Without question, mindfulness has been experiencing a huge surge of popularity over the last several decades. Hospitals, schools, corporations, law enforcement, athletes, the armed forces, and high performers from all walks of life are enthusiastically embracing the multiple benefits of mindfulness on both the professional and personal levels. More than a buzzword or passing trend, mindfulness has become firmly established as a legitimate tool to enhance body, mind, and spirit.
The prime mover for developing mindfulness has always been the practice of meditation. Regular meditation practice taps into the hidden spring of expanded consciousness that lies within us all and cultivates a growing field of ever-present witnessing awareness. This awareness carries over into your daily activities outside of your meditation practice. You become increasingly aware of your thoughts, speech, actions, sensations, choices, and the environment you are intimately connected to. The more you meditate, the more mindfulness spills over into every aspect of your life.
However, your regular level of mindfulness isn’t necessarily “fixed” or hard-coded into your system. Mindfulness can and does lapse into mindlessness, in which you slip back to a lower level of awareness. Your mental “autopilot” kicks in and you witness yourself, your experiences, and your environment with decreasing levels of attention. If mindfulness is the path to enlightenment, mindlessness is a step back into the darkness.
Lapses of mindfulness happen to the best of us, though. In fact, there are certain experiences or obstacles that happen to most of us that make remaining present more challenging. By understanding these barriers to mindfulness, however, you can:
- Be easier and less judgmental with yourself knowing that these pitfalls exist.
- Preempt and intercept them so you may recruit additional awareness and recover your mindfulness more quickly.
Here are the eight obstacles to mindfulness.
1. Being Under Stress
Although it may seem obvious, it’s important to recognize that when you’re in the throes of either acute or chronic stress, mindfulness is quite literally the furthest thing from your mind. This is due to the fact that the fight-or-flight response is the most primitive behavior of your nervous system. By its very nature, it locks you out of the mindfulness cultivated by the restful awareness response. When the autonomic nervous system is signaling a red alert, you have exceptionally little conscious control over your state of awareness. Until you are able to down-regulate the fight-or-flight response through stress-management techniques such as breath work, meditation, or some type of physical release, accessing mindfulness will be illusive.
2. Being Exhausted
Consider the last time you wrapped up a long day at work. You’re physically and mentally depleted and all you want to do is rest. This is not a mental environment conducive to being mindful. That’s because being mindful requires a certain amount of mental energy.
When your tank is empty, you just don’t have the reserves necessary to keep your awareness levels up. Your mind and body allocate their energy based upon your most pressing physiological needs, and if you’re wiped out, recovering your energy through sleep will take a higher priority than being mindfully aware. Higher consciousness isn’t an option when all your remaining energy is being used to prevent you from becoming totally unconscious.
3. Being Hungry
Another physiological need, hunger can easily override your attempts to remain mindful. As you go from a mild urge to eat, to hunger, to feeling outright famished, you divert mental energy away from your field of awareness to the task of finding your next meal. As blood sugar continues to drop, you become susceptible to hungry’s evil twin, hangry. How often have you heard (or uttered) the phrase, “I’m sorry for what I said when I was hungry”?
With your attention focused exclusively on food, there’s little room for mindfulness, compassion, and enlightened thinking. It’s usually only after you have eaten and your blood sugar levels return to normal do you start to feel yourself again and are able to make more conscious choices.
4. Having Emotional Reactivity
When you’re caught up in a wave of emotion, you rarely have your mindful wits about you. Emotions can be incredibly powerful and before you know what happened, you can find yourself emotionally hijacked and totally overwhelmed by a chemical cocktail rushing through your bloodstream. The emotion experienced doesn’t necessarily have to be negative; positive emotions can just as easily take you over, making mindful awareness a struggle to maintain. It’s usually only after the initial tidal wave of emotion has subsided do you feel even-keeled enough to regain a little more awareness and presence.
5. Experiencing Pain
Pain of any kind (physical, mental, emotional) can be overwhelming at times. In those excruciating moments, mindfulness can feel like an unreachable destination that tauntingly whispers, “You can’t get there from here.” The acute or chronic pain is like a roadblock that short-circuits any meaningful mental activity. Unless the pain can be managed, mindfulness requires a herculean effort to maintain during these challenging times.
This is not to say that mindfulness cannot be achieved during painful situations; indeed, mindfulness traditions encourage you to “be with” your pain, becoming deeply aware of the sensations and in doing so, you can experience it without suffering over it. Yet, pain can be one of the most challenging experiences in which to remain mindful.
6. Being Rushed
When you’re in a hurry, being mindful is really tough. Your mental resources are pushed to their limits, leaving little space for awareness to creep in. Caught in a thought-stream focused on what has to be done next, you anxiously scramble to get somewhere or complete a pressing assignment on time. You multitask in hopes of accomplishing more in less time, which depletes your awareness further.
In actuality, rushing is the stress response in disguise. Feeling like you’re caught in a loop of perpetually running out of time, you tumble down the rabbit hole of mindlessness with no end in sight.
7. Having Addictive or Compulsive Behavior
Addiction is a form of attachment to pleasure that traps you in an automatic program designed to continually feed your desires. Once the preconditioned program takes over, you become increasingly mindless and chase after more of what you can’t get enough of. To make matters worse, your system gets swamped in the dopamine rush of giving in to your addiction, triggering a feedback loop that becomes difficult to escape. This is why addictions and compulsive behavior can be so hard to curb—in an act of automatic self-sustaining pleasure, mindfulness is literally locked out of the system. Only through diligent practice and vigilance can mindful awareness begin to creep back in and allow for conscious choice making to override the conditioned behavior.
8. Being Absorbed in Your Own Narrative
Your internal dialogue is like the narrator of your life. It weaves an ongoing ego-driven story about the roles you play, what you believe, your purpose in life, and countless other details of your day-to-day existence. While this dialogue is a normal part of life, you can often become entangled in these stories or fantasies that you sacrifice your higher self for the ego self. You may manufacture illusory debates or perform soliloquies to your internal audience completely losing sight of one key detail—none of it is real; it exists only in your mind. In these periods of self-absorbed confusion, mindfulness gets lost in the make believe construct of your ego. And the more you indulge in this fantasy, the more real it seems. However, until you reconnect with your true self, it is difficult to regain a more mindful perspective.
Undoubtedly, these obstacles to mindfulness can seem daunting at times. However, once you’ve recognized and accepted them as an integral part of the human experience, you’re more able to transcend their power over you. With this awareness comes the ability to change your behavior. Knowledge has infinite organizing power, and when knowledge is paired with the intention to be awake and aware, you will find more opportunities to bring mindfulness into every day and every moment.
Join Chopra Chief Impact Officer, Devi Brown, for a series of guided meditations where we'll tune into the senses, connect to the breath, and ground in the present moment.