job wanted sign - mindful unemployment

Jon Kabat-Zinn says that mindfulness “means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” My experiences, past and present, with unemployment say that equilibrium of mind is highly unlikely during periods of unemployment—that in fact mindfulness and unemployment repel each other like magnets. Unemployment can sabotage all efforts at attaining an ideal state of mind because it fosters the polar opposites of the practices Zinn suggests:

Paying attention in a non-particular way informed only and completely by the iron grip of anxiety.

Things get very real when unemployment rears its ugly head. Engaging in voluntary simplicity and some good, slow living can prepare one for times of less-than-voluntary simplicity, but there’s also a point at which one really does not wish one’s life to get simpler. I don’t want an iPhone, or a Range Rover, or whatever the devil the kids are into these days, but neither do I want to give up heat, eating and the other gentle comforts of life.

Realistically, I need to pay for those things with genuine coin of the realm because I cannot pay for things with my looks. I have tried. The thought that one’s standard of living, whatever it might be, might have to change is profoundly anxiety producing. At the point when I contemplate that, I could no more consciously direct my thoughts away from the state of being fearful than I could build and pilot a rocket ship. It’s easier to be aware and let go of thoughts and anxieties that aren’t so essentially connected to our physical livelihood. Probably the measure of a solid meditation practice is the ability to be attentively objective in the present to fears that are based on actual risks that have real consequences and then to let them pass. My efforts at mindfulness in these situations crumple like a house of cards.

In the end, this probably happens because, like lots of people, I don’t want to let these anxieties go. I want to find a solution for them, and I wilfully don’t recognize that the solution to the problem and the solution to worries about the problem are not the same thing. If I were better at this, I would realize that research suggests that solving the problem of crippling anxieties would be helpful in finding the solution to unemployment as well. This works in a few ways. Being mindful of fear can reveal what it is that we’re actually afraid of. Isolating our anxieties leads to better coping strategies because we develop the perspective to see what we really need. Mindfulness has also been proven to increase learning, concentration, mental energy and confidence, all of which are required to navigate the economy nowadays.

Living in the horrible dystopian future.

Berkeley organization Greater Good tells us that “when we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future” (Click here to read more  on this topic from Greater Good). From my vantage point, within the mental cyclone of worst-case scenarios, this sounds like nonsense. You stop thinking about the future, Berkeley—mine is filled with impending disaster. On an intellectual level, it’s logical to agree that since the future hasn’t happened yet, there’s no real point in obsessively fantasizing about how awful it will be. When uncertainties enter our lives, however, that theory can go out the window. It goes back to the idea of risk. There are real and abiding dangers to financial instability and we intuitively know that it’s not a good idea to ignore them.

If we concentrate on what we’re sure will be the negative outcome of our situations instead of focusing on the present moment, though, we can miss potential solutions because we won’t see them as such. We can train ourselves to ignore helpful new contacts, new strategies and positive new career directions because they won’t look like the vision of the future that we’ve created for ourselves.

As Kabat-Zinn says, living to one’s potential means “coming to terms with things as they are.” This good advice doesn’t intuitively sound like good advice. I don’t want to accept things as they are. I want things to change. Preferably immediately, and for the better. Kabat-Zinn goes on, however. You can’t control the universe,” he states, “so mindfulness involves learning to cultivate wisdom and equanimity—not passive resignation” (Read Zinn’s interview for TIME here). When awareness of the present increases, so do our chances of seeing opportunities for what they really are. It’s probably also true that engaging in the process of finding new work and new opportunities will make us more successful than spending our mental energies wishing we didn’t have to go through the process at all.

Reducing judgments to the single one that everything is terrible.

Making negative judgments about one’s personal unemployment might be understandable, given how much of our identities are invested in what we do and given how much our sense of our success as human beings is tied into our work. Just as we tend not to speculate that the future will be too good—that everything will work out too well—when we’re unemployed, we tend not to think of ourselves as too valuable as human beings. What that ends up doing, though, is making us withdraw into ourselves, when what we really need is to reach out into the larger world.

Every circumstance can be made darker by our sense of ourselves as having failed somehow, and by our sense of our situations as bleak. Our judgments create habitual patterns of thought that condition us, positively or negatively. We can end up foreclosing on potential opportunities because they don’t fit into our damaged sense of self (i.e. “I can’t do that job, I’m not qualified for that, I’ll never do ‘x’”), but that is as unhelpful as foreclosing on possible futures because they don’t look like the apocalyptic ones we’re sure we’re destined for. Being aware of our judgments is the only way to change destructive patterns of thought. Letting go of them allows us to assess our situations objectively, and to maybe even get rid of behavioural patterns that are holding us back.

image: Daquella manera (Creative Commons BY)