Is mindfulness selfish?

As Christmas approaches, it is a time which we associate with good-will, giving and thinking of others, and some recent conversations and questions have got me thinking about how this all relates to mindfulness.

Over the last few years, I’ve been privileged to introduce the practice of mindfulness to many people who I have supported and worked alongside, and many of them have reflected upon how it has made such a difference for themselves personally. I have always been careful to say that mindfulness is a complex philosophy, and a life-long practice. No-one can attend a few classes, read a book, and ‘know it’ never mind, ‘do it.’

One thing I have noticed especially, is how liberating many have found it to embrace what they interpret to be one of the key messages, saying mindfulness has helped them be more aware of their feelings, and it has given them permission acknowledge those and stop putting themselves last. To focus on how they feel about things and taking actions in line with this. To put their own, and their family’s needs, first above other things in day-to-day life.

Indeed, many of the books, classes and practices of mindfulness focus on what the benefits are to the individual who has chosen to learn and practise it. Promises of helping with anxiety, managing pain, minimising stress, promoting relaxation, etc.

Which raises an interesting question – especially at this time of year – is mindfulness basically a selfish practice?

In our work with parents at The Natal Family, we do often promote self-care and self-kindness. Why?

Firstly, we each matter, yet sometimes we can forget ourselves, or even decide a few too many times that our needs are less important than everyone else’s. But to persistently dismiss our own needs, is to be just as mindful as to persistently put our own first – not very. Everyone matters, everyone needs to be prioritised from time to time, and everyone deserves care and respect. From ourselves, as well as from others.

Secondly, looking after ourselves is an important part of being able to care for others who are dependent upon us, something which as parents, matters.  The phrase, ‘you cannot pour from an empty cup’ is a useful example here of how the two interrelate.

But yes, there is a difference between making sure that we include, or even make time to prioritise our self-care, compared to only considering ourselves to the exclusion of all, or everyone, else.

Mindful self-care is not selfish, because it is not about only doing those things that we find pleasant, easy or restorative, but more about giving us the reserves from which to tackle those other things in our lives which are not so. It empowers us to find more balance, to discover strength to fulfil our other roles, tasks and responsibilities which may be more challenging. Focusing on ourselves in this way is part of the bigger picture and so not selfish, but healthy and mindful in many ways; only doing so in exclusion, is not.

To me, mindfulness is about balance, about perspective and about context. To be mindful is to see the complexities in many situations, to start to appreciate the many different realities and experiences of all the people, feelings and implications involved. For me mindfulness is like having a toolkit of lenses – how we see something is a starting point, but as we use mindfulness to change the lens, change the focus, we can more clearly see different aspects of the same picture. The willingness to look for and see, and the openness and ability to appreciate the multitude of complexities of an experience/situation with this kind of overview, is anything but selfish. It takes humility and a willingness to accept that the way we see the world is not ‘fact’ or superior to anyone else.

It is easy to see how some mindfulness practices can be misunderstood, or even misused, as so many have a starting point, an emphasis, on the self. We may practice body scans focusing on our own sensations. Walking meditations to be aware of our own bodies. Breathing practice focusing on acknowledging our own thoughts. Practises focusing on our own powerful personal visualisations. Present moment practices on the many layers of sensory stimulation we can experience at any one time.

Doesn’t all this focus on the self, make us more self-involved? Can it lead to a distorted belief that we are the most important focal point? Can it possibly cultivate a habit of being inward looking and self-centred?

Is this possible? It absolutely is. But it is not the aim.

To achieve an understanding of what our perspectives are and why they exist, mindful practice often starts with a necessary internal focus and reflection. It literally starts with us, because we are our filter for how we see the world. But this is only the start. Mindfulness is not the exclusive pursuit of best understanding or situation for one individual.

Meditation can be used to cope with difficult feelings and situations, to see their ability to change, to not attach too deeply to them. However, true mindfulness does not stop here. The aim isn’t to gain distance permanently. It is not an escape from the world around us.

Mindfulness is about giving us an opportunity, some space to explore.

Accepting our own viewpoint of the world as fact, is not the point. We may use meditation to discover it, but it is not mindful to stop there. The next step is to challenge it, to not accept everything we believe or think. Self-understanding and examination is about a realisation of how we impact on the world around us, and why the world around us impacts on us as it does. We can learn more about ourselves, and in doing so, empower ourselves to act less out of habit and more out of moment-to-moment specific intent. Rather than escaping our responsibilities, mindfulness actually enables us to take on more responsibility by contextualising them, empowering us to self-regulate our feelings and to recognise the power we hold.

Mindfulness is about understanding that our personal understanding of reality is actually filtered through our own personal biases and judgements. If we remain unaware of this, we are blinded from truly being able to see, and accept, things from other people’s points of view. They can lead us to make incorrect assumptions. They can create misunderstandings and conflicts. These biases and judgements are based upon our own previous experiences and defences, and it is only through self-examination that we can start to avoid the habit of only looking at the world in only these ways, and actually truly take on board how others may see things. This is beneficial for ourselves, as it benefits our own mental and emotional well-being by seeing the complexities which exist, rather than over-simplifying things to just assume someone or something is against us. Thus it also helps us in our relationships with others, and so is beneficial to them and their well-being too. Having better understanding of ourselves, enables us to be more mindful of how we perceive and treat others. It helps us see things from more than just our point of view, which can make us more willing to listen, in turn strengthening relationships and minimising conflict.

We may notice that we feel something is unjust. That we have a need we are neglecting. That a situation makes us feel uncomfortable. However, it is not as simple to just say ‘Aha, so now I know that I need to take the action to avoid these things now and in the future, and I will feel better!’ Using mindfulness in this way, is not really mindful. The intent is not to sidestep all difficult situations, responsibilities, emotions or challenges, the intent is to bring them into context so that we see all our options, rather than being steered by habit. The intent is to see that some of the more difficult situations we may find ourselves in are temporary, and the difficulties we feel with them, will also be temporary. Making permanent decisions based on temporary feelings is something we have all done (sometimes many times) out of habit, and only an awareness of how we feel and a willingness to explore why and what we can do, widens our possibilities.We may even still make the same decision in the end, but we do so from a very different place.

When we notice that we something is unjust, we can accept what we think as fact, and look to fight or escape it, OR mindfully take the opportunity look at it in other ways. What beliefs do we personally hold which make us think something is just or unjust? Do others in this situation with us feel this way? How might we gain different perspectives on this?

When we notice that we have a need we are neglecting, we can accept what we think as fact, and look to fix it, OR mindfully take the opportunity look at it in other ways too. Why do we neglect that specific need? Are we passively neglecting, or actively avoiding? Why? This might help us recognise and address the overarching and possibly far-reaching habit or belief which may manifest in many ways for us, rather than just this one instance of it.

When we notice that a situation makes us uncomfortable, we can accept what we feel as permanent, and look to fight or escape it, OR mindfully take the opportunity look at it in other ways.  Is this a permanent feeling? What is this discomfort telling us? Is this a ‘warning’ kind of discomfort, or an ‘accountability’ type of discomfort? What are the emotions we feel in this situation? Are there ways of working through the feeling to still address the core of the situation? Are we labelling discomfort as ‘bad’ rather than just one of many types of experiences to be worked through? What is it about the situation we find uncomfortable?  Is there something we can do about this? Is avoiding an uncomfortable situation a habit we recognise in ourselves? Can we get support to work through the situation?

Mindful practices are about cultivating a non-judgemental awareness of the many subtle and rich complexities of the present moment. The wholeness of the present moment, not just our experience of it. Mindfulness is about gaining perspective, realising that our autopilot and viewpoint is entirely subjective. Mindfulness is not about not raising in value one thought, one experience, one person, over another. It is not about ranking or getting attached to our thoughts, but merely about recognising them. Learning that what we think is important, but not everything we think is true. Being able to see that our thoughts and our experience are part of something much bigger… practised in this way, mindfulness is the very opposite of selfish – this takes great humility and personal awareness.

 

So, is mindfulness selfish? Well, without awareness and examination of the self, there can be no mindfulness… so there is some part of self-interest and focus in it, yes. But mindfulness is a willingness to first understand this, and then to look beyond, to see the whole picture, including beyond our own experiences and wants, at any moment. These attributes do not mean that we cannot choose to put our own needs, wants, or responsibilities first at times. It is not always inherently selfish to do so, sometimes it is necessary. But if we are wishing to reach a mindful decision, then considering more than just what is beneficial for ourselves, is undoubtedly part of this.

Want to find out more about our mindfulness inspired antenatal and parenting classes? Visit www.thenatalfamily.co.uk

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Steph Beaumont is co-founder of The Natal Family, and co-author of The His and Hers Guide to Pregnancy and Birth.