The Myths of Mindfulness

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Photo by Erik Brolin

Mindfulness might be considered a household word these days and in its dissemination, it has been mischaracterized in a number of ways. It is a state of being that can be cultivated with practice, involving purposeful, yet gentle and compassionate, sustained attention to present moment experience. By cultivating mindfulness, we begin to see things more clearly, making space for wise responding.

One becomes like that which is in one’s mind – this is the everlasting secret. – Raimon Panikkar

Although it sounds simple, it isn’t easy and this is where much of the confusion arises. In this post, we’ll explore the most common myths I encounter about mindfulness through my work as a psychologist and mindfulness teacher:

  1. Its Pure Bliss – mindfulness allows us to be open to and learn from all experience, not just the pleasant stuff.
  2. Its Selfish – the practices cultivate compassion and reap benefits for both self AND others.
  3. Its All Woo – there is a growing body of scientific research supporting the benefits of mindfulness.
  4. Its a Quick Fix – the practices take time, patience and persistence to develop.
  5. Its a Cure-All – although the practices can be quite helpful, they are not a panacea.

Myth #1: Its Pure Bliss – the purpose of mindfulness is to relax & stop thinking.

Many new practitioners feel concern or frustration when they do not achieve relaxation, a sense of peacefulness, or a mind free of thoughts when they meditate or try any of the other mindfulness practices. In fact, there are some that are so attached to experiencing “bliss” that they quickly become discouraged and give up.

The real goal of mindfulness is liberation from suffering. By consistently directing bare attention to phenomena we gain insight into reality and free ourselves from the conditioning and habits that color our experiences.

Many times we do indeed feel relaxed during practice and our minds become relatively still. At other times the mind is full of incessant chatter. Striving to “empty” it gets us nowhere. In addition, some of what we encounter in practice can be uncomfortable, unpleasant or unwanted. We may experience boredom, anxiety, restlessness, or sensations of pain in the body. Not all phenomena are peace inducing and insisting on bliss will only add to our suffering.

Instead, we set an intention to be open to and present with what is, whether pleasant or unpleasant, wanted or unwanted. We develop insight into and a new relationship with our thoughts, feelings, and urges to action. Over time we are freed from the grasping and aversion that initially drove our behavior and caused much of our suffering.

The take away: Don’t be discouraged when you encounter difficulty in your mindfulness practice. When it happens, it doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong. Instead, try to cultivate patience, beginner’s mind and a spirit of friendly curiosity so that you can see it more clearly and relate to it with greater wisdom.

Myth #2: Its Selfish – mindfulness is navel-gazing

I had a client once tell me, “Mindfulness just feels indulgent.” Many new practitioners, including myself in the beginning, experience a nagging sense of guilt about time spent in practice. On the surface it may seem more valuable or caring to spend half an hour checking off items from the never-ending to-list, earning money for the family, or socializing with loved ones than sitting on a cushion watching our breathing or placing our bodies into odd postures and noticing internal sensations.

Waking up is not a selfish pursuit of happiness, it is a revolutionary stance, from the inside out, for the benefit of all beings in existence ― Noah Levine

It is true that practice is for you first – through practice you naturally become a benefactor. However, the ripple effects of devoted practice make it an act of great compassion for others as well. Practice enables us to be our best selves, which, in turn, makes space for others to be at their best, if they so choose.

When we are operating on autopilot as most ordinarily do, we are more likely to react emotionally through a thick veil of bias and attachment. Through our practice we begin to awaken – we see things more clearly and we are better able to respond wisely.

Navel-gazing implies getting lost in the minutia at the expense of the seeing the bigger picture. However, it is through attending to moment by moment experience on a granular level that we begin to see the big picture – the interdependence and impermanence of all things. Without this understanding, we are living a story of how things should be rather than resting in the wisdom of how things are.

Building and maintaining a mindfulness practice actually takes courage, strength, discipline and devotion. The benefits accrue incrementally and over time, so consistency and dedication are important. Conviction, which is a sort of faith or freedom from doubt that is cultivated through experience, helps us persevere through all of life’s changes. Finally, courage brings with it a willingness to: 1) sit with difficulty rather than avoiding or fighting against it, and 2) let go of expectations, desires and preferences in order to attend to what is.

Myth #3: Its All Woo – mindfulness is hippy dippy nonsense

Some may see mindfulness as nothing more than a passing fad, new age pseudoscience, magical thinking, or religious mumbo jumbo. Mindfulness is certainly not a passing fad as it has been around since the first century BCE. Although the concept of mindfulness originated from the teachings of the Buddha as related and passed down by followers and admirers, there is solid science providing objective evidence of the benefits of practice. Its recognition in US medicine grew out of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979, so it has been well-respected here for several decades.

