In Defense of Mindfulness

 “Don’t bother getting up. I got it.”

The words came out as cold and cynical as I had intended them, but my husband sat motionless on the couch while I made multiple trips to the car, unloading luggage from a getaway I’d just returned from with the kids.

Assuming I’d deal with the tension later, I began the task of unpacking only to look up and see him walking towards me with the broken eyes of someone in true pain.

 “I’m drunk,” he said. “And I’ve been drunk for two days.”

Trying at once to process both the stranger in the room and the impact of his confession, I paused for a moment before finally asking the question that would change our lives forever: “Are you… an alcoholic?”

“I think so,” he said.

That was November 18, 2016. Our son’s 11th birthday.

As a serious student of mindfulness for the past five years, I’ve often wondered how the practice might manifest in the throes of a true personal crisis. Purists will take issue with this, but I’ve never been a meditator, preferring instead to make awareness of present moment with acceptance my mantra and daily habit.

This is why I was saddened to read an article in the New York Times recently entitled Actually, Let’s Not Be in the Moment. In a critique of the burgeoning mindfulness industry, the author contends that one of our greatest abilities as human beings is the capacity to separate our mental and physical selves. Why be present washing dishes, she argues, when you could imagine yourself doing something far more rewarding at the same time?

This debate around the overall effectiveness of mindfulness isn’t new, but it continues to fog up the lens for those who could otherwise benefit from the practice. Moreover, when the goal is even sarcastically portrayed as a “Pinterest-worthy mind”, we’ve come dangerously close to losing the plot.

The true purpose of being mindful isn’t to be perfect, it’s to avoid being overwhelmed by all that is imperfect.  Accordingly, as with everything in life, the discipline we apply to the so-called little things is what prepares us for the big things.

This is why bringing the practice to mundane chores like washing the dishes is tremendously important because it serves as a mental push-up, strengthening the ability to stay composed when, say, you come home to discover that your spouse is an alcoholic.

Indeed, as I write this my husband is in a six-week inpatient treatment program. Yes, it would be easy to check-out while juggling the reality of his situation alongside the daily pull of two kids, a job, the bills, the house, insurance issues, a book launch, Christmas, etc. but, given all that’s at stake, why would I not want to be fully present for these things?

In fact, I’m so grateful for the ability to be mindful when no one was watching because learning to focus in those moments is what makes it possible to focus in this one. While I would hardly describe my home or my thoughts right now as Pinterest-worthy, what I do know is that I’m able to sit within both and be well.

And in a season of giving, that has been the best gift by far.