My interest in the concept of mindfulness began during graduate school, but I did not understand much about it or recognize its benefits until a few years later. I struggled in 2018 after my brother and I had to decide to remove our father from life support following a long fight against cancer. Complicated feelings about our strained relationship, which I had done much personal work on, were stirred up as I wrote his obituary, engaged with family members I hadn’t seen in years, and worked with my siblings to plan and pay for his funeral. Intrusive images of his final days in the hospital entered my mind frequently, and no coping strategy that had previously been useful was working. These thoughts and experiences were all new to me. It wasn’t unbearable, but I wanted some relief.
I was vaguely aware of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses, but my search for new strategies led me to learn more about them. I participated in the eight-week course with an instructor who had led them for decades. He encouraged us to think of mindfulness as a muscle. Each time our attention is drawn elsewhere, gently bringing it back was like lifting a weight and getting a little bit stronger. That analogy was the only thing that kept me engaged when it felt like I was meditating wrong because my mind wandered or I struggled to imagine something like this being practical and effective for me.
There was no moment where a switch flipped, and I suddenly felt better, but I did notice a gradual shift in my mood, energy level, and ability to concentrate. My thoughts felt less “sticky,” and I could refocus my attention when I wanted to. What stood out most was how little it felt like I was doing to make these changes. I engaged in brief meditations most days, but I was not sitting in silence for hours at a time. Mostly, I was trying to remain more present throughout my days or at least notice when I wasn’t.
In 2019, I got very sick with a condition called Ankylosing Spondylitis. It is well-controlled now and only causes mild pain in some of my joints most days and occasional difficulty using my hands. For the first few months I had it, however, I was in constant pain and could barely move. I could only sleep for a few hours at a time and would lie in bed for hours after waking up while I waited for my medication to work enough to allow me to get up and stretch gently in front of a heater for an hour or so.
Those nights in bed, I had very few options. I couldn’t watch TV because I couldn’t move my head enough to see it, and my hands were too stiff and weak to use a remote control. Reading was out for similar reasons. I was there in the dark, alone with my thoughts and my pain. It was during these sleepless nights that I tested the power of mindfulness, and I found it incredibly valuable.
At first, my goal for mindfulness was to focus on something other than my current situation. When my mind wandered to whether I would ever get better and the fear that I would not, I could bring my attention back to something else. I found this more successful than trying to convince myself that things would get better. They would, and they did, but I couldn’t believe that, and it seemed like arguing with myself made the pain and worry worse. When I felt like the pain was unbearable, I would focus on something else. I became very familiar with the low-level hum of my house at night because I wanted to focus on something other than my body, at least initially, and that sound could serve as an anchor for my attention.
Eventually, as many people with chronic pain conditions do, I used mindfulness to observe and explore my pain. I focused on it and watched what happened. While it felt initially like an entire part of my body was in the same pain, I noticed the way it felt subtly different in some areas, and I paid attention to the way it shifted and moved. I learned that not acting on my pain was an action on its own and a very effective one. My pain didn’t go away, and I wasn’t pretending it was gone. I was allowing myself to acknowledge the pain without fighting it or despairing because of it. That gave me the strength to take control of my condition and my life in a way that I couldn’t have done if I had fixated on the unchangeable facts of the situation.
Many people struggle with the view that mindfulness is “deliberate ignoring,” or pretending things are better than they are. Those who wish to work toward reducing injustice in our world often hear mindfulness as an acceptance of the status quo and an indifference to changing it. Even after taking the MBSR course, I had those worries as well. Notably, the industry of mindfulness and the way it is marketed to us –– reinforces those fears by painting a picture of a carefree life that may not be attainable or desirable for many people.
The experience I just shared helped me understand mindfulness differently. I came to recognize that I don’t need to accept the idea that I should be in pain, that it’s fair for me to be in pain, or even that I will always struggle with pain. I need to accept that I am in pain. Similarly, to engage with injustice, we don’t need to accept the idea that the world’s problems aren’t real problems, that justice prevails, or that we are powerless to make a difference. To use mindfulness to pursue our values, we don’t need to pretend that the world is how it ought to be. We need to accept that the world is how it is. That frees us up to ask, “now what?” and get to work.