The diet industry and the burgeoning popularity of secular mindfulness have a lot in common I realized as I sat listening to the distinguished panel at the Mind & Life Institute conference at Hong Kong University last fall. Growth of the mindfulness industry in the last decade has been meteoric and is as unruly as is the diet industry, and subject to the same vulnerabilities. Like dieting, the desired outcome of mindfulness efforts is evident, but for most of us, the path is unclear.
We have accepted a huge “mindfulness” umbrella that houses everything from deeply spiritual monks who relinquish everything to sit for years in silent solitude in mediation and prayer to completely secular deep breathing exercises used to help modern day stress cases function better in their stressful environments. The comingling of untrained “experts” and revered practitioners in one big pot of mindfulness soup makes it difficult for the layman to figure out what is solid research and what is just clever marketing.
Mindfulness is the latest panacea. If you haven’t read of the benefits of a mindfulness practice, you must have been living under a rock. Compassion, stress relief, mental acuity and memory, health, your emotional style, relationships and more can all be enhanced with a simple daily practice. Add deep breathing exercises to your to do list and you’re bound for greatness, in just six weeks!
When scientists like Dr. Richard Davidson, Dr. Mark Williams, Dr. Rick Hanson and others share quantitative research indicating actual brain changes as a result of meditation, I am curious to know if all meditation practices are created equal, or if the specific benefits they claim are the result of a particular form of practice. When I asked the question at the conference, Dr. Davidson glibly replied, “The one that you’ll do is the one that works“ suggesting that sticking to it is more important than the practice itself. Sound familiar?
Twenty years ago I was nearly 40 pounds overweight. I remember standing in front of a mirror squeezing the fat rolls on my stomach and making deals with God. If I could just be thin and have a flat stomach, I would be happy. I tried dieting, depriving myself of the foods that I loved, restricting calories, but the moment-to-moment willpower required to achieve the overall goal was never strong enough and I felt like a failure.
Beyond the “freshman 15”, mine was a mixed up combination of emotional overeating to combat the starvation I witnessed in Somalia and downright gluttonous expat living in Nairobi. From Africa I moved to Los Angeles where my lifestyle changed organically. I started running after work because it was so beautiful outside. My first run was 11 minutes long, but I eventually worked up to 30, then 45 and then amazingly an hour. I consciously cut out beer, but otherwise I ate the foods I wanted. As I began to run more, the foods I craved changed. I still had the diet coke and Twix bar after lunch (a disgusting habit of the late ‘90s I still can’t believe I did), but I had them after a salad instead of a burger and fries, and eventually they dropped out too in favor of water and a home made cookie (still my favorite). That was 20 years ago. Since then I have had three babies, gained and lost 60 pounds with each pregnancy, and my weight is not currently a struggle.
What finally worked for me was letting go of the goal in favor of small daily changes that eventually, almost without my noticing, achieved the results I had nearly forgotten I wanted. What I learned is that most diets don’t work because they’re tied to outcome.
I agree with Dr. Davidson, that to achieve the benefits of meditation you must actually meditate, but by defining the benefits by a set of outcomes, we’re missing the point and actually adding stress to our over burdened lives and never-ending to do lists. What if we forgot about the benefits for a moment and remember where these practices come from in the first place? What if we were actually motivated intrinsically, instead of for superficial external reward? Let’s take a lesson from the largely failed diet industry and try instead to pay attention to deep yearnings in our souls for more meaningful lives. When motivated from this place, from a conscious decision to capture and defend those unplugged quiet moments without distraction, the benefits of a mindfulness practice will flow naturally and the minutes on the meditation cushion will melt away as easily as the unwanted pounds.