Updated: Oct 15, 2020
Mindfulness is great, don’t get me wrong, but I think there’s the misconception that if you are living in the Now and totally Mindful, you will always be happy; that you’ll never feel anxious or angry or sad. Sometimes the Art of Acceptance is portrayed as a means to “happily ever after.” I think such an ideal is both unrealistic and potentially harmful. We don’t have to feel happy all the time, we can't feel happy all the time.
Nothing in the biological world is static
Looking at the biological world we see that life is full of cycles and seasons, life and death, ebbs and flows. Life is both, and. I find the biological world offers a lot of useful metaphors that help me gain a deeper understanding to my internal world of feelings and emotions. When I hear people teaching/preaching “happily ever after,” something feels off, because it implies staying in one emotional state. But by recognizing nothing in the biological world is static, it seems unlikely that we can maintain a fixed emotional state. Ironically enough, change is the one constant. If you take this to be true, then it becomes obvious that maintaining one state of emotion is unsustainable and that there is no such thing as a “magic bullet” that will take away all your pain.
Throughout my life I’ve heard people say their goal is to be happy. Heck, that was my goal for a long time too. But now I bristle at this. Happiness is an emotion. And like all emotions, it comes and goes. If I go through life expecting that a constant state of happiness (or any other emotion) is my ultimate goal, then every time I’m not happy, I feel discouraged at best, and like a failure at worst.
The story of Happily-Ever-After
The reason I disagree with the idea of happily ever after, stems from the stories I adopted as I was growing up. One main story I grew up with is that I had to prove my value and worth. I believed if I was good, God would bless me with happiness. And, as was developmentally expected, I often looked at my life through an “either/or” lens. Do you see the potential problem here? When I was unhappy, which was a lot of the time due to both a genetic and learned predisposition to depression, my line of thought led me to believe I must not be good enough in God’s eyes. Because…being good would make me happy and being bad would make me miserable. I learned to judge myself based on my emotional state. I defined emotions as good or bad. But when you struggle with clinical depression, misery, discouragement and a lack of hope are common. Combine that with an expectation that if you’re good enough you won’t feel miserable and you have a perfect recipe for prolonged depression.
So, my belief for a long time was that a constant state of happiness was both desirable and attainable; I wanted to get to a point where I never felt sorrow, or fear, or any of those tricky, uncomfortable feelings. Trying to obtain that goal actually kept me more depressed. I fought against my “negative” emotions in an effort to “be happy.” And in burying my anger, sorrow, and fear, I fed my depression. You can’t selectively numb emotions (thanks for the words, Brené Brown).
Making space for my emotions
It wasn’t until I began to accept my feelings and allow them some space in my life that I made real progress in my healing. I started reading books from different spiritual traditions and was drawn to the idea of acceptance. From Thich Nhat Hanh’s work I was introduced to the idea that I am not my feelings; my feelings don’t define me; they are merely experiences that I’m having in the moment. These ideas gave me new material for my personal narrative. I began to rewrite my story. Now, instead of using my feelings to define me, I understand that they just are part of the natural ebb and flow of the human experience. I do not have to fear them, ignore them, or even repress them because they will come and go, like water in a river flowing by. One minute I’m happy, the next I’m sad; one moment I can feel peace only to later have that replaced by fear. Our emotions are constantly in flux. For me, a better life goal is to learn how to accept all of what life throws at me.
Why practice mindfulness?
So, back to mindfulness. Why practice mindfulness if it won’t bring you constant joy, peace or happiness? I think part of the power of mindfulness is that it brings you into the present moment and you become aware of your feelings. Combined with non-judgment, sitting with your emotions, recognizing and accepting them can lessen the grip that emotions often have over our lives. Instead of being paralyzed by fear or anxiety, or driven to rash actions by anger, mindfulness can help give the power back to you. And recognizing it as a practice is key. Just like you would never think that doing one sit up is all it takes to have a strong core, one attempt at mindfulness will not solve all your concerns. We must put daily effort into mindfulness to develop and unlock the potential power to be found in the practice.
Now, all of this is great, especially on an academic level. I love it, understand it, believe it, preach it. But because mindfulness is a practice, it means that I’m far from accepting my more challenging emotions. I can get caught in a spin cycle of fear and anxiety, which can lead to me feeling at a loss of what to do. I start up the story that I shouldn’t even bother because I won’t be good enough, or that the discouragement I’m feeling will never change. When this is happening, I sorely wish I could feel happy forever. I curse myself for believing that feeling all emotions is a worthy pursuit. I think it’s hard, dumb, and frustrating. And, when this is happening, it’s a good indication that I’m not being mindful. I’m living my life from a place of fear, rather than love. I am focused on what I want, rather than what is. But I am getting better at it. My mindfulness practice is paying off. I’m able to consciously remind myself that the hard emotions will pass. I’m able to calm down a little more readily than I have in the past. And I tend to feel less frantic when those uncomfortable emotions show up.
Recently, I had the “great” opportunity to practice my mindfulness (read that with a bit of sarcasm). I was feeling overwhelmed in a particular relationship. As I churned over all my fears and pain, I could feel myself slipping into anxiety. I took my dog on a walk and kept rehashing the same ideas. The longer I did this, the more convinced I became that things would never improve. Luckily, the thought occurred to me—try being mindful of what is around you at this very moment. So, I started looking around me, searching out details of how the leaves moved in the wind, how the gravel and dirt sounded under my feet, how my skin rapidly changed temperature when clouds moved over the sun. And guess what? During all the minutes I spent being mindful of my surroundings, I wasn’t thinking about my problems. I got an emotional reprieve and started to calm down. Did all of my concerns go away? Not necessarily, but as I calmed down, those concerns became less threatening and I no longer feared the relationship would never get better.
A mindfulness exercise
I have come up with a mindfulness exercise that really helps me. As part of my mindfulness practice, I visualize a solid rock or cliffside along the coast. I visualize the waves, tides, storms, calm seas—all the variations, as my emotions; and I am the solid and steady rock, able to withstand all the changing moods of the ocean. This is not to say that I’m not affected by ocean (my emotions/experiences). I am, but in the slow, subtle ways of erosion. I am slowly being shaped by the waves, rather than destroyed by them. When I meditate and use the imagery of being grounded and solid, it helps remind me that I am not at the mercy of my emotions and experiences. I don’t have to be dragged out to sea or pummeled by the waves. I can withstand any storm. And I am able to enjoy the calm precisely because I have experienced the storms.
Mindfulness gives you the power
So, mindfulness will not bring you lasting happiness. But it can help you weather the storms of life, give you the power to be in control of your emotions (rather than being controlled by your emotions), and it will help you learn that the essence of who you are is not defined by the emotions you experience. You don’t have to believe you’re an angry person just because you are feeling angry, or a depressed person just because you’re feeling depressed, or an anxious person based on the fact that you experience anxiety. As you practice mindfulness and develop your skills to be in the moment, you will come to find that there is nothing wrong with you if you’re not happy all the time. No one is, no one can be. And as you shift your desired outcome from happiness to acceptance, practicing mindfulness will help you reach that goal.