Why mindfulness is so hard

When I was in high school I was with two friends outside of Chino Latino where we were going to sip on some virgin cocktails and pretend to be adults for my friend’s birthday. We were approached by a (very good-looking) young man wearing an orange robe who showed us pictures depicting one’s soul becoming part of the universe from a copy of the Bhagavad Gita he was carrying with him. He invited us to a free meditation in the park and we all decided to go – my one friend because the meditation was on her birthday and it seemed like fate, me because the guy was good-looking, and the third friend maybe wasn’t sold as she ended up not going.

I remember going to the park thinking I was going to have some transcendental experience, or at least get to sit next to the guy we saw the weekend before, and I was so pumped. I sat there waiting for us to DO something – anything – rather than sit and try not to think. It was horrible. We were sitting in tall grass and there were huge flies that kept biting and mosquitoes that kept buzzing in my ear. I remember thinking about one of the pictures from the Bhagavad Gita that showed a soul entering different animals and how awful whatever person must have been to be reincarnated as a fly that they’d make people miserable by biting them all day.

Ever since that day when people would talk about “mindfulness” or “meditation,” I internally shuddered. I had to do mindfulness exercises in grad school from a professor who was particularly interested in dissecting feelings to a point that made me feel like I would have a stroke if I “picked apart” my thoughts any more. I’ve tried yoga from about a dozen different teachers and just got frustrated by being in uncomfortable positions and trying to balance on my sweaty hands on a mat. I decided a few years ago that I am just not into all that.

So I was rather amazed that I enjoyed learning about DBT – Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. I went to a training on DBT with Adolescents led by Dr. Alec Miller, PsyD because I hear everyone talking about DBT and I had no clue what it was. Therapy has a lot of “alphabet soup” – acronyms that seem intimidating to outsiders to describe techniques that once you learn them, are usually pretty intuitive. I never want to suggest a client use a technique that I personally would find stupid, so I put myself out there for 2 days and learned as much as I could. Dr. Miller was excellent and I highly recommend going to any training he holds and reading his work. I really enjoyed all the techniques we used and came out of it with a whole different idea about mindfulness, one that I could grasp and actually see myself using. I should note that I am not a certified DBT therapist – there is a weeklong training to undergo for this as it’s a prescriptive method with set curriculum – but I use skills from the DBT philosophy to inform my therapy practice.

If you haven’t been to a training or read about DBT, here’s a brief synopsis. Please see the links attached for more complete information as I am in no way a DBT or CBT skills expert. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy was first invented by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D. in the 1980s as she was working with clients diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. Dr. Linehan was trained in the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) school, which is a method that uses thoughts and perceptions to influence behavior and emotions. CBT, in a nutshell, attempts to find negative perceptions/cognitions (things like “no one loves me,” or “I’m not good enough”) challenge them, and replace them with positive ones so that the person slowly changes their self-talk and perceives themselves in a better light. Dr. Linehan, working with people with borderline personality disorder, found that people with this diagnosis tended to have extremely intense and negative emotions that were harder to treat with traditional CBT methods. Many of these emotions were in the context of relationships.

The word “dialectic” in DBT comes from a philosophical model where one may hold two opposing thoughts at once and have them both be true. The idea is that things are not black and white – a person needs to learn to accept multiple things may be true at once. For example, a person may have a breakup and think “I’m worthless, no one will ever love me, I shouldn’t even try” and at the same time think “I want to be loved, I need to have relationships in my life.” These two seemingly opposing thoughts can be synthesized to find the grain of truth in each – “I’ve had relationships that didn’t go well and it’s hard to keep trying, but this doesn’t change my value as a person and my worthiness to give and receive love in the future.”

Here’s where the mindfulness comes in – a person has to be able to sit with themselves and have enough awareness of their feelings to be able to start seeing situations with this dialectic. Think about the statements in the last paragraph. When you read the first two, what emotions come up? Despair, pity, sadness, need, anger? Having black-and-white thinking acts as an emotional intensifier. When we read the last statement that synthesizes those ideas, though, it evokes feelings of calm, acceptance, and hope. But the irony is that we cannot get to that last conclusion (acknowledging that relationships did not go well but we are still valuable and deserving of love) without already having some of that calm, hopeful acceptance – if we stay in a state of intense emotion, it’s impossible to have these kind of realizations. This is where mindful awareness makes it all work.

Mindfulness doesn’t have to mean sitting in a field trying to empty your mind (thank God). It can be just being aware in the present moment what you are feeling, labeling that feeling, and developing some tolerance around the discomfort of having it. You can practice mindfulness in a staff meeting when someone says something that irritates you by noticing that your face gets hot or your jaw tenses, then labeling that feeling as anger, and observing that you are angry at this moment. One of the challenges is to leave judgement out of this assessment – there is no right or wrong emotion, just acknowledge and label that this is what you’re feeling right now and it exists. If you notice it’s unpleasant, take note of that, and challenge yourself to tolerate the unpleasantness. This is part of distress tolerance, which includes a whole set of skills in DBT.

So back to my first idea – why is mindfulness so hard? I think for people like me who try to be in control of everything, it’s a letting go. You realize that you can’t control your own thoughts, and when you sit still and pay attention to them, you notice there’s a lot there that you’d rather not see. I believe my mistake around mindfulness and meditation that made me hate those concepts so much was that I had this illusion that practicing those methods would immediately relax me and turn me into a calmer, more pleasant person. It turns out that mindfulness is like exercise (or like therapy!) and you have to keep working at it regularly to get better at it and experience its rewards. It’s actually the direct opposite of what I thought – mindfulness doesn’t get rid of your negative feelings but rather forces you to confront them so that you can eventually accept and coexist peacefully with them. I’m definitely not there yet, but just realizing that I can try something I thought I hated and learn to do it better is at least a good start.

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