Why practicing mindfulness is hard—at first

Updated: 5 days ago



I noticed something a little telling the other day when looking up statistics about post-pandemic stress levels in the U.S.


The American Psychological Association showed in a 2020 poll that "—nearly half (49%) of U.S. adults say stress has negatively affected their behavior."


Behavior...


What the heck did the APA mean by behavior?!


Could stress be making us irritable which is making us more reactive at work? Are we meaner to our family members? Are we more prone to gossip?


I'd posit that stress isn't the only problem here. If we're letting the way we feel inside dictate how we behave, maybe it's because we aren't being very mindful.


If stress can negatively impact your behavior, mindfulness can change it for the better. You better believe that. But, there's something really tricky about the changing your behavior part.


How do I use mindfulness to overcome negative behaviors?


Much like working out or learning how to play an instrument, becoming more mindful requires grit, sacrifice and persistence.


Believe me, if slapping people on the wrist and telling them to be more mindful worked, I'd be doing it all the time. But I'd be slapping my own wrists on a daily basis, and I need my wrists to not be bruised so that I can write this stuff.


Why is mindfulness hard?


Because you and I are creatures of habit. Mindfulness can change your behavior for the better, but first, it will stress you out before it calms you down.




Your brain doesn't want to do new things. It will literally equate doing something new—whether it's good or bad for you—with danger. If you have never practiced mindfulness before, then you REALLY shouldn't expect your brain to give it a warm welcome. You will probably get frustrated and your brain will likely convince you that you're wasting time doing nothing.


Your brain is lazier than it thinks. So is mine.


Ironic, isn't it?


Your brain will perform all kinds of mental gymnastics in an effort to convince you that doing a 10-minute meditation session is a waste of time—but it has no problem letting you spend hours on end watching TV.

This is because the human brain doesn't differentiate between good habits and bad habits. It only cares about survival. So if your brain sees your longtime habit of watching Netflix and binge-eating potato chips as being necessary for your survival, it will keep doing that. Even when presented with something better—like the raisin meditation exercise.


This change-averse flop of the brain was discovered by social psychologist Wendy Wood in her 2006 study that looked into why we form habits—good or bad—over the course of our lives.


Wood explained that “—The automatic nature of habits allows people to perform such activities with only minimal or sporadic monitoring and leaves people free to think about issues unrelated to ongoing behavior. In contrast, because non-habits require greater thought for successful performance, people’s thoughts typically correspond more closely to their non-habitual actions."


In short, you just DO your habits. You have a much easier time thinking about what's good for you rather than doing what's good for you. That's why your bad habits can be painfully obvious to you yet you're still unable to stop doing them.



Your brain also performs a cost-benefit analysis every time you are presented with something new. And your brain is often overconfident in its ability to accurately determine whether this new activity will be worth the effort. And the more entrenched your brain is in its current habits, the less likely you are going to do the healthy habit—mindfulness practice—long enough to see any meaningful changes.


So is it even possible to practice mindfulness with a brain that refuses to be mindful?


Of course, it's possible. More people than ever these days are practicing mindfulness and making it a daily part of their lives—even at work. What helps more than anything is finding a way to reframe your relationship with this practice.


Here's how you can do it.


 

First, learn about what mindfulness isn't.

Mindfulness isn't some mystical altered state of awareness reserved only for ascetics. It is a skill—especially in today's noisy world—but it isn't a skill you measure. Mindfulness has nothing to do with dualities like good and bad, better or worse, up or down, yes or no.


Second, learn what mindfulness is.

Realize that to grasp mindfulness is to realize that there is no such thing as a good or bad meditation. Once you accept this, it will be easier to take on the passive observer role during meditations or other mindfulness exercises. Every time you sit down and meditate or participate in a quick mindfulness exercise is a win in my book!


Third, practice acceptance when meditating.

Welcome even the most emotionally charged of thoughts. Let all thoughts—good or bad—come and go like passing clouds.


Fourth, don't just do it once.

This part is so tricky. One part of me wants to say that mindfulness doesn't deal with dualities. The other part of me realizes that you won't see any meaningful change in your behavior if you don't get serious about becoming more mindful. You have to take action and you have to care.


Finally, practice mindfulness with other people.

Find a mindfulness meetup group in your area. Join Facebook groups. Subscribe to YouTube influencers who practice and teach mindfulness. You want to surround yourself with people who will encourage and inspire you to keep being mindful!


 

The last two steps concerning consistency and reinforcement matter because mindfulness itself isn't really a practice, per se. It's a state of awareness, a way of life—of existing.


The practice part is the thing you do (i.e. meditation or mindfulness exercises) that gradually results in the expansion of your capacity for retaining this mindful state throughout the day.


Wrapping up


So let's just face it. You're lazy. I'm lazy. Our brains would much rather run on autopilot. Your brain is hard-wired to:

  • Stick to old habits

  • Be right

  • Be comfortable

  • Be safe

But you don't have to be tethered to your hard-wiring. Remember at the beginning of this post when I displayed a statistic by the APA about how elevated stress levels are negatively affecting the behavior of U.S. adults?


Mindfulness can get you out of that mess—if only you accept the challenge. What is the challenge, you ask?


Choosing to be mindful even when you don't feel like it. So let's keep learning how to be mindful and practice mindfulness even if it hurts!