How can mindfulness meditation practice help us with mental wellness? To answer the question we can look at how our minds function without it.
I recently listened to an interview with Dan Harris and he said something that kicked me in the ass. I had stumbled onto Harris when I started learning about healing my mental health. The news anchor found meditation at a time when he was dealing with PTSD and cocaine addiction. He made a Youtube video on the benefits of mindfulness that a few of my courses and doctors recommended. After seeing that video, I sort of forgot about him until this recent interview.
Harris tells Terry Gross that distracting thoughts during meditation are not a bad thing. "What do I have to do next?" "Am I doing this right?" "I'm frustrated," are a key part of the meditation process. He believes that by gently refocusing our attention on our breathing, or whatever you choose during meditation, we are training the brain to interrupt invasive thoughts outside of meditation as well. The hope is that later in the day, when you have a thought like, "I'm not good enough," you will be able to catch it and refocus rather than ruminate further on worthlessness.
My inner critic bristles at this idea. During meditation, I am focused on this task of, well focusing. In the middle of a busy workday or having an accomplishment being evaluated by someone close to me, I am too frantic to refocus. Fear and loathing dominate my thinking and mindfulness is some distant concept. Of course, as I pondered Harris' words further I wondered if my critical thoughts have proved his theory.
Here's a real world example. I am scared that you, the reader, think I am a moron. In fact, I know I am a moron because yesterday I measured wrong and cut a board for a flower box I was building incorrectly. Some time in the week, I was filling the humidifier and spilled water everywhere on the counter and the floor. In university, I did worked on a team project where I did most of the work and I think it was because my teammate hated my moronic idea for the video. In grade 10...I remember as a child my parents were frustrated...and so on, and so on.
My mind has trained for many years to find evidence of my worthlessness. When I feel shame, embarrassment or criticized, I focus on proving that to be true. I was worried you would think I was a moron and proceeded to dive into memories of shameful experiences from years ago. Could this be the same process of training Harris describes? If so, then it should be possible to change my thinking.
I meditated daily between 2017-2018. Today, it rarely happens. It didn't work. I'm still broken. I still do not like who I am. This appears to be my inner critic at work again. In reality, I've had 40 years to train myself to loath who I am. A year of meditation is barely a dent into that pattern. Somewhere along the line, I let that old pattern back in and decided mindfulness meditation was a failure, like me. Instead of gently refocusing, I chose to continue beating myself up.
Personally, I wonder if there's some all or nothing thinking preventing me from moving forward. Perhaps, deep down I want to believe in a cure. I'm not completely rid of my depression and anxiety, therefore the meditation, the CBT, DBT, and psychiatrist sessions do not work. I've written before about the idea of accepting depression will always be a part of my life. Yet, there are those times, especially when I am wading through it, that I don't want to accept it. I want to be free of these intrusive thoughts, forever.
Even now, as I type this, I struggle. I want to end on a positive note and inspire myself and others. Yet I think, How many times have you said you would try harder and failed? Nobody is going to be inspired by what you say because you fail to follow through. It is exhausting to try and build new patterns. Am I a broken record, constantly saying the same thing over and over, but not following through? That's one way to look at it. However, it may show that I am working and trying to heal. If I have said I need to break this pattern of self-loathing before, than maybe I am training myself each time I repeat it. I suppose. Failure is how we learn. Is each time I sit here and feel bad for not following through with CBT or things I told my psychiatrist or partner a failure, or a lesson in improvement?
I am sad to say it doesn't feel like improvement. My mind is a forest fire of disbelief scorching any hope that was in the last paragraph. The only tree left unharmed is the one labeled, "maybe these thoughts will help someone else." I think this is a good time to stop writing and try a meditation to put out the flames. Be kind to yourselves. Much love.