The Problem with Mindfulness. ~ Monique Minahan

Via elephant journal
on Jul 6, 2013
get elephant's newsletter

exhaustion and meditation

I jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon about six years ago.

I write a blog on mindfulness. I attempt to live mindfully. I call my yoga classes, “Mindful Movement.” I’m a pretty big fan of mindfulness.

So you can understand why I caught my breath when I read (and re-read) this line halfway into Jay Fields’ book, Teaching People, Not Poses: “The problem with mindfulness is that it’s full of mind.”

I had the uncomfortable feeling everything following this line would directly apply to me.

She proceeded to convincingly lay out a number of ways mindfulness is full of mind and to make a distinction between a mind-full practice of yoga and an embodied practice of yoga.

Commenting on what it means to be embodied she says, “The experience of embodied presence feels soft and expansive to me, whereas mindful presence feels a bit numb and tunnel-like.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine and creator of MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction), describes mindfulness as Falling Awake. He also calls it “The hardest work in the world.”

Most of us would agree that consistently showing up for our lives is no easy task, but it is a rewarding one. This is likely why the practice of mindfulness is becoming more and more mainstream.

As I reflected on my personal experience of feeling mindful versus embodied, I began to see Fields’ point. In my most “aware” and “mindful” moments I sometimes felt a sense of disconnect. While I seemed to be completely present with whomever I was with or wherever I was, my experience sometimes felt incomplete. Contrasting this with my experience of feeling “embodied,” I realized that when I felt embodied life felt like it was happening in 3D.

Everything felt alive, moved in slow-motion, and was incredibly fascinating.

Until running across that line in Fields’ book, I hadn’t considered there might be a problem with my mindfulness, and I hadn’t considered embodiment to be a separate process. The more I contemplated it, the more I questioned whether they were really separate processes. Couldn’t one lead to the other?

While musing over this concept I was presented with an opportunity to interview Julian Walker on his book Awakened Heart, Embodied MindWith a title like that I figured he knew a thing or two about being mindful and being embodied. I questioned him on whether he felt “mindfulness” and “embodiment” could coexist and/or contribute to each other.

He responded in part, “If our mindfulness does not include embodiment, then we feel like a floating head! Ungrounded, disempowered, out of touch. If our embodiment does not include mindfulness we can be reactive, impulsive or negatively self-indulgent.”

His comments seemed to echo what Fields describes when she says, “I can do my entire yoga practice mindfully, and not at all feel connected to myself as an integrated bodymind.”

They are both expressing the need for integration, for unison, for a yoking of the body and the mind. One without the other leaves us feeling half-present, missing something, and not entirely alive.

Sitting with this concept for some time, I started to realize the question was more important than the answer. Being willing to ask and explore the question; “What is the state of my body-mind union?” This requires us to step back from what we think we know and step onto the unsteady, shifty ground of what is.

Plenty of people will tell you what it is or isn’t, but only you know when you’ve struck that balance and when your whole being is in sync.

Before reading Fields’ book where she dared to present mindfulness in a not-so-flattering light, I wasn’t asking myself this question. I was walking around trying to be mindful and wondering why it sometimes helped me feel present and sometimes made me feel less present. Asking the question forced me out of my comfort zone and into an undefined space of uncertainty and discovery.

From this unsure realm I could test my experiences with an attitude of exploration instead of looking for facts to defend my position. As I explored, I discovered that I jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon because it was a doorway from pain to presence.

As I entered the home of my body mindfully, I began to get to know this fascinating house called, Me. This process of stepping inside my own skin, of becoming embodied, required allowing my mind to coexist with my body instead of rejecting one or the other.

When I allow for an integrated mindbody experience something incredible happens. I feel at home, I feel awake, and I feel alive. In these moments “the hardest work in the world” doesn’t feel so hard at all. It feels delicious, grounded, and free, with nowhere to be but here.



