the paradoxes of mindfulness – how doing nothing leads to change.

by | May 20, 2021

Dive into the topic of mindfulness. Learn about the paradoxes of mindfulness and why it’s important to be aware of them.

I came across an amazing article about mindfulness the other day. There was an exploration around the paradoxes that we can encounter in practice. And, as an extension, in life. In yoga, we often say ‘on and off the mat’. This applies to meditation as well. It’s not only about sitting on our cushion to meditate, but bringing the qualities that we ‘learn’ or ‘recognize’ into our lives.


The four paradoxes of mindfulness

🧘🏻‍♂️acceptance vs.🏃🏼‍♀️change
🚀escape vs.🌱engagement
🛠effort vs.✨non-striving
🎯self-focus vs.🌏non-self

>‘As we become more comfortable with paradoxes we are able to acknowledge that so many ideas are true, and so are their opposites. We see that change can come through acceptance and surrendering the project of changing things; that taking temporary refuge from challenges can help us to better engage with them; that it requires effort to let go of striving; and that by exploring ourselves we can actually become less self-focused’



Why is it important to be aware of those paradoxes? 

>‘Without these insights, it’s easy to get stuck in one polarity or another. These include excessive effort to change mental contents; insufficient effort to cultivate wholesome states; using mindfulness practices as a spiritual bypass to avoid pain; overwhelming ourselves with too much pain; using the practices to escape from interpersonal engagement; and becoming self-focused, missing the potential of the practices to transcend self-preoccupation.’

Lately, I saw a few documentaries and read some articles, critical of mindfulness and yoga as a tool for happiness.

We often hear ‘mindfulness will help you be happy at work’ or ‘practice yoga and you will be healthy’. Do we even need to be happy at all times? These techniques are very trendy and tend to lose their deeper meaning. But what exactly is at stake?

>‘As mindfulness becomes mainstream, it becomes important that this breadth of reach does not dilute our depth of understanding. The rush to secularise and commodify mindfulness into an accessible (and marketable) technique risks denaturing its essence and losing its transformational potential.’

Most people don’t know that the aim of mindfulness is not to be calmer, more relaxed, or even happier – in fact, there is no goal and that’s the goal. To learn to sit with whatever arises, without expectations.



But there are some important aspects in the mindfulness practice. 

Intention. Knowing why we are cultivating mindfulness, what is our aspiration and motivation for the practice matters a lot.

Attention. In the context of mindfulness, attention means observing the operations of one’s internal and external experience.

Attitude. That refers to the quality of our attention. For example: non-judging, patience, openness, curiosity, trust, non-striving, acceptance, letting go, self-compassion, etc.

You might ask, but what’s the point if there is no goal? That’s exactly where the first paradox mentioned earlier comes on stage: sitting with no goal IS the goal. 

Carl. R. Rogers beautifully wrote: ‘The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change’.

And as more clearly stated in the article:

>‘Yet inherent in mindfulness practice is acceptance, allowing things to be as they are. What many people misunderstand is that acceptance doesn’t mean we want things to be the way they are, it simply reflects that things are the way they are, so we might as well accept them instead of resisting what is. Bringing acceptance to the present moment does not mean that we willingly allow or endorse unnecessary suffering or unjust behaviour. We accept and open to whatever is arising in the present, not because we necessarily like, condone, or encourage it, but because it’s already happening. Then, from a place of clarity, we can consciously discern what is needed and respond in an appropriate and skilful way. Through this process of acceptance, we are able to see our situation realistically and respond in a conscious manner. Thus, paradoxically, acceptance is one of the essential elements that leads to transformation and change’.



A real life example of my personal journey.

Do you also experience this sometimes? Something happens to you that makes you feel bad. You run away. A few weeks, months, years later, ‘the thing’ comes back in another form, another shape, another experience, another colour. Same feeling, same wish to run away.

It happened to me lately and because it had a direct impact on a close relationship, I decided to dive into it.

I don’t always dive in. Here as well, balance has to be found between growing or learning and accepting what is. But as it impacted something important in my life and kept on triggering me, I consciously decided to dig in and explore.

What I saw wasn’t beautiful. And that’s something we learn in meditation: to sit with the good, bad and neutral sensations, thoughts and emotions. 

My first reaction was judgement and acting upon it. Wanting to change it. It exacerbated my suffering.

I love that description of the meditation teacher Shinzen Young of how resistance causes suffering. He states that suffering is determined by our relationship to that reality. He offers a simple yet powerful equation: Suffering = Pain × Resistance (S = P × R).

The amount that we resist our pain determines how much we suffer.  I resisted quite a lot because I didn’t like what I saw. And so… as ‘S = P x R’, I suffered even more.

Slowly, I chose to come back to my intention, attention and attitude and decided to step back a little.

With compassion, kindness, patience and great care, I stopped wanting the thing to be different. It was not easy and required a lot of patience and kindness. But, ‘that thing’ made me realise that there was no other way.



I had to surrender. 

Eckart Tolle said: ‘What you resist, persists – what you fight, you strengthen’. 

Don’t get me wrong, it took me a while… and is still a work in progress. Breathing into discomfort, looking at myself clearly, honestly, with compassion and accepting that part of me was, and still is, a hard process. It takes effort to let go of striving. And courage to soften.

I want to end this article with this wonderful quote by Pema Chödrön from the book ‘Practicing peace in times of war’:  >’The path of peace depends on being patient with the fact that all of us make mistakes. And that’s more important than getting it right. This whole process seems to work only if you are willing to give yourself a break, to soften up, as you practice patience. As with the rest of the teachings, you can’t win and you can’t lose. You don’t get to just say, “Well, since I never can do it, I’m not going to try.” It’s like you never can do it and still try. And interestingly enough, that adds to something, it adds up to appreciation for yourself and for others. It adds up to there being more warmth in the world’.



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.. some more food for thought:

Le travail doit-il nous amener du bonheur? – Radio – Play RTS

Vox Pop – Zwanghafte Glückssuche – Komplette Sendung | ARTE

Vox pop – Bonheur : une quête obsessionnelle ? – Regarder l’émission complète | ARTE

Full article: Paradoxes of Mindfulness by Shauna Shapiro, Ronald Siegel and Kristin D. Neff