18 Oct

by Justin Standfield

If you’ve tried mindfulness before – perhaps by using an app or joining a class – you might have had thoughts like “This is hard” or “How can something so simple be so difficult?”. During my 8-week classes at The Calm Barn, we begin each weekly session with a check-in about how the interim practise of mindfulness at home has been going. Several people usually remark that they’ve committed to the homework and have been doing it, yet at the same time they share that it’s been tough! This is, I reassure them, entirely normal and is not a sign that mindfulness isn’t ‘working’.

There are a few reasons why it can be hard. Firstly, most of us have not been brought up to spend time with ourselves and notice our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations. Typically, life (and work) has conditioned us to be uncomfortable with taking the time out to just be with our experience of the present moment. Most of the time, we try to push away or deny those thoughts and feelings that are painful or difficult in some way. Simply put, doing it with deliberate intention is hard going at first and can feel a bit alien.

Secondly, let’s imagine that you're taking up a new physical habit like going to the gym or paddleboarding or gardening. Some days that we do it, things will go smoothly with that feels like minimal effort. With my mindfulness students, I often share the story of my training for the Great South Run in 2009 as an example. There were many days that I looked forward to my run, and there were also days when I was tired and I had to force myself out of the front door, and once outside it felt arduous and tough… like my body wanted to move slowly instead (or just retreat to the sofa!). Yet, regardless of how I felt while I was doing it, I was indeed still developing my physical fitness and endurance while doing my daily run. In the same way, even though mindfulness can sometimes feel hard, it doesn’t mean that it’s not having a beneficial effect.

Social support is a third consideration that I discuss with people who are new to mindfulness. It can be hugely helpful to have a network of people to tap into when the practice seems to be tough or your commitment is wobbling a bit. If you’re learning mindfulness as part of a class, this is likely to be your fellow participants; most courses have time and structures to encourage mutual support. If you’re using an app or an online learning channel, these also tend to have optional communities built into them so that you can share your experiences and overcome obstacles together, and motivate or encourage others.

In addition, I’ve seen that people who incorporate mindfulness meditation into their daily routine in some way tend to have fewer difficulties with it. While it isn’t a guarantee of smooth, easy meditation every time, there is definitely a benefit to having a set time and place for mindfulness practice in your day. Author and psychology professor, Dr Ron Siegel, uses the analogy of making a commitment to yourself to floss your teeth more regularly – if you did that, you’d more than likely be doing it at the same time each day and in the same place. Similarly with mindfulness, it makes sense to find a time during the day when we can make it into a ritual where it becomes more of a matter of course.

Finally, I always find it useful to remind myself of those core attitudes of mindfulness espoused by Jon Kabat-Zinn, which underpin the learning and the practice whether you’re new to it or an ‘old hand’, they offer helpful guidance about not trying too hard to have the perfect meditation session (non-striving) and being patient with yourself. The full range of mindfulness attitudes are explained in this great video by Jon Kabat-Zinn, The 9 Attitudes of Mindfulness.