In this series of posts, I want to try and address some of the common myths about mindfulness.
Many of these myths are pervasive. One of the reasons for this, I think, is that the mindfulness “boom” has so rapidly increased demand for mindfulness teaching that part of that demand has had to be met by teachers who, whilst no doubt well intentioned, lack adequate formal mindfulness training or a developed personal practice.
Another reason is, I think, that other forms of meditation, yogic practices and relaxation techniques have been re-badged as “mindfulness”, or combined with mindfulness. These practices can all be very beneficial, but they have different purposes and cultivate different qualities of mind. So, when they are combined or mislabelled it can create confusion. I’ll go into this more in future posts.
MYTH #1 : 'Mindfulness is the absence of thoughts'
The first myth is that mindfulness is about clearing the mind of thoughts - or shutting the mind off. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Mindfulness is not about shutting the mind off, but about cultivating a particular quality of mind: curious and nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment.
Mindfulness is not about becoming blank and vacant, but alert and inquisitive!
Mindfulness is not about clearing the mind of thoughts, but becoming aware when they have our attention, rather than unthinkingly reacting to them!
This is an important myth to dispel for the simple reason that if we were to think that mindfulness was about not thinking, then the practice would be very demoralising. We would be bound to fail.
After all, it is the nature of the mind to generate thoughts!
All we can hope to do in the practice is to interact with those thoughts more mindfully - with more awareness and gentleness, and less judgment.
MYTH #2 : 'Mindfulness is all about good feelings'
The next in our series of 'Mindfulness Myths' is a common one!
I think in part this myth comes out of popular stereotypes of "blissed-out" meditators. I think it can also be unintentionally encouraged by the sales pitch for mindfulness. If we are repeatedly told that a practice has been shown to lead to less stress and greater happiness it is easy to confuse the result with the path and assume that the purpose of the practice is to achieve a stress-free and happy state in every session.
But mindfulness is not about achieving a particular state, it is simply about becoming aware of the state we're in. It is about bringing an open, curious and gentle awareness to the present moment. And so it is about allowing room for the entire spectrum of human experience to arise, be observed, and pass.
Our experience in practice - as in life - will constantly change. There will be moments of good feeling, but also uncertainty and discomfort. There will be moments of boredom and distraction. Unexpected emotions may rise up and catch our attention. Mindfulness is simply the practice of gently observing each moment and letting it go.
Mindfulness does not require us to curate our experience. To try and manufacture a succession of good feelings through brute meditative force would be impossible (it certainly would be for me)!
Luckily, mindfulness does not ask us to feel any particular way, it just asks us to feel.
This myth is important to dispel because if mindfulness is the achievement of good feelings, then we are bound to become disappointed. We might consider moments of discomfort and unpleasantness in practice as failures. In fact they are essential parts of the practice!
Mindfulness training is something radical: staying with all our experiences without judging them (or ourselves).
And one of the beautiful ironies of the practice is that by giving up striving for only good feelings we end up feeling better.
MYTH #3 : 'Mindfulness is only for spiritual practitioners'
Sometimes people are deterred from mindfulness meditation because they think it is as an exclusively for spiritual practitioners.
Of course, mindfulness can form part of a spiritual practice. Contemplative practices such as mindfulness can be found in almost all of the major spiritual traditions. Mindfulness meditation is particularly associated with Buddhism, a tradition in which it plays a particularly important role.
But we don’t need to be practitioners of a particular spiritual tradition to practice mindfulness. In fact, we don’t need to be spiritual practitioners at all.
Mindfulness is the process of observing without judgment and with acceptance our present moment experience. That’s all there is to it! The present moment is available to all of us, at all times, regardless of background or belief.
Let’s say we are practicing being mindful of our breath. We don’t need to subscribe to a particular belief system to be aware of our breath. The breath does not need to be visualised or accessed through any ritual, exercise or prayer - it’s always there. Mindfulness is simply the practice of intentionally paying attention to it, and observing it as it is.
In a way, in mindfulness we are cultivating the quality of mind of the scientist rather than the mystic - our laboratory is our own experience, our equipment is our awareness. We should approach practice with an investigative spirit and without preconceptions.
So you don’t need to adopt any belief system to practice mindfulness.
There’s no need to be pious, just present. There’s no need to be holy, just human!