Why Mindfulness Alone Isn’t Enough for Growth

fingers framing sunset on beachAs we develop in the practice of mindfulness, our capacity to be with our experience increases, and our relationship with ourselves softens and becomes sweeter. Being with our experience in a direct way—with a nonjudgmental attitude of curiosity—is at the core of mindfulness practice.

While mindfulness is important and necessary for self-development, is it enough if we want to deepen our inner journey? Before I answer that question, it is important to talk a bit about our sense of self and how it develops.

Self-Perception Has Its Limits

Put simply, our sense of self is largely developed through our interaction with our parents and our environment. Depending on the type of parenting and the level of safety and input we got during infancy, childhood, and adolescence, the way we perceive the world, orient to it, and experience ourselves in it becomes solidified (and, to some extent, rigid).

One way of measuring emotional health is by how flexible that sense of self is. Generally speaking, the input we received while growing up develops into filters and ideas about the world and ourselves that limit our perception of reality. When we do inner work, one of the aims is to understand, see through, and dissolve these filters and ideas we have about ourselves.

Some of these ideas, though, are so deeply ingrained in our psyches that we can’t conceive of experience without them; we come to believe that our filters are simply who we are. In order to understand and eventually dissolve the ones that no longer serve us, we need to experience their energy directly, without necessarily applying a conceptual understanding, yet (somewhat paradoxically) also have an understanding of how they developed.

Growth Requires More Than Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a great tool we can use to enter the experiential portion of the equation, for it will help us stay present and in direct contact with our experience. Mindfulness can also serve in the conceptual understanding by helping us stay focused and not get lost in the many thought patterns that our minds are constantly producing.

But if we practice mindfulness alone, seeing and dissolving these internal patterns is extremely difficult. Again, these patterns are so ingrained in us that we believe they’re who we are, and the possibility of us being something else is terrifying for our usual sense of self. In order to work with them, there needs to be some kind of friction that will help us see them clearly. On top of that, this friction must be contained in a deep sense of safety, so that we are able to tolerate the uncomfortable sensations and emotions the friction produces.

Having an external, empathic person validating and observing our experience gives us the advantage of perspective, and if we are open and ready for it, this person can also help us see through our beliefs and filters about the world, other people, and ourselves.

This friction can only come about in relationship. Because our patterns originated in relationship, they can be transformed in relationship. This is where psychotherapy and having others reflect to us our patterns are essential in the process of self-discovery.

Having an external, empathic person validating and observing our experience gives us the advantage of perspective, and if we are open and ready for it, this person can also help us see through our beliefs and filters about the world, other people, and ourselves. A good therapist can begin to point out these patterns and reframe them as our relationship to them.

Of course, a therapist isn’t the only person who can co-create this type of relationship. Any relationship will surface our patterns. Romantic relationships will expose them in the deepest way. However, a therapist—at least, a therapist trained to see unconscious, transference, and countertransference—specifically focuses on seeing our patterns, and provides a valuable holding environment to process and more deeply understand them.

Both Mindfulness and Relationship Are Essential

In my own process, I have benefited from mindfulness as well as continuous relationships with others. I could say that all of my relationships have served as mirrors and have helped me see my unconscious patterns, but I have to say that the most significant relationships have been my more lasting, committed ones. These include my past therapists, spiritual teachers, family of origin, deeper friendships, and romantic relationships. All helped me profoundly to see different aspects of my own patterns. In my relationship with my spouse, some of my deeper defenses began to arise.

With their help—and my own capacity, developed through mindfulness—I have been able to tolerate the experience of defenses dissolving to access the younger, more hidden parts of myself. Some of these parts are so deep within, and so afraid to relate, that it has taken years of continuous work for them to come to the surface. This can be a scary, even terrifying, process. Again, mindfulness alone will not suffice in this endeavor.

Frankly speaking, the fear is a fear of dying. In a way, this is accurate; who I think I am is literally dying. However, when I am able to tolerate the experience, something else begins to arise and support me. As my attention stays with what’s happening, I am able to recognize that a subtler, and profound, presence is closer to who I am than my historical sense of self.

The practical implications of this discovery, and the integrations of it in my daily life, are very clear. For example, relationships have become more fulfilling; I’ve begun to have more access to expansive states of being; and I am able to more quickly recognize when I get caught up in old patterns. This is not a fixed, one-time achievement; it is an ongoing process of opening and dissolving ever-deeper structures.

