Rethinking Mindfulness Along Middle Path

Mindfulness is Not the Answer

We’ve all heard the poster-sale self-help advice presented in snappy fragments:

Be mindful of your breath. 

Find happiness in the moment. 

Be present with yourself. 

Start each day with a grateful heart. 

The message is kind and genuine, the presentation not so much. The only time I have found these quotes, or variations on them, to be remotely helpful is during yoga or meditation. In that environment, they are effective because they supplement the actual practice of connectedness and grounding. But when these phrases stand alone, they are, frankly, ineffective and condescending. 

Your body is a temple, so treat it like one.

This is possibly the most condescending example of positive scripture, repeated to oblivion in popular culture. Sure, it gets the message across. My body is an inanimate structure devoted to the worship of religious figures and used to house religious objects. It is a receptacle that needs to be swept on the weekends. But what happens if my worshipped body is suddenly affected by forces completely out of my control? Say, my temple begins degrading due to weathering, develops a termite infestation, or spontaneously catches on fire due to a gas leak. As the owner of said temple, I am going to need to do a little better than treating it as holy property. I am going to need a partial remodel, a termite treatment, and help from the fire department. 

This parody on the body-temple metaphor is all to say that mindfulness alone cannot always stand up to the forces acting within the human mind. If my temple is on fire, exploring my breath is going to do nothing for me. Just as being present in the moment is not going to put a fire out, being present in a mind that is in a crisis or in a state of disorder will not resolve that internal conflict. More likely, it will only bring attention to it. Before any form of mindfulness — even the kind presented in cheesy quotes — can be effective, the underlying issue causing the state of mental distress has to be addressed. Whether this issue is a bump in the road, like a bug infestation, or whether it is chronic, like degradation from weathering, it deserves to be addressed with more than just mindful breathing.  

Marketing mental wellness advice in the form of catchy phrases, cursive-written postcards, and dorm-room posters, when real mental health treatment and conversation is still highly stigmatized, only further conceals the issue. But there is a reason that the trend of mindful quotes is so popular: over-simplified advice sells; it’s marketable. Conversation about medication for depression or therapy for anxiety disorders is not.

Middle Path Moments

While I do not believe that mindfulness should be considered a treatment for mental illness, I do believe it can be an incredibly beneficial supplement to treatment. When it is not presented in silly cursive lettering and ditzy marketable phrases, I have found that mindfulness can help ground and bring stability.  

As an incoming college freshman, to say that my life was in shambles at the start of the semester is an understatement. I was uprooted from my home in the mild Bay Area and transported across the country to humid, rural Ohio. I said goodbye to my childhood friends and had to let go of the structure and security of those relationships. I entered college life and my experience with the world became a new, uncomfortable, and stressful rollercoaster, as my life transformed into a series of first-times and first-impressions. In the midst of this transitional chaos, finding solid ground became increasingly difficult. My life no longer had room for absolutes, and every morning brought fresh excitement alongside fresh anxiety. I felt my personal time and space slipping away between new experiences. Amid this constant state of motion and commotion I existed in, I began to realize that I needed some way to regain balance. I realized I desperately needed “me time,” which I found in daily mindfulness practices.

My daily commute consists of walking to and from my dorm room, to class in the morning and afternoon, to Pierce for meals, and to the study spaces around campus, all of which is possible on foot. To no Kenyon student’s surprise, most of my on-foot commutes are centered around Middle Path. When applying to Kenyon I had heard romantic accounts of the soft, under-foot crunch of Middle Path, as graduates both recent and old reminisced about the comforting chorus of its yellow gravel. Yet I never realized how essential my daily walks on Middle Path would become. These daily on-foot commutes have become a time I set aside to check in with myself. 

Normally, my Middle Path mindfulness goes something like this: I put in my earbuds, relax into whatever music is circulating my playlist that day, and just look around. The effortless track of a straight line does wonders for the mind. Letting go of direction and simply walking allows me to clear my mind and let it fill with music and scenery. Often times, I look at how the sun moves through the trees, or, now that it’s finally autumn, how falling leaves see-saw their way down to the earth. Occasionally, I’ll take the time to snap a picture. My walking mindfulness practice has helped me find a stable sense of home in these first few months of college. It has secured time in my schedule where I can consider the world outside of myself. I take this time to experience my daily presence in the Kenyon community, without feeling submerged in the emotional transition of this new chapter in my life. 

In sharing my positive experience with mindfulness I do not intend to present it as an adequate mental health treatment, but rather, to normalize mindfulness as a casual exercise. Something as simple as walking Middle Path can act as a mindful moment if you give yourself the space to let it.

 

All photos belong to the author.