A good thinker is someone who thinks flexibly. Not only do they back up their opinions with information and data – but they are also willing to adjust and reexamine their opinion when new information becomes available.
That’s why I had an open mind when Ruth Whippman, author of America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, published Actually, Let’s Not Be Mindful in the New York Times this week.
But after reading her article carefully, I’m still pretty convinced that mindfulness is the best thing ever.
A summary of Whippman’s argument is as follows:
I agree with some aspects of this argument. For example, I don’t think “mindful dishwashing” is right for everyone. I’ve known some people who genuinely enjoyed doing dishes mindfully, for reasons ranging from, “It’s the closest thing I do to manual labor, and it just feels good,” to, “It’s a great way to clear my mind of stressful thoughts.”
I think mindful dishwashing is totally worth trying -- if you find yourself bothered by intrusive or stressful thoughts while washing dishes. It might work! It might not. Mindful dishwashing would never work for me. When I do dishes, I combine it with rocking out to my favorite music -- right now, I'm super into Bait a Hook, by Justin Moore, and am not above singing along with the song on repeat:
Other days, I'm happily chatting away with my boyfriend (seriously – some of my fondest memories of my last boyfriend involved laughing at our many inside jokes over dirty dishes) or listening to audiobooks and podcasts (Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History is great).
In other words, Whippman mistakenly understood "mindfulness" to mean staring at congealed food. Which isn't surprising, considering the only source she cited was a how-to article someone posted on Facebook.
But what mindfulness is really about... is finding flow. Becoming fully immersed in an experience, instead of having stressful thoughts or worrying that you're missing out on something. (#FOMO.)
Dishes can be a great time to be playful, musical, or even educational. Whippman mentions the person who optimistically says they’re going to learn Spanish, but never does. In her view, this is what our ability to "leave the moment" and fantasize is for.
But in my view... instead of wasting fifteen minutes “mindfully” doing dishes each night… why not make your dream a reality with the Coffee Break Spanish podcast? Or, even better, in my experience, order Pimsleur Conversational Spanish Course -- it's a lot more instructional and comprehensive.
That way, dishwashing becomes a goal-driven, educational activity, rather than a ridiculous exercise in "mindfulness" that you don't really need. Why fantasize, when you could actualize?
Another place where Whippman and I agreed is that people who talk about “mindfulness” are often super judge-y. That’s definitely true, as I wrote in 6 Things New Age Hippies Are REALLY Saying When They Tell Me to "Relax."
But guess what? There are people who are self-righteous about everything – politics, religion, musical preferences, fashion, you name it. That doesn’t mean fashion, religion and music are bad, too.
(For more on this, check out Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Religion and Politics. It’s seriously the best book I’ve read all year, and kind of helps explain everything.)
But here’s where Whippman and I begin to disagree:
First of all, she bashes teaching mindfulness in schools – because shouldn’t we be focusing on educational inequality, instead?
Well, guess what, Ruth?
Teaching mindfulness to disadvantaged/low-income schoolchildren does help close the education gap. The practice is relatively new, but what evidence we do have is compelling.
For example, in the University of Wisconsin-Madison has collaborated with the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds to implement Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction lessons in Wisconsin public schools. I dare you not to smile when you watch this video about it:
Moreover, as The Atlantic wrote in When Mindfulness Meets the Classroom,
"Education reformers have long maintained that there is a fundamental connection between emotional imbalance and poor life prospects. As Paul Tough argued and popularized in How Children Succeed, stress early in life can prompt a cascade of negative effects, psychologically and neurologically—poor self-control and underdeveloped executive function, in particular. The U.S. education system’s focus on cognitive intelligence—IQ scores and academic skills like arithmetic--undermines the development of equally vital forms of non-cognitive intelligence. This type of intelligence entails dimensions of the mind that are difficult to quantify: It is the foundation of good character, resilience, and long-term life fulfillment. It is this part of the mind that mindfulness seeks to address."
In other words, it’s not exclusively book smarts that keep some kids back. It’s self-discipline and emotion regulation. It’s short attention spans and high distractibility. Mindfulness training explicitly teaches a skill that helps many children excel. And a skill that, when lacking, holds many children back from excellence.
If she seriously thinks the achievement gap can be solved by teaching poor kids more math... that only shows that Whippman doesn't fully understand education.
The second major place where we disagree is the fact that Whippman bashes the entire concept of mindfulness – when, actually, it’s probably one of the oldest and most useful forms of “therapy” of all time. And when, actually, there is no formal consensus or definition for mindfulness.
