Getting your mind off the Mindfulness Movement

No matter how often I am faced with the prescription to cultivate mindfulness in my daily life, I find myself unmoved and unmotivated to actually do it.

“Live mindfully.”

I’ve been reading variations on that phrase for a while now. It’s cropped up on blogs and Pinterest. It’s shown up in various New Year’s resolutions I’ve seen women (and it’s almost always women) post on Facebook, and it’s all over Twitter and Instagram comments. Be mindful, live mindfully, embrace mindfulness. But no matter how often I am faced with this prescription to cultivate mindfulness in my daily life, I find myself unmoved and unmotivated to actually do it.

Psychology Today says that “Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.”

Similarly, U.S. News & World Report writes:

Studies have shown that mindfulness, a form of meditation in which you disengage yourself from strong beliefs, thoughts, and emotions, has a positive effect on brain function, lowering the stress response and increasing feelings of relaxation and well-being. It involves being truly present, even during those simple, mundane activities like washing dishes. … [you should think things like] “Here you are doing the dishes again. How many times have you done the dishes? How many more times will you do them in your life? What is this activity we call doing the dishes? Who is doing them? Why?”

There is value to paying attention to things throughout your day. As Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” But I take umbrage at the way mindfulness is being preached as a solution to the stress of daily life, particularly because it seems targeted to women. Being “truly present” while I do the dishes sounds horrible. Encouraging me to draw some deep experience out of the task seems dismissive of the fact that I might actually draw deep thought from other tasks in my life–things that actually require me to think. Meanwhile, it’s very irksome that the mindfulness and “cherish every moment” urges are directed at women every time I see them, as though women are the only ones doing the childcare and, thus, are the only ones around to do the cherishing of the mundane moments–or they’re the ones doing the dishes.

Thinking about doing the dishes and how many more times I’m going to do them in my life while I’m doing the dishes sounds like the worst possible way to spend my time. Who is doing the dishes? What is this activity we call doing dishes? Sweet merciful biscuits and gravy, I want to think about anything else but that. That sounds like the perfect way to induce psychosis. HERE I AM DOING THE DISHES AND THINKING ABOUT THE DISHES. Meta chores? Nope!

“To be a healthy, balanced person, you have to also be self-aware enough to see your imperfections for what they are.”

In fact, I take umbrage at all of the “mindfulness” tricks proposed in that article. For example, it urges me to love myself unconditionally as a way to achieve mindfulness. I know myself pretty well, and I can be honest in saying there are things about me that are unlovable and just not good. Putting on blinders to those things doesn’t seem like the best long-term plan. Boosting self-esteem through unconditional self-love sounds like a recipe for a huge ego and no sense of one’s fallibility. Should you berate yourself cruelly over everything you don’t like about yourself? Certainly not. Having a healthy sense of self-worth is important, but let’s emphasize “healthy” there. Being entirely into yourself and refusing to see any faults seems like a faulty way to live too–if that’s mindfulness, no thanks. To be a healthy, balanced person, you have to also be self-aware enough to see your imperfections for what they are.

A lot of the mindfulness method focuses on neutral meditating on the here and now and being “present.” But, much like the mantra to “cherish every moment”, this seems unrealistic. Life is hard. Sometimes I just want to acknowledge that hey, this thing we’re doing right now–commuting 45 minutes with an inconsolable baby, say–is not neutral. It sucks, and I shouldn’t feel guilty for not meditating on it in a deep, meaningful way. Neutral mundane tasks are sometimes just that and nothing more, and it stresses me out to think that I’m supposed to be gaining more internally from the experience of doing dishes.

I’m not saying mindfulness is a bad thing. Not at all–if it works for you, by all means, do your thing! But the Mindfulness Movement too often seems like a setup to feel guilty for just living and doing what needs to be done. Who needs something extra to feel guilty about when we’re probably all feeling guilty enough already about working when we “should” stay home, or not working on our careers when we “should” because we’re staying home?

Look, maybe I’m wrong–maybe mindfulness exercises are what I’m missing in my life. Maybe ruminating on the meaning of dishes and trying to be really present while I record statistics at work would de-stress my life, but I’m not convinced. So I’ll leave it up to you to convince me. Until then though, I’ll be here, daydreaming novellas while I empty those dishes.

Photo by: aaron13251

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Hayley DeRoche

Hayley DeRoche is a librarian with a penchant for cardigans and corduroys. Luckily, her professional life revolves more around technology & information than fashion.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Great article, Haley! I think doing the dishes or any other mundane activity is a great opportunity to daydream and suddenly thinking you have to FEEL the sponge or FEEL the bubbles while you’re doing dishes gets in the way of that powerful and very natural mind exercise.

    Having said that, I bought a book on meditation and mindfulness back in the early 90’s (“Full Catastrophe Living”) in the hopes of helping with crippling stage fright. I was a music major at VCU and conducting class was my nightmare realized. “Hey, hold this skinny little stick and wave it around in front of people. I hope you don’t shake much!”

