The rise of mindfulness has been incredible.
In part it seems like many of us are responding to a radical fast pace of living where we’re in a constant state of doing, doing and doing some more and and longing for something to help us create balance in our lives. The answer has been a variety of mindfulness programs with a heavy emphasis of “being” to balance out the “doing.”
Mindfulness is a fundamental skill for anyone in this day and age and yet at the same time it can go too far.
In the formal practices of mindfulness we do meditative exercises like breathing meditation, the body scan, or an open awareness practice. All of these focus on training the brain to “be with” experience. We need this training because the alternative is the brain’s default to try and fix our stress by kicking into auto-pilot and constantly planning in the future or looking to the past to figure out the present.
This juggle between the past and future only stresses our mind and body more. Learning how to “be with” helps turn the volume down on all this thinking and can often bring us into a state of balance.
Sometimes this state of balance teaches us important lessons, like in life all things come and go, otherwise known as the law ofimpermanence.
But in an effort to teach people how to “be with” experience, a message has been implied that “doing” is somehow bad and if you just learned how to be with things as they are, you’ll be at peace with yourself (aka happiness).
But the reality, “being with” something isn’t often enough or even the best response. If you’re having high anxiety for example, it’s really difficult to “be with” that or if you’re depressed, “being with” the feeling can slip quickly into dwelling on negative thoughts which only sinks you deeper into what I call in Uncovering Happiness – “the depression loop.”
On top of that, while learning how to “be with” life as it is is fundamental, it also opens us up to “choice points” “to do” things that are adaptive and healthy for us.
For example, mindfulness helps us be aware that we’re suffering without getting pulled into it and opens up the perspective to intentionally “do” self-compassion. This is the act of knowing that we’re suffering and inclining to support ourselves with it.
So we may intentionally choose “to do” soothing practices like playing with an animal, going on a jog or practicing a lovingkindness practice. As we practice and repeat this self-compassion practice it becomes more available to us, shifting from a state of mind into something that it more trait-like.
At the end of the day, the relationship between “doing” and “being” is what makes the greatest impact.
If you’re struggling, mindfulness can create the awareness for the need to self-soothe. If you bring mindful awareness to self-soothing it will enhance the memory of it, making it more retrievable in the future. What we notice is better automatic recall of self-compassion. When this recall gets better and better it just begins to feel like it’s a part of who we are and how we act in the world.
The key here is that when it comes to lasting happiness, the cultivate the integration of “being” and “doing” on a daily basis is optimal. Just like a garden, the practice will eventually bear fruit for you and the people around you.
May it be so.
Elisha Goldstein, PhD
Adapted from Mindfulness and Psychotherapy