Mo is a writer who believes in peace over happiness and love over fear. She likes to set her sights high and then take small steps to get there. You’ll find her walking the dirt path behind her house with her little fluffy dog, practicing walking her talk by keeping her head high and her heart open. She writes for and is currently experiencing the magic of teaching yoga. Read more of her wild ideas at



Like elephant journal on Facebook.


Assistant Ed: Leace Hughes/Ed: Bryonie Wise



About elephant journal

elephant journal is dedicated to "bringing together those working (and playing) to create enlightened society." We're about anything that helps us to live a good life that's also good for others, and our planet. >>> Founded as a print magazine in 2002, we went national in 2005 and then (because mainstream magazine distribution is wildly inefficient from an eco-responsible point of view) transitioned online in 2009. >>> elephant's been named to 30 top new media lists, and was voted #1 in the US on twitter's Shorty Awards for #green content...two years running. >>> Get involved: > Subscribe to our free Best of the Week e-newsletter. > Follow us on Twitter. Fan us on Facebook. > Write: send article or query. > Advertise. > Pay for what you read, help indie journalism survive and thrive—and get your name/business/fave non-profit on every page of Questions? Send to [email protected]


30 Responses to “The Problem with Mindfulness. ~ Monique Minahan”

  1. Good article, Mo.

    Perhaps this is why Yoga Nidra is such a powerful meditation practice–it's mindfulness using a complete body scan as a focus (also very similar to Buddhist Vipassana Meditation, see

    Here's another good summary of all the varieties of meditation, some of which focus on "mindfulness", and some of which focus on almost the opposite, what one might call "no-mind fullness", my favorite, the kind that makes you feel not narrow, but, cliche as it is, "one with the universe" (also described in some detail in "Yoga Demystified" below).

    “Effortless Wellbeing”: Meditation as Everyday Life

    Thanks for the article.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Demystified

  2. Padma Kadag says:

    Mo…this "idea" or concept which is mindfulness should be questioned as you have attempted to do. The origin is Buddhist and only so due to english translation. But if there is agreement on the buddhist origin then this current use of the word renders it meaningless. For example, EJ is a "mindfull" blog, mindfull business, mindfull this and that. Buddhist masters regarded mindfulness as a method when one had already attained some realization. It was never this tunnel vision veil which one approached the world…"I am being mindfull". It has more to do with the View in buddhism rather than the politics of being Green, sustainability, vegan or meat, etc. .

  3. Padma Kadag says:

    The View requires very effortful practice on one's part to attain.
    In buddhism there are different schools. Mind is King. Meaning mind is everything. It is King because a king determines everything within the kingdom. Without mind there would be no body nor speech. All is mind. Bliss is mind. Death is mind. So what is being mindful? Understanding that mind is all inclusive. If we really want to be mindful, then by the very meaning of "mindfulness", our motivation should be to end all that the mind creates. We need to attain Buddhahood for all of those perceived beings in our mind who continually suffer.Mindfulness should then be nothing less or more than the all compassionate act of determining what is mind. I think your original questioning of our current use of mindfulness is important

  4. Mo Minahan says:

    Thanks Bob! I appreciate you expanding on the distinctions between these meditation practices and sharing the great links.

  5. You see, this is why I said I prefer "no-mind fullness". This Buddhist stuff is too complicated for me! :):):).

    On the other hand, that can't be too different than your term " to end all that the mind creates."

    Seriously, though, why not fill our mind with the wonder of the universe, as prescribed in the Gita and Upanishads, instead of trying to empty it out. See:

    Bob vs. Buddhism: The Satisfying Conclusion.

