Mindfulness: Stay. Come Back. Do It with Love.

Mindfulness Stay. Come Back. Do It with Love

Mindfulness is not about keeping your mind from wandering but coming back to presence over and over again.

By now, you’ve likely heard of mindfulness and how it can be good for you. Perhaps you tried it once or twice in the form of meditation, listening to someone’s soothing voice as it guided you to settle into a comfortable position and focus on your breath. Maybe you also felt confused or let down by that exercise and even in yourself. You may have quickly employed self-blame and shame for “not doing it right” because you did not achieve the relaxation or peace of mind that mindfulness promised. Rather, as you tried harder to focus on your breath, it became more challenging to do just that. You found your breathing constrained, and thoughts, feelings, or sensations flooded in – you remember that thing that happened, this urgent task, that great idea for your project, that your nose is itchy, etc. – and your body squirmed in discomfort. You wanted to flee from it all.

If the above seems like too specific of an example, it’s because it was me when I first tried meditating. I could not relax, my mind kept wandering off, and I got frustrated, angry, and of course self-critical for not “doing it right.” Yet if we go back to the basic definition of mindfulness (including meditating as one way of cultivating mindfulness), it is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (Full Catastrophe Living, Kabat-Zinn, 2013, p.18), It is simply watching our thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they come and go, neither indulging nor pushing them away. Mindfulness, fundamentally, is existing in being mode rather than doing mode. It is about dropping our agendas and expectations and welcoming whatever arises instead. 

If you’ve struggled with mindfulness like me, here are three things to help cultivate your practice: Stay. Come back. Do it with love. 

Stay. Do it with love.

Many of us have tried mindfulness only to discover we want to run away from it. Mindfulness invites us to come back to our body which is here in the present, unlike our minds which often oscillate between the past and the future. Mindfulness invites us to use our breath as an anchor to the present moment. Yet mindfulness can also be overwhelming because it can remind us why we ran away from our bodies in the first place. Anxiety manifests itself in our throats, chests, and stomach; the inner child carrying our grief comes out to lay next to us; or the chronic pain we feel in our joints and limbs become more pronounced.  

Yet only you will discover for yourself that when you stay, even just for a few seconds, pain and difficult emotions ebb and flow, what hardens also softens, and what rises to the surface also settles to the bottom again, much like the breath flowing in and out of your body. But here is the caveat and the challenge, when you do choose to stay, do it with love. Choose kindness and tenderness over harshness or white-knuckling your way through that discomfort. When you do, you will inevitably discover that not only are you capable of tolerating discomfort and pain but that you also lose nothing when you choose to do it with love. 

Only you will discover for yourself that when you stay, even just for a few seconds, pain and difficult emotions ebb and flow, what hardens also softens.

Come back. Do it with love.

In mindfulness, consistency over dosage wins every time. Jon Kabat- Zinn gently encourages us to cultivate a systematic and regular practice. Amishi Jha (Peak Mind, 2021) shared her research findings that the optimal amount is a meditation practice of 12 minutes a day. But Joseph Goldstein reminds us that when it is hard to start, just try even for 30 seconds. Progress over perfection. What matters is we keep coming back to our practice whether that is a quick STOP practice, a 3-minute breathing space, or simply noticing how your body is making contact with your chair. In meditation, coming back repeatedly to our breath is a brave act. We come back to our breath even when it is uncomfortable, challenging, or dreadful. So, when you find yourself wanting to run away from your body, remember to keep coming back. It does not matter how many times you coax yourself to come back, it is more important that you do. For it is in coming back over and over again to our breath (of course done with love) that we also realize we can stay. And it is in coming back that we realize that we don’t have to abandon ourselves when things become difficult.  

It is in coming back over and over again to our breath (of course done with love) that we also realize we can stay.

Do it with love.

Finally, remember to do it with love. Partly because of the hype around mindfulness, we might set up these conceptual standards against which we hold ourselves up. A goal is good to help keep us accountable but it also shouldn’t be a deterrent for our practice. As my teacher says, set the bar low enough so you can just step over it. Again, consistency over dosage is what matters. 

Mindfulness is not about being relaxed, happy, self-actualized, or pain-free. It is being able to exist in what is – even the painful, hard moments – without coating or presenting them another way. It is being able to simultaneously hold our pleasant and unpleasant experiences, remembering that both make each other possible. And because both are fleeting, to neither cling to nor push away one or the other. 

Set the bar low enough so you can just step over it. Again, consistency over dosage is what matters. 

Mindfulness is not about being relaxed, happy, self-actualized, or pain-free. It is being able to exist in what is – even the painful, hard moments – without coating or presenting them another way. It is being able to simultaneously hold our pleasant and unpleasant experiences, remembering that both make each other possible. And because both are fleeting, to neither cling to nor push away one or the other.

It is no small feat to cultivate mindfulness. It takes courage to go against our old habits of dissociating, indulging our thoughts, or piling on ourselves with negative self-talk. Those are easy to do. But it is hard to choose self-kindness and self-compassion; to resolve to bring ourselves back to our breath every time our minds wander off; to choose to stay with our bodies and breathing; to allow our bodies to be held by gravity rather than flee from it, and to do it all with love, tenderness, and kindness as opposed to the harshness and shaming we have been so familiar with. That is a radical act of courage and self-love.

So, every time you find yourself struggling with even just a 3-minute breathing practice, I hope you gently remind yourself to stay, come back, and do it with love. 

And wherever you are in your mindfulness journey, if you need someone else to gently hold your hand and encourage you to persist in this radical act of staying and coming back, our therapists here at Sōhum Therapy in New York City are here to help you do exactly that.

Harlene dela Torre-McIlwain

Harlene dela Torre-McIlwain

I specialize in working with anxiety, shame, self-criticism, relationship difficulties, life transitions, sexuality, and gender. No matter where you are in your life, I will meet you with curiosity, compassion, and humor. Together, we’ll create a safe, accepting space where you can bring your whole, authentic self.