The witnessing mind: a journey through the challenges of mindfulness

Emma Leaning
Mindfulness is about paying attention to our thoughts, feelings and environment without judgment or distraction. That sounds simple but it can be incredibly challenging.
Emma Leaning

Shot by Sun Minjie. Edited by Sun Minjie.

Watch Emma speak with the Shanghai community about what mindfulness means to them.

The cold sore on my lip stings. My right shoulder hurts, and my belly is bloated. What else? I’m overwhelmed, panicking about work and fretting over the number of dead or dying plants in my apartment. Speaking of which, I’m behind on rent. I’m dreading “that conversation” and looking forward to wine despite it being 11:35am. Welcome to my present moment. Semi-present because I’m full of flu and high on cold medication. I’m not altogether here. And frankly, who’d want to be?

Research says mindfulness helps manage anxiety, depression and stress. We develop greater self-awareness and emotional regulation by learning to be present. It’s about paying attention to our thoughts, feelings and environment without judgment or distraction. That sounds simple but mindfulness can be incredibly challenging. Our brains race with thoughts and worries, and even when they stop, we get confronted with uncomfortable emotions or memories we’d sooner forget, all of which I experienced at a mindfulness workshop in Shanghai.

Afterward, I spoke with co-facilitators Hu Bojun, psychologist at United Family Healthcare, and Karli Rowland, counselor at Community Center Shanghai, about overcoming some challenges of the here and now.

The witnessing mind: a journey through the challenges of mindfulness
Ti Gong

Karli Rowland

I didn’t expect to be emotionally triggered during the workshop ...

Karli: It’s hard when emotions and thoughts surprise us or aren’t what we want to experience.

Bojun: Mindfulness itself isn’t unpleasant. It doesn’t have content. It is simply awareness. Mindfulness is about learning to witness emotions and thoughts rather than identify with them.

The witnessing mind: a journey through the challenges of mindfulness
Ti Gong

Hu Bojun

But if I don’t identify with my thoughts, feelings or experiences, what am I?

Bojun: From a psychological standpoint, we are the summation of our thoughts and feelings.

Karli: Thoughts and feelings contribute to experiences, and experiences shape who we are. But you wouldn’t believe everything someone told you. It’s also unhelpful to believe everything we think or feel. Awareness helps us understand the ‘me’ versus the mind.

Bojun: When we notice the mind, we see not only how transient thoughts and feelings are, but also our choice points. That gives us agency over our actions.

I didn’t have any agency over the critical voice in my head ...

Bojun: We all have critical voices, and we apply them to mindfulness like anything else. Perhaps because we want to be better?

Karli: Yes, it’s natural to want to be good at something. Being mindful is a step toward that, by practicing and recognizing it won’t always go a particular way.

Bojun: It helps to approach our critical voice like a leaf floating on a stream or a cloud in the sky; mindfulness is about watching things pass without judgment.

The witnessing mind: a journey through the challenges of mindfulness
Sun Minjie / SHINE

That sounds relaxing. So why am I exhausted?

Karli: You give an overactive brain a moment to escape, and it’ll take it. But we’re not used to slowing down. Over time mindfulness can invigorate more than it tires.

Bojun: We function on autopilot, and tiredness can be a realization during mindfulness rather than a product of it. Practicing gives us the choice to enter a different state. If I’m tired and mindful of it, I can rest. Fatigue can also come from wanting to perfect mindfulness and feeling frustrated because we can’t.

Yes, the want to “get it right” was another challenge.

Karli: When you’re aware of thoughts as a lens rather than a set of facts, you’re being mindful.

Bojun: Precisely. Mindfulness is just an opportunity to focus without judgment. There is no right or wrong, only a continuous return. There is nothing to perfect, and everything to witness.

And there’s that word again, “witness.” Humans have a need to control and perfect the world around us and the experiences within us. Mindfulness requires putting instinct aside and observing the moment rather than attaching ourselves to it. That’s a big ask. We live in a culture that values productivity and achievement over presence and connection. We feel pressured to be doing or achieving rather than simply being. Which — when you stop to think — is silly. Because what isn’t creative or constructive about being present? I dread to count the hours lost to the past and future that miss or misshape whatever’s happening now. But despite its challenges, there are many ways to be mindful. And most have nothing to do with meditating on a mountaintop:

Karli: Mindfulness takes many forms, from dance to gardening. A curious approach will help us find practices that suit.

Bojun: We all want to handle stress better and feel freer. Freedom isn’t just the ability to go somewhere. It’s the ability to make choices. Mindfulness creates that.

The decision to practice mindfulness is a personal one. But everyone benefits from awareness and empowerment, from choosing actions and reactions rather than being piloted through life or operated by unhelpful thoughts and feelings. The present is rarely easy, but it’s where life is lived. And if we’re willing to be in the moment, a pleasantly uncomfortable experience awaits. I’m here (for now), and I hope to see you soon.

Feathers: a collaboration with Ilda Freire, masseuse and dancer; Hu Bojun, psychologist and yoga teacher; and Emily Wong, dance artist.

This 10-minute movement meditation is best experienced in a nest-like space where you have room to move and explore your bodily sensations. We invite you to make time for this experience, away from distractions and interruptions.

Join Emma and see what the present moment has to offer. You can follow her progress on Facebook (EmmaLeaning) and Twitter (@LeaningEmma).

The witnessing mind: a journey through the challenges of mindfulness

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