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Mindfulness: no effort required

by Dr. David Cox

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Mindful, not effortful.

“Mindfulness helps thousands of people every day: people with depression and eating disorders and addiction problems. But it’s not for me. Mindfulness requires self-observation, and self-observation is exhausting. You have to sit and pay attention to everything: how you’re breathing, what your posture’s like, what you’re thinking about, why you’re thinking about it, what to do because you’re thinking about whatever you’re thinking. It goes on and on. I know people who have been put on mindfulness courses by doctors, only to run away screaming at the piles of homework they’re expected to do.”

This was how Stuart Heritage positioned mindfulness in his article on the Guardian website. And it gives us a really good case study on what mindfulness isn’t.

Think of it like this: the last time you were gazing at the sky and you noticed a cloud that was shaped like a bunny, there was no effort to the moment when you noticed, was there?

Or how about when you notice that your back’s aching because you’ve been slouched over your computer for too long. It didn’t take any effort to notice, did it? It just happened.

And when you notice that you’re fretting again about the argument you had with your significant other, did you have to exert effort to notice it?

There is definitely effort involved in questioning why a rabbit, or trying to ignore the backache, or ruminating over what you said and what you should have said and what you wish you’d said, again and again. This is a natural, if not always hugely helpful, tendency. It’s also a trap we can very easily fall in to when beginning to learn about mindfulness – we’re learning more awareness of our thoughts, but we’ve not yet learned to let those thoughts go, so being mindful can easily seem effortful in the early stages.

But always remember, the act of simply noticing things is effortless. And mindfulness is about noticing, not asking how, or what, or why. Just noticing.

Dr. David Cox

Dr David Cox is a UK-trained medical doctor with many years experience of working on the front line, as well as in management, in the UK's National Health Service.