Hardly a day goes by without a story in the news about the benefits of mindfulness.
The essence of the practice is simple: pay attention to your present moment experience, whether it be a sight, a sound, a taste, a smell, a sensation in the body or mental activity (the latter includes emotions and thoughts).
I’ve been studying and practicing mindfulness for over 20 years from a Buddhist perspective.
Its entry into mainstream culture is a positive development, but there are several misconceptions floating around about it. Here are seven myths about mindfulness.
Myth #1: Mindfulness is ethically neutral.
Mindfulness as a practice is inseparable from the intentions of the person practicing it. It cannot be separated from the Buddhist precept of non-harming. The focused attention of a sniper while looking through the sight of a rifle is not mindfulness as it was taught by the Buddha. Mindfulness cares.
I prefer to define mindfulness as, not just attention to the present moment but as caring attention.
Caring attention is characterized by an intention not to harm and by the proactive intention to be kind, compassionate and generous. This means that when practicing mindfulness, if you see a person suffering, you do what you can to help, even if it’s only giving a caring glance as you pass by—indeed, even if you’re only able to silently wish for the person’s suffering to ease.
Caring attention also means that you know when to abandon observing your present moment experience and, instead, take action to prevent harm, such as grabbing a child who’s about to run into traffic.
Finally, with caring attention, you’re better able to become aware of how your actions might be harmful to you. If you have a drinking problem, for example, focusing on a row of whiskey bottles in the grocery store may be careful attention, but it’s not caring attention because it will increase your suffering as opposed to alleviating it.
Myth #2: Mindfulness conflicts with certain religions.
There’s no belief-system that goes along with mindfulness, even as it was originally taught by the Buddha. It’s a technique for enriching your life by learning how to fully engage your moment-to-moment experience.
Myth #3: Mindfulness is easy.
Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s not. The biggest challenge tends to be remembering to practice it! It does get easier over time because you’re developing a habit—laying down a groove in the mind. This is why it’s important to keep up the practice after that initial honeymoon period is over and you might feel your commitment wavering.
I think of mindfulness practice as building a muscle in the brain: the mindfulness muscle.
Myth #4: Mindfulness is to be practiced only during meditation.
Not so. In fact, at meditation retreats, practicing mindfulness outside of meditation is an integral part of the retreat. Participants are instructed to walk mindfully, eat mindfully, and to do their chores mindfully.
Practicing mindfulness in this way not only heightens awareness of all your activities, but it also gives you insight into how your mind works. For example, before beginning to eat, I might tell myself to only pay attention to the smell, taste, and physical sensation of the food. But, if I’m truly being mindful, I’ll also become aware that my mind is chattering away: “This is the best yoghurt in the world,” or “This rice is too bland.”
When I was on meditation retreats, my mental chatter tended to run along these lines: “If I eat slowly and mindfully like I’m supposed to, maybe I’ll miss out on seconds!”
When you practice becoming aware of this mental chatter as it first arises, gradually your mind will quiet down. This can give it much needed rest from constant discursive thinking. Imagine how lovely it would be to go for a walk and take in the sights, sounds, and smells without a constant running commentary in your mind!
That said, it’s important to remember that the goal of mindfulness practice is not to be completely free of thoughts; that’s virtually impossible. You’re trying to become aware of whatever arises, whether it be an odor, an itch, or a thought!
Myth #5: Mindfulness is synonymous with joy.
Paying attention to the present moment if you have a headache or have just fought with your partner or children is not a joyful experience—even when it’s caring attention. In other words, the present moment is not always a pleasant moment.
And yet, mindfulness can be synonymous with making peace with your life as it is. Turning away in aversion when an experience is unpleasant only increases your dissatisfaction with what’s happening at the moment. By contrast, if you can be present for your experience with caring and non-judgmental mindfulness, you can find a measure of peace by acknowledging: “This is how things are for me at the moment.”
Some days, “how things are” may include a headache or even heartache. Practicing mindfulness helps you learn to greet your experience with openness and compassion, even when that experience is physically or emotionally painful. In mindfulness practice, pleasant and unpleasant experiences are treated the same way—with friendliness, kindness, and compassion.
Myth #6: Mindfulness is passive.
Mindfulness can be used in a relatively passive way—to rest and calm the mind—and this has many health benefits, from relieving stress to lowering blood pressure. But mindfulness can also be used as a wisdom or insight practice, providing valuable information about how your mind works. This is the investigative quality of mindfulness, and it holds the promise for finding peace with your present moment experience.
For example, by mindfully watching how your mind responds to what is happening in the moment, you can become aware of how you grasp at and cling to pleasant experiences—wanting them to last—and how you resist unpleasant experiences, even though they’re an inevitable part of everyone’s life.
There’s no way around it: pleasant experiences, such as listening to a favorite piece of music or laughing at a hilarious comedy bit, won’t last forever no matter how hard you cling to them. And unpleasant experiences, such as people letting you down and body aches and pains, will be part of your life no matter how hard you resist them.
Using the power of mindfulness to notice this tendency to cling and resist gives you insight into why you often feel uneasy and dissatisfied with your life. With practice, you can become aware of this tendency and learn to let go of the exhausting cycle of clinging and resisting, clinging and resisting. And when you do let go, a feeling of relief arises, as your heart opens to the sense of peace and well-being that come from being fully present for your experience just as it is.
Lastly, a myth that’s specifically about meditation…
Myth #7: Mindfulness meditation is an effective treatment for psychological problems.
Not necessarily. If you have unresolved psychological issues (for example, mistreatment by overly critical parents or an unresolved past trauma), formal mindfulness meditation may not be a good choice for you at this time in your life.
When your mind becomes quiet and calm, repressed or charged thoughts and emotional issues can come up—issues you may have been keeping at arm’s length or that you didn’t even realize existed.
These unresolved issues are part of your deeply-embedded personal psychological history, as opposed to being thoughts and emotions that typically arise and pass for everyone during meditation, such as a wave of sadness or worry.
Mindfulness meditation is an excellent tool for seeing that you need not believe in or act upon the ever-changing array of thoughts and emotions that arise in the mind. But if these thoughts and emotions are the result of deeply-embedded psychological problems, they can stick in your mind and increase in intensity, leading to anxiety, anxiousness, and fearfulness.
This is not a common occurrence when practicing mindfulness meditation, but I thought it was important to raise. If it happens to you, please don’t blame yourself. Instead, with kindness and compassion toward yourself over the suffering you’re feeling, stop meditating and either talk to a trusted meditation teacher (with experience in these matters) or consult a qualified mental health practitioner, perhaps a trauma specialist.
For over 20 years, mindfulness practice—both in and outside of meditation—has been an invaluable tool for helping me watch how my mind works.
Whenever I become aware of how clinging to pleasant experiences and resenting unpleasant ones serves only to make me unhappy, I’m better able to rest in peace with my life as it is at the moment. This is an ongoing practice for me; it’s work, but it’s worth the effort.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman