Updated: May 1, 2019
Mindfulness is becoming more popular day by day. Often viewed as a panacea for every mental and physical ailment, it seems that there is nothing it can’t help. However, before jumping onto the bandwagon, it is important to note what mindfulness is not. It is not a quick fix. It is not just a set of self help techniques. It is not designed to help you achieve great things in life (if your interpretation of achievement means career success, money or status).
Mindfulness is a way of being. We open to life as it is in the present moment without judgement, clinging or avoiding. This does not come naturally for most people and requires daily commitment and dedication. However, mindfulness should not be seen as a chore or just another technique to be fitted into an already busy life. Mindfulness practice gradually becomes more natural and effortless, and for the committed, the benefits will continue to deepen over a lifetime. Jon Kabat-Zinn calls it an ‘adventure in living’ and I love this approach. I like to take an open, curious attitude to my practice; learning to see the world with a vibrant clarity as the incessant mental noise inside me calms and stills.
Most people seek out mindfulness because they want to suffer less. This could be for any number of reasons although our fast-paced lives in the west have led to a particular focus on stress-reduction. It can be disheartening in the beginning as expectations of instant, blissful relaxation, calm and inner peace are replaced with the reality that meditation can be uncomfortable mentally and physically. We discover that there is no ‘Off’ switch for the brain. Lack of instant success can be a stumbling block for many people (myself included) which is why it is particularly effective to learn in a group where we can see how common these pitfalls in the journey are. It is most definitely worth persevering as meditation is a firm foundation for a lasting mindfulness practice (even if only for brief periods each day) and it is where the much publicised positive physiological changes take place.
Rick Hanson refers to the following four stages of mindful development in his excellent book ‘Buddha’s Brain’. Also known in psychology as the Hierarchy of Competence, these stages can be used to clarify our mindfulness practice as we encounter pitfalls and breakthroughs on our path. I find them very useful and encouraging in my own practice.
Stage One - Unconscious Incompetence
Unconscious incompetence is the opposite of mindful awareness. In this stage we are mindlessly caught in our unhelpful patterns of thought and behaviour. Many people spend a lot of time here, caught in a loop of repeating thoughts and behaviour. These patterns can initially seem helpful (for example, distracting ourselves from painful feelings), but a continuing reliance on harmful patterns can negatively affect us both mentally and physically. I spent many years here; anxious about so many things and feeling that if only outside circumstances were different, I would be happier. I was unaware that my own unhelpful thought patterns were creating my sense of inner unease. I was unconscious.
Stage Two – Conscious Incompetence
As we begin to practice mindfulness meditation, we start to become aware of our unhelpful patterns of thought and behaviour but we cannot yet change them. It can be uncomfortable and confronting to become more self-aware; we realise just how unhelpful our thought processes can be. We become aware that we are unable to focus, re-living the past or rehearsing the future, full of judgement or anger. This is where we often want to quit. Perseverance and self-compassion are key to surviving this stage. Understanding that all of these ‘negative’ patterns are simply part of the human condition; we all experience them at one time or another and they will come and go. In fact, they are likely to always come and go, but we learn to take them less seriously as practicing mindfulness gives us a new perspective. I have been in and out of this stage countless times, becoming acutely aware of my anxious and judgemental thoughts. Developing self-compassion is an ongoing process for me, both in meditation and daily life. I am learning to treat myself as my own best friend; accepting & appreciating that I am perfectly imperfect – and so is everyone else.
Stage Three - Conscious Competence
As mindfulness practice becomes firmly embedded in our lives, we notice that difficult thoughts and feelings still arise but we are less caught up in them. We have become the observer of our thoughts and no longer identify so closely with them. We understand the transient nature of our thoughts and feelings, and are able to step back and let them go. We have the space to choose how to respond to our thoughts and feelings rather than reacting unconsciously. We are able to open up and engage with life with more skill and less fear. I still feel anxious thoughts but I can now usually make the conscious choice not to let them overwhelm me or carry me away down the uncontrollable river of rumination.
Stage Four – Unconscious Competence
This often elusive stage is where our mindfulness practice really becomes effortless. Unhelpful reactions no longer arise. Situations that would have once created anxiety, depression, anger or frustration are met with acceptance and equanimity. Our perception shifts as we experience a growing sense of the peace and clarity of our true nature beneath the noise of incessant thinking. As Wayne Dyer says ‘it’s all small stuff’. I get glimpses of deep peace and clarity, arising more frequently as my practice has deepened over the past few years. These glimpses can occur during meditation or arise spontaneously during everyday life, even in the midst of mundane or painful circumstances. These glimpses are often only fleeting but they encourage me to persevere with my practice.
We will repeatedly encounter these stages on our journey and understanding them can help to give us clarity and encouragement. We may find ourselves feeling fairly competent and aware in some areas of our lives, only to find that we are still easily triggered into unconsciousness in other areas. I would honestly say that after several years of practice, I still only experience brief periods of unconscious competence. I spend most of my time being consciously competent with some lapses back into conscious incompetence if I neglect my practice! Nowadays, if I fall into my old patterns, I am usually much quicker at catching myself and I have the power to make better choices in thinking and behaviour. I am also quicker to forgive myself for those lapses as I know these are a natural part of this fascinating journey.
Finally, I'd like to make it very clear that these stages are only suggested as for guidance and encouragement. In this age of obsession with goals and progress, it is important to understand that it is impossible to rush progress on the mindfulness journey, whether your goal is simple relaxation or enlightenment. It’s a paradox but we are not trying to do anything or get anywhere all; the key is simply to practice daily without attachment to any particular goal. We commit to mindfulness practice for its own sake; to simply open to the rich tapestry of life unfolding as it is, in all its pain and glory, one breath and one moment at a time.
Also published on Everyday Mindfulness
Amy McMillan is a mindfulness & yoga teacher, mum & ex-primary school teacher. She has first-hand experience of the power of mindfulness & yoga to calm anxiety & enhance well-being. She has a well-established daily meditation practice and she combines teaching mindfulness and yoga to help others find balance in their lives. Find out more at breathecalm.org or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.