No More Bad Days Ever Again
I was taught mindfulness and how to meditate from PhD students in a church basement with other people just so I wouldn’t stay up all night listening to Psy’s Gangnam Style on loop while taking an X-Acto knife to my wrists (which I did in 2012, incidentally), not so I can answer e-mails better.
I start wincing uncontrollably whenever I scroll past a Forbes, Business Insider, or some banal life hack blog about the purported and scientific benefits of meditation or mindfulness on my social media feed. My stomach drops and I get the same hollow feeling whenever I run into inspirational quotes on Instagram about following your dreams. It’s kind of Pavlovian to be honest.
My problem isn’t that more people are meditating. I’ll be the first to admit that maybe this resentment is no different when I was a teenager, crestfallen to find out Taking Back Sunday videos were getting played on MTV. More people working on self-care, being present, and gaining just a modicum of emotional literacy is great. Who am I to judge the way they got there? Am I the comptroller at the Trauma Olympics, an emotional carnie barking out “you must be this traumatized to meditate?” Hell, I’m probably just too attached on my own romanticized narrative of “overweight teenage depressed guy who tried to hang himself with a Playstation controller” as a freshman in high school and was in and out of psych wards for my teenage years and early twenties. Mindfulness is merely part ongoing march to zeitgeist that introduced pole dancing as fitness, ethnic food served out of trucks, and tech doofuses priced out of San Francisco all of a sudden deciding the city of Oakland is a cool place after all.
It’s been argued that mindfulness is a kind of spiritual gentrification. Making it secular makes it easy to sell. Mindfulness is Buddhism stripped of any religious context to it and was popularized in the West by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Full Catastrophe Living and known for his mindfulness-based stress reduction program. In place of a religious context, the value proposition of mindfulness is a bunch of nerds with productivity blogs posting up MRI scans of brains, exalting the empirical, scientific proof that mindfulness has on our brains. And it’s not wrong! It’s just that the science makes it okay to like it. It makes it safe, makes it quantifiable and therefore Western. You weren’t working on crystals or all of a sudden going to find yourself warped at Burning Man on top of a van covered in LED lights. If anything, you’re probably validating the annoying kids in Catholic school who kept saying they were spiritual but not religious as a means of low-key rebellion.
I’m heated with the capitalist, transactional-based approach of presenting meditation or mindfulness as a viable action to take to increase focus and productivity. A quick Google search for “mindfulness productivity” returns results teeming with words like “old paradigm of leadership,” “job satisfaction,” and “effects on profits.” Do you know what that tells me? You’re not enough. You need to be better. And here’s something to help you min/max your life. And it’s feeling like I wasn’t enough that help drive me to a drug overdose in 2011, where I (spoiler alert: botched) ended up unconscious for three days.
I started working with mindfulness in the fall of 2012, shortly after I told my PhD candidate clinician (I was getting my therapy through a teaching college for would-be therapists due to lack of insurance) about my brush with K-Pop and X-acto knives. The group setting, and being able to grapple with the skills with other people learning felt like an emotional lab where I was kept telling myself, half-jokingly, that I was developing psychic powers like in TV’s Fringe or in 1981 David Cronenberg movie Scanners. I’d be lying to you if I didn’t try to dismantle the door lock using only my mind during our meditation.
What I was actually doing, however, was developing an emotional bullet time — able to slow the seconds down just enough so that when I’m put in a super activating situation, or when depressed or harmful thoughts come a-knocking on my door, I can either gently sidestep them or provide myself just enough compassion or space to house the emotions that I don’t need to act on them (or beat myself up for having them, of course). There’s no need to enter judgmental negative feedback loops, or walk into emotional shrapnel.
So when I see articles talking about mindfulness as the skeleton key to untold amounts of productivity, I wince. Not because it’s wrong, but because that isn’t sustainable. And no amount of meditation or mindfulness can remedy that.
I learned that bearing witness and being present to the entire spectrum of the human condition is paramount. We can do things to help improve our condition (meditating, eating right, getting enough sleep), but we are dynamic systems! We aren’t supposed to be at peak performance all of the time. And that’s myopic to think it is. Those emotions and thoughts never go away, and it’s naive to think that way. Much like the notion of a forever productivity boost, just because you’re able to breathe in and out quietly for a few minutes.
I still get bone-chillingly depressed (interspersed with a couple of hypomanic episodes), and I still think about murking myself, sure. But those are just cards in a deck of what I am and when they come by, I try to make room for it. Some days are easier than others and that’s okay. I just hope if you started meditating because of some productivity or business blog that you realize there will be days when meditating all you want isn’t going to help you build better, more creative spreadsheets more effectively while increasing your leadership potential in a professional environment. And I hope you’re able to give yourself that space and compassion to be okay with it.