Riddled with Dilemmas

by Daron Larson 

Mindfulness practice can change your life, but I try not to make a big deal about that.

The benefits are proven and appealing, but focusing on them creates obstacles to experiencing them.

The related insights are compelling, but thinking and talking about them are no substitute for encountering them directly in the context of your own life.

Given a choice, would you rather...

...read a book about music theory or be moved by a musical performance?

...watch a cooking show or enjoy a meal like the one prepared by the host?

...discuss sexual satisfaction or conduct your own field research?

Hearing an imperfect musical performance will always be more satisfying than reading about a perfect one. Eating a warm grilled cheese sandwich will always be more delicious than watching a microcelebrity flaunt an artisanal one on a screen. A fumbled erotic adventure will always be more stimulating than any discussion of amorous technique. 

We are all experienced consumers, and we are also used to being lured by claims that sound too good to be true. Who doesn't enjoy being seduced? Sometimes we'll even accept seduction for something imagined as a substitute for an experience of something real.  

But it's easy to feel like the bait of a new, empowering skill has been switched for the difficult work of developing it. 

Welcome to the real heart of the messy McMindfulness discussion: how can we attract more people who could benefit from the practice without depriving them of the richness and complexity of taking the exploration beyond relaxation and stress management? 


Long-term meditators criticize the marketing of an approach tailored for a specific context instead of evaluating the modified instruction itself. Journalists with little or no practice experience question the paradoxical claims which the long-term meditators know intimately.

There is more lost than gained by the current state of this messy conversation—as if the built-in quandaries of mindfulness practice weren't daunting enough. 

The dilemmas related to attentional fitness are similar to the more familiar predicament that makes physical fitness easier to discuss than to make habitual. It requires consistent effort over time, and that effort—though worth it—includes a great deal of discomfort and confusion.

A mindfulness teacher has to sell you on the possible outcomes, but also has to steer you back again and again to the slippery path that leads to them.

If a personal trainer is as clear as possible about how to do an exercise, it doesn’t make it any easier to perform. Using a sloppy technique might allow you to quickly check it off the list, but you risk forgoing the benefits that motivated you to work out in the first place. 

I want to be challenged, but being outside my comfort zone is uncomfortable. I rarely want to exercise, but am often pleased (later) that I  did exercise. I plead internally for yoga teachers to give me permission to come out of a downward facing dog, but I’m glad (later) when they encourage me to stay in it long enough to feel challenged. I have been so impatient waiting for someone to ring the bell ending a long period of meditation practice, but I am almost immediately (still counts as later) appreciative for the opportunity to discover my limits and begin to erode them.

I think we would all prefer the task of any contemplative practice to be that of solving an important, but abstract riddle about human suffering and contentment. We want a treasure map with a big X marking the exact spot where we should dig. Instead someone hands us a shovel and sends us out with clues that sound intentionally vague. 

I have spent a lot of time digging and I swear that I would rather sell you a map, but I feel extremely honored to be able to get to hand you a shovel. 

I don’t want to change your mind. I want to invite you to change your relationship to your thoughts.

I don’t want to confuse you. I want to be as clear as possible so that you will be confused enough to change your relationship to confusion.

I don’t want to fiddle with your heart. I want to nudge you into feeling what you feel—even anger, fear, sadness, and embarrassment— with less resistance and interference.

I don’t want you to be in pain. I want you to cultivate ways to experience life’s inevitable discomforts without them defining you.

I don’t want to convert you to a different belief system. I want you to feel more at home in your life just as it is right now.