Everywhere we turn these days, there seems to be another article extolling the benefits of mindfulness, and with good reason. Adopting a regular mindfulness practice can help treat:
- substance abuse
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
- eating disorders such as bulimia, compulsive overeating, and anorexia
- emotional volatility
- high blood pressure
- chronic pain
- gastrointestinal difficulties
However, a number of misconceptions about mindfulness are also floating around, such as the following:
Mindfulness is simply chilling out. No. As Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course puts it, “Mindfulness is not relaxation spelled differently”. While mindfulness may eventually result in relaxation, along with some or all of the above listed advantages, mindfulness does this through a circuitous route. Mindfulness involves staying with our present experience, whether it is blissful or painful, without passing judgment. The MBSR course was initially developed to aid patients with chronic physical or mental health conditions, from back pain and fibromyalgia, to generalized anxiety. The title of Kabat-Zinn’s book, Full Catastrophe Living, states it well – mindfulness is engaging fully in whatever is going on at the current moment – being attentive and curious rather than trying to change one’s experience. Kabat-Zinn recognized this in his own life while pacing the floors of his home in the middle of the night with one of his newborn babies – mindfulness is waking up to the “full catastrophe” (a phrase originally uttered by Zorba the Greek).
Mindfulness will take away my pain. Unfortunately, no. We can’t escape pain and difficulty, as these are inevitable in life. However, mindfulness can enable us to avoid what is called the “second arrow” of suffering and misery. This is not merely psychobabble. Think of it this way – if you fall and break your leg, you will most likely experience pain – that’s the first arrow. If you berate yourself for being clumsy, that’s the second arrow. Accepting your current experience without judging or railing against it will help you to avoid the second arrow. Mindfulness helps you be grounded and find stability, so you can see more clearly your habitual thought patterns and not automatically buy into them. With practice, mindfulness can stop your mind from reacting to a challenging situation with your habitual pattern, be it anger, addictive behavior, anxiety, or condemnation of self or others. Mindfulness helps us to accommodate to our present reality – sometimes this will take the form of doing something to change the situation, and other times acceptance will be the answer. With mindfulness we can still want things and take action to obtain them, but we let go of demanding that things be a certain way.
Mindfulness is like sleeping and will reduce my level of arousal. Actually, mindfulness practitioners develop an increased level of alertness while maintaining a level of physiological equilibrium. So, while mindfulness can help to modulate the tendency to overreact to stimuli, it doesn’t dull our senses.
Mindfulness is fantasizing. While some forms of meditation involve visualization, and these can indeed be beneficial, mindfulness training focuses on observing life as it is, rather than how we would like it to be. When we are mindful, we resist the urge to go veering down some mental detour or side street. While such thoughts will inevitably arise, we recognize them and gently bring our attention back to the present moment. The question is not whether we’ll be tempted to mentally go somewhere else, but whether or not we are willing to return to our present reality.
Mindfulness is a solely mental experience. Actually, mindfulness incorporates what Dr. Marsha Linehan, developer of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) calls reasonable mind, emotion mind, and intuition, the combination of which results in wise mind. Our goal is not to become robotic and prune our feelings into some sort of emotional bonsai tree. Instead, we regard all aspects of our experience with merciful awareness and respect. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “In Asian languages, the word for ‘mind’ and the word for ‘heart’ are same. So if you’re not hearing mindfulness in some deep way as heartfulness, you’re not really understanding it. Compassion and kindness towards oneself are intrinsically woven into it. You could think of mindfulness as wise and affectionate attention.”
When we’re solely in reasonable mind, we’re guided by logic and reason, largely free from the sway of emotions. In this state, we operate based on facts. It’s a bit like Mr. Spock from Star Trek. While reasonable mind provides crucial input, we don’t want to operate exclusively from this standpoint, since life can begin to feel colorless.
When we’re in emotion mind, our feelings become the driving force. Emotion mind can be constructive, such as when we empathize with someone else or are moved by a beautiful song. However, emotion mind can also cause us to be impulsive and engage in addictive behavior or lash out at someone in anger.
Wise mind takes into account the input we receive from our reasonable and emotion minds, and adds the element of intuition. If reasonable mind is “cold” and emotion mind is “hot”, wise mind is “warm”. It’s like Goldilocks and the three bears – wise mind is “just right”.
The purpose of mindfulness is to change my thoughts. On the contrary, practicing mindfulness enables us to peacefully coexist with our thoughts, to be in a more constructive relationship with them by neither becoming enmeshed with them, denying them, or fighting against them. We learn that thoughts come and go, and that we don’t need to latch on to them or furiously bat them away. We gain perspective. If, instead, we engage in combat with our automatic thoughts or feelings, we can engender additional emotions equally as troubling as the initial thought or emotion. This would be the second arrow, mentioned earlier. Mindfulness is about changing our attitude or relationships toward our negative emotional or mental states, through observing such experiences without reacting. We cultivate a neutral observation of our experience rather than trying to attack it or run from it.
The acceptance component of mindfulness means that I maintain a passive stance. No. The awareness we gain from practicing mindfulness and seeing things as they actually are enables us to modify our actions as appropriate. When we cultivate mindfulness we reduce impulsivity, and thus we become more adept at making constructive behavioral changes rather than operating on “automatic pilot”.
Mindfulness is always done in a silent room by ourselves with my eyes closed. While most mindfulness instructors encourage formal mindfulness practices, which usually involve sitting or lying quietly with our eyes closed or half-open, the power of mindfulness is fully realized as we incorporate into our days out in the “real” world. Formal mindfulness trains us to pay attention to the present moment, and the simplest way to practice is usually with a minimum of distractions. The ultimate aim, however, is to make mindfulness as seamless and continuous as possible, to be awake to our lives all the time. In other words, when you walk, just walk. When you eat, just eat. If your attention wanders, ask yourself, “Excuse me, where have I gone?”
Starting a mindfulness practice can be as simple as trying the following exercise:
Consciously take a few in-breaths & out-breaths right now.
Also, notice the pause between your inhalation and exhalation.
- If (when) your mind wanders, note where it went, and just gently bring your focus back to your breath. Consider every wandering thought another opportunity to train yourself in resilience and flexibility.
- Then throughout the day – when you’re in traffic or waiting in line, for instance, just notice your inhalation and your exhalation. Try this for several breaths, and then return your attention to your surroundings. Small steps add up over time.
After about a week, assess:
Were you able to increase your awareness of your breath for several breaths, at least once a day for the past week?
Did you notice any particular feelings or thoughts arising as a result?
How did your body feel as a result?
You can also practice mindfulness by making it your intention to stay in the present moment throughout your day. In the evening, note how mindful you were that day (without judgment!) by asking yourself:
- Do I remember the water flowing over me during my shower this morning?
- How many details of my drive to work this morning do I recall?
- Did I eat a meal today without engaging in other activities such as watching TV, working on the computer, or reading at the same time?
- How much time today did I spend thinking about the future or past rather than focusing on the present moment?
- What emotions am I feeling right now? Do I know?
- What sensations am I experiencing in my body right now?
It may also motivate you to recognize the positive effect that mindfulness can have on your relationships. As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers… Mindful time spent with the person we love is the fullest expression of true love and real generosity.”
When you cultivate an attitude of attentiveness and awareness toward your own experience, this is just the tip of the iceberg – you then become better able to create a ripple effect of warm regard and acceptance to all you encounter.