    Bob W. Editor
    Best of Yoga Philosophy

  6. Mo Minahan says:

    Thanks for sharing your insights, Padma. I agree the word "mindful" is acquiring a modern meaning and use that may be different from the original intention. There seems to be a fine line between getting caught up in semantics and reflecting on what our personal intention is in being "mindful." Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  7. Padma Kadag says:

    Bob…it only sounds confusing because it is coming from me. Often those in the west who would point to buddhism as being in denial of "wonder of the universe" or the beauty of the world are hung up on "Suffering" and the "to end all that the mind creates". There is no "emptying out" of the mind as you say. As buddhists we "accept everything and reject nothing". That everything, if we examine our minds very effortfully, arises from our mind, your mind. Thats all there is. Once the mind is observed to account for all phenomena, which it is without a doubt, then we realize the source of all happiness and suffering is our mind. That mind is also illusory if we source where this mind resides. Where is mind? Once we arrive at this threshold compassion and love naturaly arise. We do not "end, destroy, or empty our minds" the mind, as it naturally is, does that. That is the "wonder of the universe". I do not think, not knowing the Gita beyond having readit 2 times, is far from Krishna.

  8. Padma Kadag says:

    Mo…it is clear to me that mindfulness is a result of one having some realization in Buddhist meditation. It is not jargon for a current fad nor is it "anything" which needs to be applied to one's perception as if we can turn it on and off at will when we either want to appear as being mindful (as businesses and blogs do now) or we have gotten in a situation which would require us to be mindful. For me there is no semantical volleying. Being mindful sounds good and makes good print in our current phase. All of these kinds of terminologies are being confused by the dabbling and reading of this and that and we as westerners make buddhist thought and philosophy "into our own" .

  9. Linda V. Lewis says:

    Mindfulness or shamatha in Sanskrit, shine in Tibetan, literally refers to pacifying the mind. The traditional analogy is of a candle protected from the wind by a glass. But there are different forms. Eyes open, as taught in most Tibetan buddhist traditions, yes closed in most Hatha yoga traditions. Even with eyes open, which has the possibility of launching awareness or vipassana, shamatha does not lead to liberation, only to pacification–not bad–good for stress reduction–but not realization. But it is what leads to vipasanna awareness and thus to liberation and realization at the Mahamudra level of practice.

  10. Barb says:

    Hi, I'm gonna jump in here and say something that probably will seem simplistic. In Buddhism, one of the 4 foundations of "mindfulness" is, first and foremost, being in the body. Isn't that being "embodied"? How could we be mindful if we weren't embodied? I don't see the problem….except possibly with confusing terms. Good article, by the way. Made me think.

  11. Jay Fields says:

    Beautifully written, Mo! And I am honored to be the inspiration for your insight and sharing.

    I remember having the same aha moment when I realized that being mindful and being embodied were two very different things. In fact, neuroscience proves this–mindful self-awareness and embodied self-awareness engage two entirely different neural pathways. And the benefits of embodied self-awareness FAR exceed what is possible with mindful self-awareness. It's super cool stuff! And also alive and vulnerable and challenging and beautiful. In fact, what you said about moving from pain to presence through mindfulness resonated…for me that was the same path, too. Until I realized I could stay in mindfulness and be numb. Embodiment invites back in pain, but with a depth of presence that allows even pain to have a sweetness to it–because it's your true experience in the moment, which means you always get to have you. The full you.

    Learning about embodied self-awareness and how to engage with it is the foundation of the online course I'm teaching based on my book, Teaching People, Not Poses. The next session begins in September. In case you or any of your readers want to play more with this concept.

  12. radrave says:

    Thank you for owning up to your ignorance — not easy to do.

    But consider how much damage have you may have done to others by teaching what you did not understand before taking up the embodiment meme and pushing that idea in the same way, not matter how cool it sounds.

  13. Laura S. says:

    Mo, this is a great article, posing a very important question! Thanks so much for writing it!

    @Jay Fields – I am really intrigued by the neuroscience you reference regarding the different neural pathways for "mindful" self-awareness and "embodied" self-awareness – can you share the source for that? I want to read more, and am curious as to the specific definition of "mindfulness" used here.

