No one knows what it’s like to be you.
In some ways, it’s crazy, right? In this day and age where we’ve figured out everything in the physical realm—self-driving cars, people!—we still don’t have a way to understand the internal landscape of other people. Even those closest to us.
We have no way to grasp what they’re going through that makes them act the way they do. We can’t know how similar their inner world is, or isn’t, to the one we experience in our own minds.
Mindfulness is inherently personal
In some ways, this should be a relief.
When it comes to mindfulness, that means your primary job is to become an expert on you, and learn how the tools of mindfulness interact with your own mental landscape. That can feel less intimidating than aiming to become an expert on mindfulness itself.
But becoming an expert on yourself isn’t easy.
We have limited insight into our own minds. As Socrates said, “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” Our internal world can be complicated, messy, and tough to navigate. Sometimes we don’t know why we think the things that we think, or do the things that we do.
It’s not as straightforward as a problem in the physical world.
Break your arm? A doctor can put it in a cast and let it heal.
Looking for inner peace? Someone can point the way for you, but it’s a journey you have to take for yourself.
And the journey is different for everyone.
Mindfulness advice can only get you so far
Wherever you are on your journey, you’ve certainly heard advice intended to help you along the road. Here are a few that resonate with me:
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”– Thich Nhat Hanh
“Look past your thoughts, so you may drink the pure nectar of This Moment.”– Rumi
“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”– Carl Jung
“Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.”– Buddha
These are some of the most celebrated minds in mindfulness, meditation, science and poetry. If Buddha can’t help us, who can?
But while quotes and teachings are valuable to return to, to remind you of your intention, they can only take you so far. They can only point the way.
It’s our job to take the practices of mindfulness and apply them to our own minds.
Think of yourself as a mindfulness laboratory, of sorts. Each technique in the mindfulness arsenal will fit differently into your habits, preferences and inner world. Like puzzle pieces, you can try each to see how they fit with you.
Consider testing mindfulness practices, then assessing the results:
- 5 minutes of breathwork to reset the nervous system when stressed?
- Meditating for 15 minutes daily?
Unclear results. Increase length of study.
- Exercising when overwhelmed?
- Journaling your stream-of-consciousness to quiet your mind?
- Gratitude each morning?
- Yoga for one hour each week?
These are some of my results above. What works best for you may be different.
When others explain how mindfulness or meditation or yoga or gratitude is changing their life, you can hear and process that, but to internalize it, you need to take those techniques into the laboratory of your own mind.
Understand that you won’t be a mindfulness machine, doing everything under the sun. There’s a mix of different practices that are going to be most suitable for your needs.
No one else can give you the recipe.
The science on mindfulness still matters
A quick note:
While mindfulness is inherently personal, that doesn’t in any way discount the objective results from the mountains of research done on mindfulness techniques in recent decades.
Certain approaches to mindfulness are backed by strong evidence. Objectively, you’re likely to get a benefit in wellbeing out of an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, similar to those often studied.
With practice and dedication, you’re nearly guaranteed to see benefit from meditation, gratitude, exercise and other research-backed approaches.
But you also have to pay attention to what seems to be working for you.
If you’ve been journaling every day for a year and it’s not quieting your mind: you can stop.
If you’ve been meditating for six months and it’s feeling stale: mix it up.
Your mind is a complex vehicle, and you’re the only one with the keys.
Your new job: running your own mindfulness laboratory
The science on mindfulness matters. Advice from others can be inspiring and invaluable. But at the end of the day, you get to decide what works for you.
It’s a lifelong challenge, but it’s also a relief. There’s no “right way” to be doing mindfulness. Your mind is a laboratory, and you’re in charge.
Here’s the good part:
Do you hate waking up early, hate journaling, hate meditating, and hate jogging?
Great! Don’t do those things. (Even though everyone says you should).
But you now have the challenge of finding out exactly what mix of positive, life-giving activities ARE right for you. Researchers and teachers can give you the fuel, but it’s up to you to build the fire.