By: Dr. Lane Pederson
Many people, therapists included, have misconceptions about what mindfulness is and what it is not. Sometimes these misconceptions get in the way of engaging in mindfulness practice. Below are some of the most common myths about mindfulness.
• Mindfulness is Buddhist (or some other philosophy or religion)
While a large variety of philosophies and religions promote mindfulness practices, mindfulness is best thought of as a human activity that is owned by no group or person. Mindfulness belongs to us all, and furthermore, mindfulness and its benefits are supported by robust research that clearly shows its psychological, emotional, physical, and performance-based benefits.
• Mindfulness is all new-age-y, wavy-gravy or (insert your judgment here)
For some reason, mindfulness seems to conjure images of people in flowing robes, sitting in serene settings, existing in some unreal world disconnected from your or my reality (admittedly, many photos showing people practicing mindfulness promote those stereotypes). The facts are that mindfulness is for everyone, and that people across all races, ethnicities, cultures, religions, occupations, and socio-economic statuses practice mindfulness.
• Mindfulness is a fad or trend
Mindfulness has been around since the dawn of consciousness, making the Beatles or Rolling Stones look like fads by comparison. Not much stands that test of time. When the end of the world comes, only cockroaches and Keith Richards, practicing mindfulness, will remain. Enough said.
• Mindfulness takes a lot of time
While some advocates of mindfulness stress 45 minutes (or more) of meditation or other mindfulness practice daily, the fact is that you can achieve benefits from taking just a few minutes (or even moments in some cases) to re-center yourself mindfully in the moment. When you consider how much time we all spend distracted by problems, taking a few minutes to breathe or otherwise practice mindfulness is a great tradeoff.
• People who practice mindfulness are always mindful (and effective)
A mindfulness student once saw his teacher eating while watching TV. Angry at the apparent hypocrisy of doing more than one thing at a time, the student challenged his teacher. “You always teach one-mindfulness, lecturing ’when you walk, walk, when you pray, pray, and when you eat, eat,’ and now I see you both eating and watching TV!” The teacher calmly replied, “When you eat and watch TV, eat and watch TV!” Mindfulness does not create perfection, and practitioners will likely experience the benefits but will certainly not always be in the moment. Further, seeking to be ever-mindful means you are clinging to a goal and as such not in the moment.
• Mindfulness is done only during meditation or other mindfulness practice
This myth is one of the biggest, and it is analogous to saying people only move their bodies when they exercise. Think of meditation and other mindfulness practice as exercise for the brain, building the skills needed to collect and focus your attention and then guide your behavior. Just as physical fitness is about developing a healthy body, meditation and other mindfulness practices are about building healthy mental processes so you can be mindful in the moments of everyday life.
• Mindfulness is only about pleasure, peace, and relaxation
While mindfulness can be pleasurable and promote peace and relaxation, mindfulness is also about relating to experiences that can be aversive, uncomfortable, and even painful. Think about how often we try to escape these types of experiences only to make them worse! Perhaps paradoxically, using mindfulness to accept and relate to what is painful can transform it; mindfulness is fundamentally acceptance-based and non-judgmental, which releases the helping of suffering we often dump on pain.
• Mindfulness can turn off problems, or otherwise make them go away
Mindfulness is not about turning anything on or off. Rather, it is about deciding what to focus on and when. What mindfulness can do is offer a way to focus away from your problems when you choose, getting a break, and to focus on your problems when you choose with a different approach that might transform your relationship to them, as mentioned above.
• People with attention-deficit, racing thoughts, intrusive thinking, or other problems cannot practice mindfulness
Even though mindfulness does not turn off or make problems go away, it is a set of skills you can practice to eventually minimize the impacts of these problems on your life. For example, if your problem was racing thoughts, you would simply notice when they distract you (gently and non-judgmentally), and then turn your mind to the chosen focus of your attention. If your problem is attention deficits, then practicing the skill of (re)focusing your attention (i.e., mindfulness) is perfect for you!
• Children, people with cognitive disabilities, or (insert another category of people) cannot do mindfulness
Watch young children eat, play with their toys, and explore. They are engrossed, and there. This is mindfulness. People of most developmental and cognitive levels have the ability to focus their attention and connect to the present moment, and can have that ability fostered. To this end, having a parent, friend, or loved one practice mindful engagement with them will gently pull along their mindfulness skills, even if they cannot explain mindfulness conceptually. For those without abstract thought, we simply make explanations of mindfulness more concrete. Smell the flowers, and blow out the candles.
• You are unable to do mindfulness
See above, and also remember that you already practice mindfulness sometimes, with some things, in some places. Where and with doing what do you find yourself totally connected and inhabiting the moment? Maybe it is when you play an instrument or sport, or when you are doing a hobby, or into the flow of your work. Maybe it’s when you are in your garden, cooking, or connecting spiritually. Use existing times of mindfulness to branch out and develop your skills, remembering that mindfulness is like any other skill-set: You get out of it what you put into it. Practice your practice, and the rewards will come with time.