Mindfulness is made up of a variety of formal and informal practices such as meditation, mindful movement, and intuitive or mindful eating. Research shows that meditation is correlated with differences in the structure, function and neural patterns of the brain such as increased activation in areas related to emotional regulation and positive affect, greater cognitive flexibility, faster processing speed, improved concentration and working memory, and slower age related cortical thinning.

Meditation has also been correlated with a number of physical and behavioral health benefits in children and adults. These include enhanced immune function, decreased stress, faster return to baseline cortisol levels after stress, decreases in depression, anxiety, anger, and rumination, reduced emotional reactivity, improved communication and relationships, and less implicit bias.

Mindful or intuitive eating corresponds in the research with reduced episodes of binge eating, lower cortisol levels and decreased anxiety among stress eaters, improved BMI, weight loss or decreased abdominal fat, improved glycemic control, increased fiber intake, and increased vegetable and lower animal product, trans fat and sugar consumption.

A relationship has been shown in the research between yoga or mindful movement and improvements in quality of life, physical fitness and cardiovascular health, strength, and flexibility, as well as reduced stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia, and improvements in neck and back pain and related functioning.

For a citation of the research referenced in this blog post, please visit our Mindfulness Research page. Take a look and see for yourself that mindfulness practices are not just exercises in metaphysical speculation. Rather, mindfulness offers us an additional set of useful tools for our growing health and wellbeing toolkit.

Myth #4: Its a Quick Fix – a little meditation will cure all that ails you

Researchers are discovering a number of benefits that appear to be correlated with mindfulness practices. In fact, many of these benefits can be seen in a relatively short period of time and with surprisingly limited exposure. However, mindfulness practices are called practices because for most people they require consistent, repeated use over time in order to develop. They are not a cure, but a new way of relating to experience. It just so happens that this new way of being, over time, often brings with it a decrease in suffering.

From time to time I encounter clients who are frustrated with or disappointed by a perceived lack of progress after a relatively short period of practice (such as an 8-week course). They have some important goals in mind and they feel they have not yet achieved them. As human beings, it is habitual for us to create expectations, measure ourselves by comparison, and strive for results. However, when we apply these conditioned ways of doing things to our mindfulness practice, we miss the point.

Mindfulness is about being rather than doing. It requires a beginner’s mind, which means letting go, as best we can, of preconceived notions and expectations. It also requires non-judgment, or curious observation rather than grasping after what is wanted and rejecting what is unwanted. We are just allowing things to be as they are and learning from what we encounter. In striving for an impressive result, we miss the subtleties of our experience. The benefits of a mindfulness practice can be quite subtle – I like to say it happens “millimeter by millimeter” and is easily missed. However, the subtlest of changes are often the most profound and lasting.

Myth #5: Its a Panacea – mindfulness will solve all my problems

With all of the hype in the media about mindfulness, it may be tempting to see it as a panacea – a cure for whatever ails you, a strategy for self-improvement, or a formula for getting what you want out of life. Unfortunately, this view often leads fledgling practitioners to disappointment, causing them to give up on the practices all together.

While mindfulness practices can indeed result in useful changes, it is a gradual evolution that unfolds in its own time by opening to and allowing what is rather than an effortful resistance to what is unwanted or straining toward what is wanted. Striving for results is a rejection of what is, and this is antithetical to the practice of mindfulness.

It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them. – Aldous Huxley, Island

What many practitioners discover in time is that the things that tended to historically bother us, trip us up, or cause us distress us do not just magically disappear. Rather, we learn to relate to difficulty in new way. We discover on an experiential level (not just intellectually) that we are not the thoughts and emotions that compound our suffering – the assumptions, expectations, rumination, judgments, and worry that plague the untrained mind. Through a willingness to be with that which is unwanted, but is already here, we begin to decenter from it, becoming less personally identified with it.

Difficult thoughts and emotions still arise and we remain aware of them, but they no longer take a leading role in our experience. With practice we get better at witnessing and observing phenomena, rather than getting caught up and swept away by thoughts and emotions. The associated feeling tone may become less intense, reactivity decreases, and space is created for more skillful responding (or non-responding). The subtle consequences of this new way of being reinforce the practice through the creation of a beneficial cycle. We gain the courage needed to face ever-greater difficulty with equanimity. Self-compassion increases as we better understand our habits and patterns. Wisdom grows as we see things more clearly, free from the veil of a biased narrative.

People who struggle with various human afflictions will not be cured by the practice of mindfulness, but they may find they can cope more effectively and experience less suffering. When we approach the practices with a beginner’s mind, momentarily setting aside our dreams and goals, the fruits of our efforts ripen, even without undue interference on our parts.

You once told me
You wanted to find
Yourself in the world –
And I told you to
First apply within,
To discover the world
within you.

You once told me
You wanted to save
The world from all its wars –
And I told you to
First save yourself
From the world,
And all the wars
You put yourself
Through.

– Suzy Kassem, Apply Within

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