To sum up, mindfulness is a great tool that will support our process of discovery at any stage; however, if we don’t also address our relational dynamics and personality patterns, our process will not deepen much. And in order to address these issues, we need others.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Manuel A. Manotas, PsyD, Mindfulness-Based Approaches/Contemplative Approaches Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Carlos

    March 31st, 2015 at 10:43 AM

    Yes, you can practice being mindful and becoming more aware but that will not always give you the tools that you still need to make necessary changes in your life.
    This can still be hard to change if you don’t have the capacity to do it quite yet.

  • xavier

    March 31st, 2015 at 1:35 PM

    And the most uncomfortable thing to me is letting someone else be involved in the process.

  • Ed

    March 31st, 2015 at 4:54 PM

    Excellent guidance and profound insight to the journey – an old saying comes to mind: we don’t think our way into good living, we live ourselves into good thinking…thank you for the insight…peace

  • Catherine B.

    April 1st, 2015 at 5:53 AM

    Great, useful article.

  • Patrick

    April 3rd, 2015 at 4:31 PM

    It is as scary as it is imperative to have someone else looking in to my life, and for that I must be willing to be transparent with them, and also willing to embrace that which I’d prefer to avoid – exactly what this article is speaking to. Being my own mentor and accountability partner is the dumbest thing I can do and will serve no purpose other than to reinforce already misguided beliefs.
    I’m truly grateful for the people who love me enough to tell me where the wood is when I can’t (or won’t) see it because the forest is getting in the way.

  • Andy Hahn Psy.D

    April 4th, 2015 at 10:38 AM

    Hi Manuel,
    I liked your article very much. I have a few comments.

    First, I believe you’re talking about 2 different types of patterns. The first is protective obscuring identities that arise from life experience. You come to believe that these identities are in fact who you are, even though you know they limit you.For example, suppose you’re young boy who makes a gift for his father and goes to give it to him. Let’s suppose also, that your father pushes you away. Finally, let’s suppose that you say to yourself that the best choice you could make at the time, is to say to yourself, “I don’t care”.

    You may grow up to be someone who believes his identity includes, “I don’t care, I’m not creative, I think giving gifts is silly”, all aa a way of covering over and protecting a truer self that cares a lot, is very creative and loves to give gifts, but associates these with something that is too painful to handle.

    A second type of protective obscuring iidentiy is intrinsic and underlies structures. They did not come out of life experience, they are a lens through which we experience life.

    Esoteric psychospiritual traditions identify four levels of such identities. The most surface is the level of personality. These traditions identifying 9 personality types.(American DSM identifies and pathologies 8) We can say that our personalities are obscuring protective identities that cover over a core fear which in turn covers over our deepest fear.

    For example, let’s suppose you are a Perfectionist. Your need to be perfect covers over a core fear that you are bad which in turn covers over the deepest fear, non-existence. From the egoic self perspective, non-existence is the deepest fear because it means anihilation. From the True Self perspective, non-existence is who we are, the fullness of the Emptiness, Unity Consciousness.

    The fear of dying, which you mention, is a bridge between the third level of fears, the level of our deepest instinctual drives, and the last level, nonexistence.

    if you understand the structures, a variation of mindfulness is sufficient. For example for life experience, you become the sensation associated with the obscuring protective identity. You will discover, as this dense identity, when you crystallized and how you have served. You can then send a higher vibration into the fear based protection, alchemically transforming it into a love base protection. Then send it back to the younger you. Then go into the spaciousness, find the truer self that was hiding, hidden beneath the obscuring identity. You can invite it to expand and become who you truly are, including all the maturing experiences you ve had since then

    For Core Fears, let yourself fully experience the fear in the body, externalize the sensation. expand to become the boundless dimensionless infinitely expanding spaciousness. Ask the core fear how it’s served.

    These are very simplified variations of an Essence Process. I prefer doing these focussed types of Mindfulness practice while being guided by someone. It can be done alone.

  • Carol

    April 10th, 2015 at 12:29 PM

    I wanted to tell you how great this article is and how meaningful to me. I began therapy for depression in 1990, which, in time, turned into how I see and how I thought I ruled the world. Your concept of learning and growing through mindfulness being a death of sorts is so true. I can really identify with that in my own therapy and self-growth. To change long-held beliefs and actions one must let the old ones die. I’d never thought of it like that before, but it gives me increased understanding as to WHY becoming mindful requires a therapist/support person to whom I can relate well as my ‘sounding board’. Over the years, my husband of 46 years has learned how to help me see those misguided ‘old reactions’ as well. Hard work, but so worth it! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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