Mindfulness means different things to different people, but I think it's safe to say that it serves three primary purposes:
1. It keeps you present – which turns everyday chores into everyday miracles.
I’ve previously written about how I “classically conditioned” myself to be happy. But what I really did... was become super mindful. By always being on the lookout for squirrels, I started identifying plants, animals, and behaviors in the world around me.
I started noticing all the flowers that were blooming – and, after ordering the National Audubon Society Field Guide to California, I started being able to identify them. After ordering The Weather Identification Handbook, I started noticing clouds and weather patterns.
All because of this little one!
By learning more about the world around me, “walking the dog” became an everyday adventure, full of everyday miracles. Walking the dog becomes an event I will tell people stories about later.
Admittedly, as I’ve already said, I don’t think I ever could or would want to feel that way about washing dishes. Maybe if I were super interested in the physics of bubbles or ceramics or something. But I’m not. There are times when mindfulness helps you get the most out of an experience. There are times when your mind might be better occupied elsewhere.
Can other activities, like exercise, confer benefits similar to those of mindfulness? Sure. But you have to be careful, because:
2. Other activities, like exercise and “spiritual audiotapes,” may confer similar benefits – but they can also derail your progress. Mindfulness helps.
In Why Women Rarely Play Ball Sports After High School, and Why It Matters, I encouraged women to participate in more team/ball sports, rather than solitary, passive exercises like jogging and elliptical-ing.
Yes, Whippman cites some research that suggests that exercise provides similar benefits to mindfulness. (So does prayer.) I haven't reviewed that literature myself, but can say from personal experience that it makes sense. I don't meditate. I will probably never meditate. But I will definitely find flow (a state of complete immersion in an activity, in which you've found the right levels of challenge and mastery) through sports, music, intellectual pursuits and outdoor adventures.
It's worth noting, though, that "sports" is a weird catch-all -- especially when it comes to reducing stress, feeling exhilarated, and clearing your mind. Certain forms of exercise, like basketball or rock climbing, force you to be present and mindful. When you play those sports, you're mindful, present, and fully immersed -- without even trying!
But when you go out for a jog (or other forms of solitary exercise), your mind is free to wander – which is fine, if you’re daydreaming, getting excited about a vacation, practicing your Spanish, or listening to music you love.
But it’s terrible if you’re prone to rumination, which is a fast track to depression, anxiety, and dissatisfaction. Was your run a fun exploration of your neighborhood? Did you see that cute kitty cat eating pizza out of the dumpster? Or did you spend the whole time worrying about that thing you have to do tomorrow?
Which leads me to my third point:
3. Mindfulness stops you from ruminating.
Rumination, in psychology, refers to recurring, even intrusive negative thoughts. One of the biggest predictors of depression is rumination, and one of the biggest predictors of getting out of depression is learning to recognize and stop rumination.
That’s probably why mindfulness has proven so powerful for the last 3,500 years or so: it’s basically low-level cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.
CBT is a form of therapy that explicitly teaches you how to identify dysfunctional thought patterns, including feelings of victimization and rumination… as well as strategies to overcome them.
It sucks to have friends who ruminate – not only are they a total bummer to be around, because no matter what you say, their response is some kind of ruminate-y bullshit:
Me: You should go to Fort Funston sometime! Even if you don’t have a dog! It’s one of the happiest places on earth.
Ruminating friend: The beach will always remind me of my ex. We went to the beach one time before we got married, but then she broke up with me.
Me: Well, Fort Funston isn’t like other beaches! There are SO many happy dogs!
Ruminating friend: Yeah, dogs are great. When we broke up, my ex took my cat.
Me: Okay, well… I’m going to play basketball later, if you want to come.
Ruminating friend: My ex used to play sports. Sports will never be fun again. She was a volleyball player.
(It's a horrible cycle. They ruminate because they're sad and lonely, but ruminating makes people not want to be around them, so they get more sad and lonely.)
But also because, unless they decide to break the cycle, they might never be happy again.
That’s why I love mindfulness. Not everyone needs therapy. Not everyone would benefit from it. But almost everyone could benefit from staying present a little more.
Am I saying I’m better than you because I’m mindful?
Am I saying you should have a stare-down with your congealed SpaghettiOs?
Definitely not. Don’t waste your time.
I’m just saying that mindfulness works differently for different people, and is something that could benefit almost everyone. And Ruth Whippman’s article claiming otherwise was a little bit silly.
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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