    After a month of meditating for 15 minutes a day(basically just paying attention to my breath) I was seriously a different person. I still got nervous, but it wasn’t end-of-the-world call-911 nervousness. I could finally use the energy during the performance. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.

  2. D’oh, Hayley, that is.

  3. I support “mindfulness” in that you shouldn’t always be dissatisfied with the moment in favor of pining for some imagined future in which everything is perfect and nothing hurts. But I hear ya on this. Next one I want you to tackle: the “Do what you love” thing. -___-

  4. Hi Haley,
    I’m not going to attempt to convince you of anything, as that would be my ego talking, yet I wanted to respond as I’ve been seeing posts similar to yours that are critical of mindfulness. The problem is that opportunists and trend-mongers have adopted “mindfulness lite” – which, just like lite beer has no gusto. Unfortunately, mindfulness has been over-hyped by the Huffington Post as well as by more credible news sources that often don’t explore the deeper levels of practice. Although generally well meaning, they often just parrot back buzzwords and platitudes and cherry-pick results from studies with small samples sizes as “proof.” They have created part of the backlash against what I teach as a secular/inclusive life skill, which when taken upon beyond the “101 level” is radically transformative. That is, if you are willing to do the work on yourself.

    Mindfulness is simple, but it’s not easy. “Mindfulness-lite” can serve to enable “I’m OK as I am” narcissism and avoidance (and IMO is NOT truly mindfulness); whereas courageously looking inside with non-judgmental self-honesty and ownership is where it gets really juicy. Going beyond the self-indulgent, superficial level means being proactive, as deliberate mindfulness practice has the ability to put you eye-to-eye with everything you’ve managed to hold at arm’s length with every Roadside Distraction that comes your way, and sit still in the present moment with radically honest reflection and say, “Whoa, this particular thing I see about myself isn’t very pretty, or cool or enlightened or even nice – but I accept who I am right now and all my Imperfect Human-ness – AND it’s looks like I better roll up my sleeves, ‘cause I have some serious work to do.” The Thing is – and it’s a Big Thing – you’ve got to really want to take on the challenge whole-heartedly and whole minded-ly. You have to be OK with feeling uncomfortable at best sometimes, as mindfulness isn’t all just “warm and fuzzy cherishing every moment” stuff. It can kick your a** – in a good way.

    Being fully present when washing the dishes is simply an awareness exercise, one that demonstrates that no matter what task we are engaged in, we have the choice as to whether we are going to bitch and moan about it – or not – that can we apply to any situation. And although “mindfulness lite” may be heavily promoted fluff to women on lightweight social media, many of the professional educators with a long-term practice who are not trend-mongers are men – and both genders will continue to offer these skills long after those who are not into doing deeper work have moved on to something else.

    My concern is the damage that will be done to harm the credibility of the truly positive impact mindfulness can have on a person’s life. I’ve had the honor and privilege to teach hundreds of people mindfulness skills whose lives have been changed for the better, and even though criticism of superficial practice is warranted I’d hate to see negative posts about “McMindfulness” detracting people from learning how they too can benefit beyond the 101 level. Anyone trying to make someone feel guilty isn’t practicing mindfulness – and I’ve written about the value of mind-wandering many times. If mindfulness practice was so rigid and un-fun, I sure as heck wouldn’t be teaching it, let alone practicing for a couple decades now and still finding it to be a great adventure every day.
    Thanks for letting me share my thoughts.

  5. Oops – auto-correct spelled your name incorrectly. My apologies. :)

  6. Super Mandy on said:

    Okay, stick with me for a minute here but… think about your underwear. Right now. Seriously. Can you feel it? I’m going to guess that your answer is ‘no’.

    When you first put it on, you’re aware of the feeling of that piece of clothing against your body. But as you continue to get dressed, you lose the feeling of your underwear.

    Mindfulness is taking a moment to appreciate the feelings and moments that you have become numb to in your day to day. We – the royal ‘we’ – have become so desensitized to everything going on around us that it’s hard to stop and remember to appreciate those ‘underwear’ moments.

    Super easy one: You’ve experienced being somewhere and having the smell of fresh cut grass hit you. You stop for a moment and take a deep breath and then exhale. Afterwards you probably feel a bit refreshed, right? That was a mindful moment.

    Another super easy one: Remember the article that you wrote on hot chocolate? Feeling the warmth of the cup in your hands; smelling the chocolately aroma of the drink; feeling the warmth and tasting the sweetness of the hot chocolate in your mouth… those are all mindful moments.

    To me mindfulness doesn’t have to be super complicated, it’s just taking a moment to slow down and be aware of what you’re doing.

  7. I second Mandy’s comment. I would like to add that, for me, practicing mindfulness is: “When washing the dishes, just wash the dishes.” If you hate and it sucks, let it suck! If it’s a moment of time away from other stuff that’s stressful, then maybe you enjoy it. If you are only paying attention to what you are doing, then that’s being mindful. It’s just being in the present moment, not making it perfect or running away. Any deeper meaning and all of that other stuff will come to bear naturally.

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