How do we know if mindfulness practices are working? The premise of this column might seem paradoxical.
Being mindful/practicing mindfulness means "maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment."
It is being in each moment; it's about learning how to respond with care and kindness instead of reacting based on fleeting, furtive feelings.
So, how mindful am I being if I'm thinking about some subsequent self at some vague, future time when all my practice will have "worked?"
It's a paradox.
Neuroscientist Sam Harris has written about the paradoxes of meditation.
"Those who begin to practice in the spirit of gradualism often assume that the goal of self-transcendence is far away, and they may spend years overlooking the very freedom that they yearn to realize," he wrote.
(I'm not going to get into everything Harris wrote, but this is a great read.)
But the question of "Is this working?" doesn't have to be couched in some distant goal. Like mindfulness practice methods themselves, checking in with your body and your consciousness is important so that you don't overlook that freedom Harris mentioned.
So how do I know if my practice is working?
It's making you uncomfortable at times.
Last October, I delved into the how meditation might help anxiety, after one particular session left me feeling deeply uneasy.
This week a local practitioner posted this Harvard Business Review article on the Mindful Chattanooga Facebook group. The article's author, Amy Jen Su, explains how being mindful can make you uncomfortable.
That's because mindfulness/meditation isn't a magic spell that immediately transforms a person into the Buddha himself. And it's because life and all the emotions that come with it are often uncomfortable at best.
And most of us don't like to be uncomfortable if we can avoid it.
So, we distract ourselves. We retreat into our cell phones or we nitpick on social media. Maybe we over eat or we obsess about goals, fraught with the desire to succeed.
We make deals with ourselves.
"I'll run three miles today and be uncomfortable, but at least I can have a beer afterwards."
We constantly look forward to the next meeting, the next conversation, the next meal—all in an effort to remain stimulated, to avoid anxiety, boredom and feelings of inadequacy or fear.
Mindfulness requires us to be more aware of these routines, which is the first step toward transformation of the habits.
Continued practice also requires a certain level of honesty with oneself.
And sometimes reality sets in—the reality that nothing is perfect or permanent, and that's scary.
But all there is to do is be with that feeling in the moment, which will be uncomfortable.
But the ability to sit calmly with discomfort can prevent us from overlooking the freedom and peace that's intrinsic to life itself.
You're able to listen to your gut.
In addition to being able to face discomfort, the ability to hear and listen to your gut, heart, self—however you want to name it—is key.
What this means is that you listen to yourself and pick up on subtle signs that are guiding you.
You might notice a sudden, strong reaction to a person or situation, or maybe it's more of a bubbling of intuition. It could be a feeling that you just can't shake for days or weeks.
In addition to needing to be present and mindful to hear your gut, you can't be distracted by your cell phone.
This is all wrapped up in authenticity and gratitude. If you are constantly living disingenuously or are unhappy with what you already have, it will be more difficult to act on what your gut is saying.
I attribute two recent positive decisions to my practices.
I made the seemingly small but scary-to-me decision to attend a mindfulness retreat this weekend. It's a step toward a bigger goal of attending a longer, more intense meditation retreat.
I saw a Facebook post about the retreat, then I got a encouraging message from a friend about it.
My default, anxious reaction was:
"That sounds sort of nice, but oh my god—strangers! The unknown! Everything is awkward! Discomfort is death! Withdraw to adult pillow fort! I am not going to this retreat!"
But that voice was not my gut. It was my ego. It was my fear.
So, I acknowledged that and took a couple of days to think logically about it. Then I listened to the more pure part of myself that knew this was an important, exciting opportunity, and I signed up to attend.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm still anxious. Yes, I'm anxious about a mindfulness retreat. The irony is not lost on me.
The second decision I made felt less conscious and more like my practice finally moved me to do something I'd been wanting to do for a long time.
I won't bore you with the details of that one, but the point is that I was able to stop letting distraction and fear keep me from making a positive life decision.
Mindfulness/meditation doesn't always seem to have such obvious, instantaneous positive effects. Sometimes it's uncomfortable. But maybe sometimes we aren't listening?
The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.