One of the persistent misrepresentations of mindfulness is that it is predominantly a solitary struggle. One thinks of the sage on the mountain, the hermit sequestered in a cave, you sitting home alone in your room, privately gazing at your navel (which is a pretty strange image if you think about it). It’s true that mindfulness meditation does involve spending time alone with your own thinking mind. In fact, a great benefit of cultivating more mindfulness, many people report, is that it helps them get along better with themselves. Meditation helps you be a better companion for your own throbbing mind, to be more comfortable with the fact that you have to travel the world alone with your thoughts much of the time.
But being comfortable being alone does not equate with acting in isolation. An important feature of programs like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is that you practice meditation along with others, and you share your insights, misgivings, struggles, questions, and joys with others in group discussion and inquiry. Donald McCown, a longtime MBSR teacher and coauthor of Teaching Mindfulness: A Practical Guide for Clinicians and Educators, has made the point to me on several occasions that participants regard the eight-week mindfulness programs they take part in as “a group activity” and that’s one of the reasons they want to come back.
You have a group to bring your experience back to, which takes you out of the echo chamber of your own mind.
Mindfulness meditation often takes place in a small community you share with others, which supports the meditation you do on your own. You have a group to bring your experience back to (sometimes using video-conferencing), which takes you out of the echo chamber of your own mind, clouded as it can be with self- doubt and recrimination (“I’m no good at meditation. I can’t possibly be doing this right. As usual, I suck”).
People come to feel that their desire to make peace with their own mind is not a weird aspiration. They also find that others confirm for them that while meditation isn’t complicated, it does take effort, since it puts you in touch with challenging emotions that may lie just beneath the surface of everyday awareness.
The questions that hang awkwardly in the air can be as powerful as the questions that have pat answers.
McCown points out that mindfulness teachers need to be able to facilitate discussion and discovery, not simply serve as the person who answers all the questions. The questions that hang awkwardly in the air can be as powerful as the questions that have pat answers.
You can also find resolve when you meditate with other people. You get a little boost, when your energy flags, from seeing others out of the corner of your eye. The simple thought we’re in this together makes it a human, communal thing, rather than an abstract internal pursuit.
As the mindfulness world grows, let’s hope we find more and more ways we can meditate together—including online—and create affordable spaces where people of all stripes will feel free to enter, stop, and have a few minutes of time alone together with others.