If you’ve bought into the “fad” of meditation—perhaps playing more with the utility of mindful breathing—you could feel a happy moment, like you’re making progress in your practice or in your life.

But if you decide to breathe mindfully as a response to stress or frustration and finish by feeling more disheveled than when you started, you might feel as though you’re failing to make progress, as if not even your breath can save you from yourself. In either case, a paradox hides behind the logic of practice. When you discover it, you’ll feel as if you’ve freed yourself from this game of wins and losses. You’ll feel like you’ve recognized, once and for all, the “point” of meditating. You can finally step off this rollercoaster of objectively good or bad experiences.

Breaking down the practice

Neuroscientist and philosopher, Sam Harris (with a staggering 40,000+ hours of meditation under his belt), defines the process of mindfulness as “clear, non-judgemental, and undistracted attention to the contents of consciousness.” This definition bears much similarity to the one found in the robust research of Gaëlle Desbordes at Harvard Medical School, who draws upon the most frequently cited definition in modern psychology, which describes mindfulness as “‘paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.’” According to these definitions, the fruit of practice comes from “non-distraction” and “non-judgment,” or concentration and equanimity. 

In short, concentrating on an object of experience, without being attracted or repelled by it, creates the ultimate feeling of peace, which yogis have named “liberation” (freedom from suffering). It is quite possible to experience many glimpses of this feeling throughout your day, insofar as you can identify some common pitfalls that prevent it. 

Paradoxically, even the desire to be non-judgmental implies a judgment against the act of judging, itself. Even the desire for non-distraction alludes to the wrongness of distraction. Yet, mental focus is, required? (Un-ironically, to some extent, yes, it is.) Strikingly, just by paying attention, you can discover the feeling of non-judgment arises from the experience of non-distraction or concentration.

Focused awareness: the tool to stop thinking

The process of mindful concentration unfolds as the following: every time you notice you’re lost in thought, use soft words like “thinking” or “wandering” to then return back to your home base. (Your anchor: sensations of the breath, feet, hands, face, or any other aspect of present moment experience. Your anchor is the thing in your experience upon which you repeatedly turn your attention.) 

For beginners, this stage feels quite effortful. But in just a few weeks of practice, your focus will improve, and your sense of equanimity will noticeably impact your day-to-day experience. In fact, 8 weeks of daily practice changes your brain structure, increasing focus, emotional regulation, and efficiency in decision-making. In the practice of repeatedly reorienting focus on a sensation in your body, your attention becomes engulfed by the is-ness of experience, as it already exists without your help, which gives rise to a sense of great ease and relaxation. Simply put, you replace thinking with feeling. You experience a change in your way of being in the world. Your attention no longer dwells on judging or overanalyzing and instead remains impartial to (equanimous), yet interested in (concentrated) some tangibly changing aspect of the present moment. This is why building concentration is worth the time and energy.

Equanimity: the first and last step

Still, no matter how much concentration you summon, there’s a hole in the logic of practice. This paradox, left unexplored, will continually hover over your shoulder and impede your ability to experience equanimity. A near-magical quality of equanimity highlighted by the superteam of Harvard scholars helps to unravel the logic of practicing mindfulness in life, as they state:

“There are many situations in which it is entirely appropriate to feel joyful, and we naturally welcome this experience because it involves pleasure. It can also be appropriate to feel sad, such as when grieving the loss of a loved one. From a Buddhist perspective, what determines our degree of “suffering” or dissatisfaction (dukkha) is our emotional response to joyfulness and sadness.”

The emotional disposition that brings the highest peace is the mental state of equanimity, wherein there exists no motivation to prolong pleasant experiences, nor mitigate unpleasant ones. You can put in all the time and effort you want, but if you’re still practicing with the motivation to change your experience (for instance, to swap out anger in favor of peace), your practice won’t grant you peace in the face of unpleasant experiences. In trying to change experience, you inherently reject it, which creates tension in the body and perpetuates psychological suffering. You become a victim of your life when you avert the contents of your present moment experience. Happily, there’s another game to play, which completely changes your relationship with thoughts, emotions, and desires. Invoking equanimity, in the face of joy and sadness alike, changes your life by upgrading your brain to create more peace and ease, regardless of what’s happening around or within you.

