I finally got my hands on the latest edition of TIME Magazine–the one with the serene, skinny, white, blonde woman soaking up rays or meditating or whatever she is doing on the cover.
The article on mindfulness by Kate Pickert was good if not surprising; it included a general overview of mindfulness, a bit of history about Jon Kabat-Zinn and the development of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and a summary of the current research into various applications of mindfulness practice, including the corporate world and the military.
Here is my favorite quote from the piece:
But to view mindfulness simply as the latest self-help fad underplays its potency and misses the point of why it is gaining acceptance with those who might otherwise dismiss mental training techniques closely tied to meditation—Silicon valley entrepreneurs, FORTUNE 500 titans, Pentagon chiefs and more. If distraction is the pre-eminent condition of our age, then mindfulness, in the eyes of its enthusiasts, is the most logical response. Its strength lies in its universality. Though meditation is considered an essential means to achieving mindfulness, the ultimate goal is simply to give your attention fully to what you’re doing. Once can work mindfully, parent mindfully and learn mindfully. Once can exercise and even eat mindfully.
Its strength lies in its universality.
And yet the cover of the magazine features a woman that most of will never be (even if we happen to be white women with light hair). She’s just a woman, but her clear skin, gold necklace, and complete lack of dark circles under her eyes tell another story. She probably does yoga every morning before the sun rises and runs marathons in her spare time and there is no doubt in my mind that she successfully balances a high-powered big money job with baking homemade cupcakes for her kid’s bake sale and making it to every soccer game.
You will, perhaps, not be surprised to learn that I have several problems with TIME’s decision to feature this airbrushed unicorn of a woman on a cover about mindfulness. First, one of the appealing features of mindfulness is that it is 100% available to every single one of us, regardless of gender, race, culture, religious beliefs, or financial status. (That was one factor that made mindful parenting so appealing to me—it is one of the few approaches to parenting that doesn’t assume and/or require two parent families or a mother at home or disposable income.) In addition, modern mindfulness practice is based on Buddhist wisdom and practices, which didn’t even exist in the west until a few decades ago. To feature this woman on the cover is to lump a rich, nuanced, scientifically-validated practice that has withstood the test of time with the latest health fads like kale and gluten-free living. (Joanne Piacenza explores this issue much more thoughtfully on HuffPost Religion.)
In addition, this image of perfection totally misrepresents what mindfulness is all about. Mindfulness is not about achieving perfection. It’s about embracing life, in all of its messiness and ugliness and sadness and pain, and realizing that by being with whatever is, we will ultimately suffer less. It’s about approaching ourselves and others with compassion and forgiveness, even when they’ve decorated our new couch with a Sharpie.
Here is a great example of mindfulness, offered by my very own 3 year old zen master. I was picking her up from daycare earlier this week, and I told her that I had thrown up earlier in the day. Without missing a beat, she replied, “I’m so sorry. Can I see it?”
Her response had all the hallmarks of mindfulness: kindness and curiosity without judgment, even in the face of something truly disgusting. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that mindful parenting involves dragging the whole family over for a viewing every time someone vomits. But life offers us endless opportunities each day to check in and connect with kindness and compassion or run away—physically, mentally, or technologically. Mindfulness is about choosing to stay with the mess, even when we don’t want to.
In addition to my daughter’s desire to see my vomit, here are some other examples of what mindfulness really is:
– “Mindfulness is not hitting someone in the mouth.” –5th grader Tyran Williams, quoted in the New York Times.
– The comedian Louis CK described it beautifully when he was talking about why he doesn’t want his children to have cell phones. You can see the video here. (If you aren’t familiar with Louis CK, he can be a bit crude, so be forewarned.)
– I’ll close with the words of Anne Lamott, one of my favorite authors. She nailed it in this quote from Bird by Bird:
But you can’t get to any of these truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We don’t have much truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not go in to. When we have gone in and looked around for a long while, just breathing and finally taking it in – then we will be able to speak in our own voice and to stay in the present moment. And that moment is home.
So, tell me, how do you define mindfulness? How do you live it? I’d love to hear your examples!
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Last reviewed: 2 Feb 2014