Why mindful attention is not passive

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A misconception I often hear about mindfulness is that it is about being passive, about accepting whatever is happening without protest.  This is not my experience of it, and today's blog explores this theme.

Last night I was reading Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn's book Everyday Blessings, which is about mindful parenting.  I came across a chapter about Discernment, and it expressed well the thoughts that had been crystalising for me in recent days.

The Kabat-Zinn's open the chapter with a reminder that Mindfulness is about paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgementally, in the service of greater self-understanding and wisdom.  By nonjudgementally, they mean that when you spend time noticing your thoughts, you will find that they arise seemingly at random, come and go, contradict each other and often make no logical sense or do not match with the experiences of your five senses.

Nonjudgemental mind is about being able to sit with these thoughts, noticing them, but not being drawn in by their comings and goings in a way that prevents clear seeing and learning.  We need this, because when you firmly take a position, all other positions become unavailable to you. By seeing things one way you are unable to see them another way. 

Nonjudgement calls us to move past this belief in our moment to moment narrative to look deeper into things and to perceive relevant distinctions keenly and with clarity.  It asks us to see both this AND that, the detail and the big picture, our own perspective AND the perspectives of others.  It asks us to notice our own contributions to situations as well as those of others, and to notice subtleties and nuance rather than stopping with gross and simple judgements.  It asks us to be with our emotions and thoughts without becoming them.

This process is far from easy.  It can be painful to make necessary and important distinctions.  It may mean we have to give up on the stories we tell ourselves and look more carefully, suspending our normal thinking patterns, biases and preferences, and coming back to how things actually are right now.

When we do this, we become more able to act congruently, from a grounded sense of what is good to do, for us, for others, for the situation at large.  This is what discernment and non-judgement are about.  Rather than shooting from the hip, mindfulness invites us to sit with what we notice, to reflect, and to spot and respond to the patterns we notice.

Where patterns do not serve us, or do good in our world, then the decisions we may be called to make can be tough.  Deep and lasting change can result.  On the surface it may look pretty much like business as usual, but what is happening comes from a different, deeper place within us.  Discernment gives us the responsibility and the freedom to reflect on what is needed, rather than to focus simply on our wants.

If you want to explore the repeating patterns in your life and find a grounded way forwards, then get in touch.  

Fe Robinson, Psychotherapist

I am here to help you thrive, whatever life brings. I offer Psychotherapy, EMDR therapy and Couples Counselling to clients based in Durham. I am UKCP Accredited and an EMDR Europe Practitioner, and offer Clinical Supervision to counsellors and psychotherapists locally. I have worked in private practice, the NHS, and in charitable organisations, with a wide range of clients and conditions.

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