When Mindfulness Backfires: The Ego-Trap of Inauthenticity
Mindfulness is authenticity. Through a balanced approach to inner experience and the outer world, we learn to express ourselves genuinely.
Mindfulness is authenticity. Through a balanced approach to inner experience and the outer world, we learn to express ourselves genuinely. We uncover deeper truths of who we are, we learn to accept the authenticity of our thoughts and emotions.
But on the spiritual path, ego-traps are never far away. And even a practice with authenticity at its core can result in inauthenticity.
The trap of intellectualization
Meditation has changed my life. The ability to create distance from my thoughts and emotions has enhanced my relationship with myself, with others, and with the wider world. Yet there have been moments where I intellectualize meditation.
Previously, I’ve written about my surprise at taking a break from meditation. The space from the practice highlighted that I’d developed a belief that meditation would lead to a certain outcome.
Meditation can lead to authenticity, but when intellectualizing the process, there’s a risk of spiritual bypassing — a term describing the tendency to use spiritual ideas or practices to avoid unresolved issues.
It’s escapism masked as spirituality
In my early days, I’d intellectualized the idea that someone who meditates is always calm, present, focused, at ease. This became an issue for me.
I was playing the role of the meditator
Admittedly, meditation did make me calmer, more present, more at ease. However, the issue arose in the moments when I didn’t feel these qualities.
At times, I felt anxious, erratic or groggy, or was generally experiencing “negative” emotions. These are all parts of the human experience, of course.
Yet rather than experience these feelings — remember mindfulness is experiential– I ignored them, and simply acted as if I were calm. I played the role of “the meditator.”
The effects of this weren’t particularly catastrophic, but the irony was, in attempting to act mindful, I was sabotaging my mindful practice.
In these moments, I wasn’t allowing myself to experience my authentic being.
Acting mindful vs. Being mindful
What, then, is the difference between acting mindful and being mindful?
To explore this further, it’s important to understand the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and actions.
When acting mindful, we allow the belief to lead:
I should be mindful, that means I should be calm, cool, collected, at ease.
Actually being mindful means applying mindful non-judgement to our current experience. We observe beliefs, sensations and feelings, and accept their presence. Our actions, then, aren’t being led unconsciously by our beliefs.
However, being mindful still allows us to act against impulses or emotional states. And our ccceptance creates space to remain calm when faced we are faced with difficult emotions.
A case study of anxiety
To provide a solid example, let’s say I am experiencing anxiety.
In the first scenario of simply acting mindful, I would resist or suppress the anxiety, and tell myself “I shouldn’t be this way.” I’d attempt to act “calm” or “cool” despite my true feels — This stifles authenticity.
When anxiety arises while we actually being mindful, we acknowledge its presence and accept it as best we can. We move freely and express as authentically as possible, even if this expression is acting in a way which feels anxious.
The motivation for the behavior in both instances is different. In the first example, we behave in a way we believe we should behave. In the second, we accept our experience and behave authentically, while trying our best not to react or become consumed by thought or emotion.
It’s not glamorous
The more we develop expectations about meditation or spiritual practice, the greater the risk of falling into ego-traps, or spiritual bypassing.
One common mistaken belief is that spiritual growth is all lightness, love, joy, and compassion
These traits are cultivated through practice, but true growth requires facing trauma, and being able to accept so-called negative emotions.
As Toko-pa Turner writes in Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home:
“True healing is an unglamorous process of living into the long lengths of pain. Forging forward in the darkness. Holding the tension between hoping to get well and the acceptance of what is happening.
“Tendering a devotion to the impossible task of recovery, while being willing to live with the permanence of a wound; befriending it with an earnest tenacity to meet it where it lives without pushing our agenda upon it.
“But here’s the paradox: you must accept what is happening while also keeping the heart pulsing towards your becoming, however slow and whispering it may be.”
These words are a reminder that authentic expression involves finding the balance between accepting what is, and keeping your heart pulsing towards becoming.
How to stick to the path of authenticity
Any time we find ourselves resisting elements of our experience — such as anxiety or sadness — or craving elements of experience — such as happiness or joy — we veer off the path of authenticity, towards an idea of how to be.
In these moments, it’s vital we reconnect with ourselves. Exercise forgiveness. Express self-compassion. And then we return to the moment, one breath at a time, re-establishing our desire to move towards authenticity, not to act, but to be.