    @Mo – As a student of Julian's – I am a student in his and Hala Khouri's current Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind teacher training – I am thrilled to see you referencing his book here. I consider myself very fortunate to have entered into the yoga world as a student of Hala's (she was my first yoga teacher), in part because of her emphasis on embodiment as part of a yogic/mindful practice. I agree completely with the quote from Julian that you included, regarding the importance of both mindfulness (as it is commonly perceived in our culture) and embodiment. It is interesting to me that, in reflecting on your article, I realize that my personal interpretation of "mindfulness" includes embodiment. I thank my amazing teachers for that. In my opinion, the ultimate goal is not so much a "union" of mind and body as it is an integrated awareness that they can't really be separated. As Jay references, it is possible to *focus* in one way or the other, but my experience has been that it is possible to focus on both simultaneously, and when I do, that is when I am the most grounded, centered, present, clear-minded and emotionally resilient. As strange as it seems, I think there is actually a tendency in our Western yoga culture to *not* be embodied, even as we are practicing asana. But this does make sense, based on our cultural tendency to value the intellectual/rational mind over feeling, sensing, embodied intelligence. I think that Jay, Julian and you are sharing a valuable concept here. So thank you!

  14. Mo Minahan says:

    Dear Radrave.. thank you for your comment. What I share are my experiences and what has been helpful to me on my path, which I believe fall under the categories of both mindfulness and embodiment, thus the labeling. I've been helped by reading other peoples insights and taking from them what I find helpful on my inner and outer journey, as I trust people who read my blog or articles do as well.

  15. Mo Minahan says:

    Thanks Jay! I appreciate your starting this conversation with your book. So true about presence allowing the pain to have a sweetness to it when we own up to all the beautiful parts of ourselves.

  16. Mo Minahan says:

    Thanks for sharing your reflections, Laura. I find it a valuable concept to explore daily because it encourages me to bring full awareness and presence to each moment of my life. You make some good points in your comments, thanks for expanding on the topic and sharing your experiences.

  17. Hi, Padma. You're right of, of course. Don't know if you had a chance to read "Bob vs. Buddhism" above, but at the end I come to pretty much the same conclusion–that it's just two sides of the same coin.

    Beyond that it's probably just personal preference. I still have a problem personally with all the emphasis on suffering and nothingness (Four Noble Truths and all) in many types of Buddhism, even if it would eventually get me to the same place.

    But then, there are types of Yoga like that, too, and types of Buddhism that start with the positive, too. When I was faced with that spiritual fork in the road, Buddhism vs. Yoga, I just personally preferred Yoga. Obviously many other people prefer Buddhism.

    Thanks for writing.


  18. Daniel says:

    “What is the state of my body-mind-spirit union?”

  19. julian walker says:

    magnificent article, monique!

  20. C. Devlin says:

    Yes. This is only one reason I find Pema Chodron so inspirational. This is a pretty good summation of her approach.

  21. sallyamberantler says:

    It's lovely to come across people exploring this stuff. Although I must agree with some above who never really made a distinction between mindfulness and embodiment … I kinda presume them to be the same thing. Awareness/Presence/Aliveness is what it's all about, isn't it? Mind, what we call mind, is a kind of (mostly) constantly running stream, babble of words, ideas, judgements, impressions, memories, projections etc. Mindfulness is noticing this as it plays out but I would also say mindfulness is also noticing experience – the sensations of now. My friend Isaac Shapiro ( would say that mind is mostly an automatic, involuntary contraction away from the sensations of now that can be noticed, and attention can gently, repeatedly be turned back towards these sensations, which, when met fully, reveal the vast, incomprehensible, nondual peace of awareness, consciousness, spirit that everything actually IS… and is nothing. 🙂 It can get pretty intense when contractions show up that feel painful, difficult. Isaac told me recently, when I asked, that it's important to feel when the intensity is too much and to back off and resource yourself before returning. Otherwise you can create more trauma.

