THE BLOG
05/20/2013 06:36 pm ET | Updated Aug 20, 2016

Why Is Mindfulness So Difficult?

Mindfulness entails trying to get the mind to look at the mind, trying to observe how our operating systems are running. Using the analogy of software, you will quickly realize how difficult it is to get your Windows 8 or Mac OS X operating system to debug itself. You normally need an outside program that can observe the corrupted files objectively from a distance. As Marshall MacLuhan said, "I don't know who discovered water but I doubt it was a fish." Or more precisely for our purposes, I am sure you are already with Einstein's proposition that "you cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it."

Like highly sophisticated spacecraft traveling at light speed through a very hectic universe, our minds are on autopilot most of the time. Mindfulness meditation is a tool that we can use to reboot our hard drives, clear out the caches, regain the most propitious long-terms bearings, gain some insight into the bugs that cause our software to crash, and make tweaks that will bode well for our overall well-being and happiness. Because "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got." So maybe it is time to update our operating systems to Mind 2.0?

However, I have found three reasons why mindfulness is extremely difficult for most of us:

The first reason that mindfulness is extremely difficult is because we cannot instruct the mind what not to think. If I ask you to close your eyes and for the next 30 seconds do not visualize a white elephant, or Barack Obama standing on the White House lawn wearing only American flag boxer shorts, or Mickey Mouse having sex with Minnie Mouse, your mind will insert an image and then remove it. That is how the mind negates.

I joke with fellow psychotherapists that if humans could tell the mind what not to think or erase certain memories, as we saw in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, then we would all be out of jobs. However, as you may have already seen in the hysterical Bob Newhart video "Stop It!" you cannot directly instruct the mind what not to think.

The second reason that mindfulness is extremely difficult is because we get our sense of self and personal identity through our thoughts. One of the central tenets of Western civilization is Descartes' famous Cogito Ergo Sum: I think, therefore I am. And most of us -- except Madonna, of course -- are quite fond of our personal identities. I would even go so far as to say that most of us are quite addicted to our personal identities. However, we and our bodies -- all of the cells of the blood and tissues -- are perpetually changing, so how can we be certain that the Ira Israel of 2013 is the same Ira Israel who was in Paris in 1993? (Hint: consciousness. And, actually, he has grown up quite a bit, thank you very much.)

More specifically, our language tends to reify. We use phrases such as, "I am sad," "I am angry," and "I am a doctor." Our language creates little postcards similar to the way a camera captures instances of light hitting an object. This is how we maintain our sense of unique personal identity. However, there are obviously many ways to language (yes, "language" is now a verb, as well as the gerund "languaging") what we perceive. For example, there's a physicist who measures his time on earth in days instead of years. Thus, if you ask him, "How old are you?" he will reply, "I am 22,783 days old," instead of "62 years old." Next time someone asks you "How are you feeling?" try replying "I am a human being temporarily experiencing the emotion of sadness," and see what a bizarre look you get.

Wittgenstein stated that "language is a cage." We all see the world in our particular and individual manners due to the language we have learned; however -- and somewhat ironically -- our minds usually inform us that are thinking abilities are unfettered, unconstrained.

The third reason that mindfulness is extremely difficult is because our minds have a negativity bias. The vast majority of our thoughts are both redundant and negative. This is how our minds are built, primarily as protective devices that attempt to stave off possible future traumas, betrayals, and disappointments.

As babies, we want to eat when we're hungry, sleep when we're tired, poop when we have to poop, and play when we're feel playful. But unless you went to a Montessori or other highly progressive school, you were soon put on somebody else's schedule. Feeding times are 7:15, noon, and 5:30 -- not when you're hungry. Sleep times are 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. and nap time -- not when you're tired. In fact, I would daresay that most interactions we have with adults for the first 18 years of our lives are akin to behavior modification in some way, mostly through receiving positive and negative reinforcement in form of smiles and frowns.

And what is the language we employ to "civilize" our young humans and turn them into "productive" members of society? We tell them what not to do. For example, "Don't stick your tongue in the socket!" "Don't jab your sister with the fork!" "Don't run out into traffic!" and "Don't be late!"

And what do parents say when their adolescent throws a fit? "Don't be a baby!"

Is it any wonder why so many adults suffer from negative self-talk, low self-esteem, and cannot conceive of themselves or whatever they do as "good enough"?

So the three reasons -- to the best of my knowledge -- why mindfulness is extremely difficult to most of us are:

  1. We cannot tell the mind what not to think

  • We get our sense of personal identity through our thoughts and most of us are rather attached if not addicted to our senses of individual self
  • As defense mechanisms, our minds have been trained to be biased toward negative thoughts and language in order to try to stave off possible future harm
  • Instructing somebody to meditate -- to release or dis-identify with his or her thoughts -- is like trying to instruct somebody to instantly sneeze, or like telling someone just not to think, when the mind but built to do little else but that.

    Both practices of meditation and yoga were devised and designed to take us to the other side of our thoughts, beyond our thinking apparatuses. Ultimately, through dedication and practice, we can learn (although in the beginning only for brief instances ) to dis-identify with our thoughts, observe them non-judgmentally, and thus avoid letting them drag us around as if they were wild horses and we were helpless cowboys trying to rein them in.

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