People who practice mindfulness strategies like to talk about the various small habits of resistance we all tend to accumulate. We point out the dangers of putting off our happiness until some point in the future. But isn’t there some value in motivating ourselves through unpleasant tasks and activities by imagining the relief that will follow? Is there really anything wrong with taking a bit of comfort during a tedious meeting or lecture on Wednesday morning by imagining how much fun we’re planning to have on Friday evening?
The answer has to do with our assumptions about the skills of paying attention. What is the point of learning to stay in the present more often? Isn’t this just one more trendy drop in the ocean of self-improvement strategies that fail to live up to their promises?
I try not to approach mindfulness as a self-improvement method. I try (notice the emphasis on trying) to approach it as a long-term scientific research study. This means investing effort in knowing myself rather than fixing or perfecting myself. It also means letting go of ongoing assessments of how I’m doing.
The attitude required is the same as needed for remaining physically active. I don’t hop on the treadmill to be the world’s best treadmill runner or to audition for underwear modeling jobs. I visit the gym so that I have more energy in my life. We know that moving against resistance is something the body has an aversion to yet also requires in order to stay healthy. Our minds also tend to prefer avoiding the work it needs for cultivating greater clarity and contentment.
The basic idea is to notice what happens when we resist experiences as well as what happens when we resist less. Think of it as collecting scientific data. The laboratory is your ordinary life.
If you find yourself yearning for the weekend, go ahead and imagine it. Try to objectively notice the physical and emotional sensations which the fantasy evokes in the body. Observe the taste of comfort which is part of your present experience. Also notice how these comforting thoughts and feelings impact your relationship to your current situation.
Once in a while, consider foregoing the fantasy and instead try to bring more of your attention back to the unpleasant aspects of your situation. What specific signals are you aware of in your body and mind that are prompting the need for a little comfort? What happens if you just notice the sensations in the body without intervening? Give this for a few seconds, a minute, longer if you are able. Your ability to stay with whatever is happening—pleasant or unpleasant—will grow over time.
In general, I recommend not thinking of mindfulness strategies as switches which we flip on or off, but more like channel faders on a sound board that we can learn to slide up or down. The level of resistance to physical and emotional discomfort will fall somewhere on a continuum. It is simply not possible to remove all discomfort from our lives. But you might find that sliding resistance down even a notch can have a significant impact on the degree to which the discomfort escalates into struggle and overwhelm.
So by all means cook up interesting activities for weekends and vacations. Enjoy taking comfort in your plans, which may or may not actually play out as you imagine them.
But consider also turning at least some of the ways you comfort yourself into opportunities for knowing yourself a little better over time. You might be surprised by the impact of subtle shifts in your resistance. You also might find yourself occasionally making friends with a Wednesday morning and letting a Friday evening wait for you to arrive.
You spend so much of your time
expecting to become
who will be different
someone to whom a moment
whatever moment it may be
at last has come
and who has been
met and transformed
into no longer being you
and so has forgotten you
meanwhile in your life
you hardly notice
the world around you
sirens dying along the buildings
your eyes intent
on a sight you do not see yet
not yet there
as long as you
are only yourself
with whom as you
recall you were
to be left alone for long