How practising mindfulness takes us beyond self-improvement to a deeper sense of well-being
"Blips and Dips in the Recovery Journey" issue of Visions Journal, 2019, 15 (2), pp. 37-39
In a world where we are bombarded with bigger, faster, better, it’s not surprising that many of us have become fixated on the idea of self-improvement. Let’s face it: most of us are familiar with the notion that we need to improve ourselves in order to be happier, healthier, more successful and loved. Perhaps we have tried countless ways to change ourselves through diet, exercise, therapies and achievements, or by engaging in practices like yoga, mindfulness and meditation.
As a recovering self-improvement seeker, I too have been fooled by the notion that if I just bettered myself in some way, my suffering would vanish, never to return. In fact, my work in the mental health field, as a support worker and as the clubhouse manager of Centennial Place, a mental health clubhouse in Mission, BC, was rooted in the understanding that we need to “get better.” This idea that something is wrong and that it needs to be fixed or cured underlies our current medical and mental health systems; it is what fuels our society’s “need to improve” mindset. Like many other people, I spent much of my time looking for ways to save people (including myself) from experiencing the blips and dips of life.
This explains my initial excitement when I first stumbled across the practices of mindfulness and meditation. I immediately saw mindfulness as this amazing New Age technique that would finally satisfy my need to improve myself by eliminating all that was wrong. But the more I studied the practice of mindfulness, the more I understood that mindfulness, in its essence, is the practice of paying attention to how things are, beyond the fixed ideas of what is wrong or right.
An ancient practice that fulfills contemporary needs
Mindfulness as a practice is actually a very ancient art—its origins go back 25 centuries. But contemporary meditation and mindfulness practitioners and researchers have pointed out that the skills of mindfulness practice are timeless, just as beneficial in our modern society as they were in the ancient world.1
I was enthused to share what I was learning about this powerful practice with the members at Centennial Place. It didn’t take long for mindfulness to become the most popular program we offered: the majority of our referrals expressed interest in it, and often, their participation in the program led to remarkable results.
That said, mindfulness meditation may not be possible for an individual in acute distress. Someone in a state of crisis does not feel enough safety in their internal system to be able to fully engage in the practice. In these cases, other “lighter” mindfulness techniques can be of great value. Even simply directing an individual’s attention to what is happening externally rather than internally—helping them focus on the outside world—can be helpful.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist, medical researcher and meditation teacher known for bringing mindfulness to mainstream medicine and society, talks about the Seven Attitudinal Qualities of Mindfulness in his book Full Catastrophe Living.2 These qualities can support you to cultivate feelings of betterment by accepting yourself just as you are—right now. I’ve paraphrased these qualities below, with suggestions for practising each of them in our everyday life.
The Seven Attitudinal Qualities of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is not just about paying attention, but about how we pay attention. If our attention is rooted in judgement and expectation, it will be more difficult to feel at ease with how things are. And accepting how things are is the key ingredient for reducing stress and supporting healing. It is no wonder that Kabat-Zinn emphasizes how we pay attention in his Seven Attitudinal Qualities.
- A beginner’s mind
As adults, we become conditioned to see ourselves through our past experiences and habits. We tend to judge ourselves based on how much better we think we should be doing. Such conditioning stifles creativity and limits self-potential. By cultivating the quality of a beginner’s mind—seeing things with fresh new eyes—we can learn to see ourselves beyond such limiting self-beliefs that keep us stuck in the same place.
In our daily lives, we can practise a beginner’s mind by regularly stepping outside our comfort zone and trying new things. For example, if we see ourselves as an introvert, we can try making small talk with a stranger in a grocery line-up. If we see ourselves as an extrovert, we can try setting aside a time for solitude. Challenging our limited beliefs about who we are by trying things we don’t normally do opens us up to new worlds of possibility.
Disapproval and judgement are often interwoven with our belief in the need for self-improvement. This makes it very difficult to feel at peace within oneself. By cultivating the quality of non-judgement—an open-minded awareness of self—we can learn to recognize the judging mind without getting caught up in the judgements it makes.
To practise non-judgement in our daily lives, we can learn to be aware of our continuous judgements about our inner experience. Once we recognize those judgements, we can re-frame them, with kinder words and thoughts.
We live in a world of immediate gratification, and we often suffer if we feel things aren’t progressing fast enough. When we cultivate the quality of patience—allowing life to unfold in its own time—we experience the peace that arises from not hurrying the natural processes of life.
To cultivate more patience in our daily lives, we can learn to let go of any rigid timelines we may have set to achieve our goals without giving up the earnest effort we are making towards achieving those goals.
In contemporary Western culture, we tend to be driven by our goals and the outcomes of our attempts to achieve those goals. We expend effort trying to get what we want or get more than what we have. By cultivating the quality of non-striving—by doing less, and by accepting where we are and what we have—we find, ironically, that we move ahead precisely because we are not trying so hard to move ahead.
In our daily lives, we can practise non-striving by taking time each day “to be” rather than “to do.” Meditation is an excellent way to practise being with yourself without any agenda or expected outcome.
When it comes to self-transformation, we must learn to accept ourselves first. When we cultivate the quality of acceptance—seeing and accepting things as they really are—we can learn to appreciate ourselves as we are right now, without needing to change a thing. That, in itself, is self-transformation.
We can practise acceptance in our daily life by cultivating a sense of humour about our experiences, learning how to see our own personality quirks, worries and fears—seeing ourselves as a unique element of the human experience.
- Letting go
It’s impossible to grow when we don’t have enough space. By cultivating the quality of letting go (of things we do not need as well as negative emotions or thoughts that take up space in our awareness), we can create space for new opportunities.
When we practise letting go, the breath becomes our greatest teacher. With each exhale, our bodies experience a sense of release. So, whenever we notice we are holding onto something too tightly, we can turn towards our breath, allowing each exhale to teach us how to naturally let go, both physically and emotionally.
We are all born with an intrinsic wisdom, one that is eroded over time by our self-doubt and insecurities. By cultivating the quality of trust in our instincts—an inner confidence—we can develop faith in our intuition and our ability to make skilful decisions and choices.
In our daily lives, we can learn to practise trust by listening to the voice of our own basic wisdom and goodness, and by allowing that to be our guide rather than following the voice of another.
Mindfulness and the Seven Attitudinal Qualities are not a quick fix; they are an invitation to take part in a lifelong practice. The goal is not to achieve a particular result, but to take part in the ongoing process. Practising mindfulness will not rid you of all your insecurities overnight. But by cultivating the qualities of mindfulness, you can step off that hamster wheel of self-improvement and step into your life, just as you are.
If you would like to learn more about mindfulness and the Seven Attitudinal Qualities, taking a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program is a great way to do so. Find one near you at www.mbsrbc.ca. Or pick up a copy of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living at the bookstore or a library.
About the author
Brandi is a mindfulness-based stress reduction teacher (through the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Mindfulness) and a certified trauma-informed yoga teacher. She formerly worked at Communitas Supportive Care Society, including time as the manager of Centennial Place, a mental health clubhouse in Mission, BC. She lives in the Fraser Valley
Bodhi, B. (2013). What does mindfulness really mean? A canonical perspective. In J.M. Williams & J. Kabat-Zinn (Eds.). Mindfulness: Diverse perspectives on its meaning, origin and applications (pp 19-40; 20). New York: Routledge.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full Catastrophe Living. New York: Bantam Dell.