What To Do When Your Mindfulness Practice Just Isn't Working
Less than 10 minutes after my meditation, I get a business email that puts me in a tizzy.
"How can they expect me to make all of these changes," I shout to no one. My face is twisted up, and my blood pressure rising. But thankfully I realize after a few minutes how ridiculous my outburst has been, and I have a good laugh.
The inner peace from my blissful meditation hasn't even lasted as long as a coffee break.
No matter how steadily you've practiced mindfulness, sitting meditation, or yoga, you've probably had a similar experience. For most of us, there's no line we permanently cross into nirvana after which we never falter; no shield can we wield to keep life's events from at least occasionally making us nuts.
You can know dozens of mindfulness tools, and even be adept at them, yet still freak out when life gets tough. That's what happens for Lorna, the main character in my new novel, Warrior Won. Lorna gets pretty good at incorporating numerous grounding techniques into her day, from breathwork to mindful eating to becoming aware of all her senses. Yet when questions arise about whether something is wrong with her unborn baby, and she has to wade through testing (and more testing) in search of a potential diagnosis, Lorna wobbles mightily.
It was a personal experience that inspired my creation of Lorna. A few years ago, I had my own lengthy search for a medical diagnosis, when debilitating but broad-ranging symptoms had me hopping from one specialist to another. Despite being a certified yoga teacher, 20-plus-year yogi, and longtime (albeit on and off) meditator, I couldn't keep my thoughts in the present moment. Sitting meditations were out of the question because before my butt even landed on the cushion, my mind raced off into the anxious future.
So, does that mean we just throw our mindfulness practice out the window and give up?
Actually, the opposite is true. It means you need to keep practicing mindfulness.
Here are some things you can do when your mindfulness practice stops being beneficial. What I discovered, and what's reflected in Lorna's journey, is that sometimes you have to change gears. Here's what I've learned from the experts:
Mindfulness feels like it isn't working when you can't keep your focus in the present moment because you're stressed or worried.
But in these situations, mindfulness is actually the path out.
In her book The Universe Has Your Back, spiritual life coach and meditation teacher Gabby Bernstein recalls how once an audience member asked if she was connected to her "power presence" all the time. Bernstein replied, "Heck no! I get taken out all the time." But the moment she notices she's misaligned, she says, she is already on her way back. Often, it helps Bernstein to recite a prayer: "I witness that I'm out of alignment with my power. I choose to see peace instead of this."
Barb Schmidt, a longtime meditator and author of The Practice, says times when you feel stressed, upset, or angry are the best moments for invoking your mantra—any sacred phrase (or "sacred friend," as she terms it) that you silently repeat to bring you closer to your highest self. "Repeating a Sacred Mantra invokes the revered essence of the phrase and connects you to that deep source within your heart and soul," says Schmidt, who recommends any phrase that resonates with you. Ideal mantras are any word or phrase that have a long history of spiritual use and resonate with you, everything from om shanti to Ave Maria, Shalom, or the Native American Wakan Tanka. To be most effective, get into the habit of repeating it often during the day and right before you fall asleep, Schmidt recommends.
Add new mindfulness tools.
In Warrior Won, Lorna experiments with dozens of techniques, including musical experiences designed to facilitate mindfulness, like Hindu kirtan or a drum circle.
If a sitting meditation feels out of reach, try a walking meditation instead. Here, you keep your thoughts on the sway of the body and the next placement of your foot on the ground.
The books of Esther Hicks (aka Abraham-Hicks) are filled with processes designed to help you align. Some of them include handing your worries over to the "universal manager" so they no longer agitate your mind or listening to a guided meditation, which gives your brain less room to run.
Find a community.
Staying calm and balanced can be difficult around people who enjoy getting riled up and taking you along for the ride. That's why the late spiritual master Swami Satchidananda always emphasized the importance of finding a community of fellow seekers, known as a sangha in Sanskrit. "People who are seekers along the same path help remind you of your goals. That's why there are ashrams, Bible and other spiritual study groups, and so on," he said.
In addition to the community found in yoga classes (not the ones where people try to outstretch and outperform one another; the ones where everyone goes inside themselves with each movement), I find that group meditations and in-person spiritual workshops packed with attendees are great ways to boost my practice—and my resolve.
Know that everyone falters.
I love the expression "I'm beside myself" because it shows me that everyone sometimes gets out of alignment with their true self (and ends up beside it). I don't have to be perfectly mindful all the time because, well, no one is.
I remember hearing the late self-development guru Wayne Dyer speak at a workshop about a moment when he found himself at home, yelling about something. He was so out of sorts that his daughter turned to him and said, "I bet your fans would love to see you right now."
As Dyer described this, I thought, "Actually we would!" Because when I fall into the gutter, it helps when I realize people up on the 30th floor have been down here too. It isn't that I want to pull people down with me, but knowing they have excavated themselves teaches me that I can too.
The question isn't, "do we falter?" It's how quickly do we pick ourselves up. And mindfulness—and even more mindfulness—is the way we do it. After my frenzy-inducing business call, it took me a few minutes. Next time I hope it will be even less.
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Meryl Davids Landau is a freelance writer and author with over two decades of experience. She is the author Enlightened Parenting: A Mom Reflects on Living Spiritually With Kids and mindfulness/yoga inspired novels Warrior Won and Downward Dog, Upward Fog. She has written for Prevention, Vice, Consumer Reports, AARP, Parents, O: The Oprah Magazine and Good Housekeeping. She has a bachelor's degree in English & Human Development from University of Pennsylvania.