our dreary and challenging lives, or some other glorified personal improvement. The list of claims is long. These myths undercut the very essence of what mindfulness is and what it can offer us.

Mindfulness, in its purest sense, is an unfiltered, non-judgmental relationship, moment by moment, with things as they are. It is this “being with things as they are” that allows us to more fully engage with what ails us, thus clearly seeing oneself without artifice, defensiveness, or rationalization.

Of course, many of us wish to improve and be better. By truly knowing the present moment, we can begin to define an intentional path toward the change of our own choosing. This present moment awareness will help any plan or goal we make to be freer from confusion, as it will be less colored by faulty internal and external views.

With certain marketers of products drawing our attention to the ways in which we are somehow not enough, incomplete, or otherwise aiming to be something we are not, they hope to have us impose on ourselves a form of aggression by playing off of our own insecurities, as a way to move us in their direction. Yet this is a harshness that potentially debilitates oneself and is certainly not deserved. This very goal - and sometimes even reverence - of some unattainable perfection is in and of itself an aggression. It can also suggest a kind of reliance on someone or something outside ourselves for increasing our self-worth, leading to a cult of personality or a prescription for some generic process that falsely suggests there is one answer equally applicable to all.

Why does this matter?

How we treat ourselves impacts how we feel about ourselves and how we behave with others. This personal unsatisfactoriness cultivated by some of these schemes is destructive to the very change we hope to create for ourselves and the communities in which we live. The issues we confront, from clashing political viewpoints to racial injustice to climate change to our connections with those closest to us and those in our communities, can be better understood and held more gently when we properly care for ourselves, which is what allows us to be more compassionate with others.

The approach that “this one product can cure us” wrongly tells us that we do not have the inner capacity to take care of ourselves.

This does not mean we should not seek guidance from time to time from loving family, caring friends, and well-vetted, properly trained professionals. It does mean that when we seek help, we should do so from a position of kindness and self-compassion, not from a flailing ego, comparisons to others, or some impossible seemingly objective goal. 

What should I do?

Mindfulness is not the only method for becoming more awake nor a sole source of promoting personal discovery, but it is a very good and valuable effort when guided by the principles and warnings explored here. As you seek out programs and teachers, focus less on the star power of the presenters and the big promises made and more on their relevant background and the humility of their tone. Also, be attentive to whether they are offering something that genuinely recognizes your completeness and respects your path, and not just in empty words. Really listen to how they express what they are offering and do your best to discern whether they will provide you with practical, usable, repeatable tools - to give you the momentum to carry yourself forward without their continuous presence. And, perhaps counterintuitively, know that price is not a strong signal when assessing the potential efficacy of the offering.

In the end, remember that the best, most sustainable answers are the ones found within each of us. Whatever we employ to bolster that internal guidance should be in service to these answers.

Bryan Cadel practiced law for over 30 years before devoting his full-time efforts toward teaching secular mindfulness practices to individuals and organizations that seek to improve well-being and effectiveness in work and life.

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Margot Wells

This is so true, and respectful of the ancient traditions that created mindfulness in the first place!

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Claire Rhode

Thank you for your comment, Margot! I've passed your words on to Bryan. 

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