  22. Padma Kadag says:

    "From within the nature of originally pure stainless space,
    Awareness suddenly manifests. That moment of mindfulness
    Is like finding a jewel at the bottom of the ocean.
    This is dharmakaya, not fabricated nor created by anyone" Garab Dorje as quoted by Dudjom Rinpoche in his treatise on conduct, Wisdom Nectar. Shamatha, in the translation I follow, is Calm Abiding meditation. Mindfulness is as I have referred as demonstrated by the quote I have provided. This quote is in reference to Threkchod. Now, can mindfulness be something different for every translator, of course. But it certainly is not relegated to shamatha. If you are equating shamatha and mindfulness, and either do not "lead" to liberation, you are right. Just as dharmakaya remains unnoticed so does mindfulness.

  23. Padma Kadag says:

    Barb…the point is not denying the idea of being "embodied". That being "embodied" is the perception of "mind" is the point.

  24. aki says:

    In my view, if one is mindful, he/she is embodied. If it's not embodied, it it not mindfulness practice. I get the author's sentiment and praise her for raising the question and exploring it but I feel there's a confusion about the mindfulness practice itself. In my experience and understanding, there's a bodily felt-sense about mindfulness. Without it, it will remain merely as a concept. What she describes in the last paragraph appears to me a mindful state. So she knows it. It seems it is a question of understanding what the word is representing.

  25. Mo Minahan says:

    Thank you Julian!!

  26. barryjohn says:

    I am thankful this article and the insight it provokes – I hadn't thought this out much before but Mindfulness for me, includes embodiment – to the extent possible, I am aware of my bodily sensations as I focus on my breath, I am aware of all points of contact as my body at different times, I subltly feel the effects of gravity upon me- getting into my body and out of my head is what leads me to a better meditation – as someone who teaches meditation, I find that some people can only meditate after, say a yoga class- they need to tap into the body, the vagus nerve wisdom vs the head- mindfulness as a term is a bit of a misnomer – for me its more mind-neutrality or nuetralness to the extent possible – putting the mental gear shift in neutral vs forward or reverse – and when in neutral other sensations, ie the body, and a higher state of being, become evident

  27. Dragon Tamer says:

    Happy to read this post that expresses much that I have been feeling, thinking and saying for years.
    I have worked in the field of trauma healing for almost twenty years and have been meditating for almost as long. I have observed that mindfulness practices can inadvertently aggravate unconscious, subtle, trauma-based habits of separating from the fullness of embodied, sensual experience.

    Whether we have suffered personal trauma or not, all of us in the West are inheritors of generations of trauma of violent separation from the Earth, hatred of the body and "conquest" of nature. We have been severed at the root and that is where we are most thirsty for healing.

    When we gift ourselves with consistent, simple, intelligent practices that reconnect us with the joy of embodiment, the joy of life, we are able to make better use of practices like sitting meditation and mindfulness.

  28. Doesn't being fully embodied practically by definition mean that the mind, too, is fully engaged? What else but an attentive mind would allow us to feel completely alive and focused in our body? Conversely,I agree with Aki that there's a "felt-sense about mindfulness." What can true "mindfulness" mean if not to be thoroughly present — body, mind and, of course, spirit that infuses both! Interesting questions you and Jay raise, Mo

  29. @KelleSparta says:

    Mo – I love this article. I recently wrote something on the subject of Embodied Spirituality as well. I'd love to hear what you think about it.

  30. Mike says:

    If you felt a disconnect then you weren’t being mindful. Mindfulness is really just awareness with nothing added and nothing taken away. Some people try and force a particular state when they are being mindful or they think mindfulness is a thing you do. In fact it is really a non-doing that leads to a very uncomplicated awareness of the present.

    Mindfulness would include being aware of the body, or embodiment.

    Too much spiritual ego distorts this extremely simple practise! In fact the practise is awareness without ego.