To feel equanimity amid the arising of an unpleasant emotion or sensation, start being mindful by recognizing the raw sensation, as it is coupled with a reactionary “pushing away” of experience. Pushing away unpleasant experiences is a deeply ingrained condition for the average unenlightened being. Therefore, it is completely natural to experience, likely every day. For instance, if you notice a feeling of frustration, take a moment to recognize two distinct aspects: a) the feeling of frustration, and b) the desire to get rid of it. 

If you mentally acknowledge both the unpleasant feeling and the desire to get rid of it, you immediately experience a softening, as a reflection of knowing both aspects have their rightful place. As a matter of experience, both do exist in their own, rightful place, and bringing awareness to this fact by feeling their presence allows you to accept both the suffering caused by unpleasant sensation, as well as the suffering caused by wanting the unpleasant sensation to end. 

Once you accept both the feeling of suffering and the feeling of averting suffering, both aspects of experience lose control over you. You become okay with these conflicting parts of yourself. Only then can you feel the power of equanimity as mental imperturbability. Suddenly, there’s no longer a battle happening, and you can rest in the raw sensations of the experience without the psychological anguish.

Equanimity resolves the commonly misled tendency to practice mindfulness in order to change your experience. For example, if you’re angry, and you want to meditate to get rid of it, instead of trying to will the anger away, start from where you already are: a) noticing anger, and b) noticing the desire to get rid of anger. You don’t have to change anything about your experience. Instead, you feel both of these current realities. You feel your mindful breath and notice just how quickly these problems dissipate. It really is that simple.

Losing the notion of progress

In this style of practice, the notion of “progress” falls completely out of scope. You no longer meditate to actualize a desire to feel better. You simply meditate to purposefully feel the way you already feel with a sense of care and openness. The effortlessness of this style of meditation relieves you of good or bad experiences because you actively embody acceptance for whatever’s happening. No pushing away, no holding on. It just doesn’t make its way into the game anymore. 

This life of total acceptance, even when different aspects of experience conflict with one another, becomes just as much the path as it is the destination. In the research of Gaëlle Desbordes et al., they define equanimity as: “[A]n even-minded state [that] is both a mental attitude of openness, even-mindedness, and acceptance that one purposefully cultivates, and an enduring state or trait that is the end result of this form of training. Indeed the Buddhist tradition proposes that with practice, equanimity… becomes effortless and need no longer be purposefully invoked.”

In cultivating equanimity, as to remain impartial to, but interested in, anything and everything in present moment experience, Gaëlle Desbordes recommend concentrating on a sensation in the body for which you have no motivation to change and repeatedly returning to this object. 

In noticing the sensations in your feet, for example, a sense of great peace becomes obvious. You don’t strive to change or manipulate anything about this tingliness in your feet—and even when distractions come, you feel the pointlessness in changing your thoughts. What has been thought of has already been thought. Now, back to that anchor!

Unsurprisingly, this all-encompassing practice of awareness is completely compatible with the famously growing discourse on the growth mindset. In taking stock of all the contents of experience, even ones that seem contradictory, you collect different parts of yourself into your awareness. You accept conflicting aspects of your experience as objects of equal attention, wherein they become resources in cultivating ease and peace. Your suffering becomes more fuel for mindfulness. One feeling-sensation, one mental note, one mindful breath at a time: to feel lasting peace, leave nothing unaccounted for. 

Then, just allow everything to be in its own place. Under the layers of judgment and distraction, the non-problem of the present moment is always there to be recognized. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Why not find out for yourself?