5 Myths about Mindfulness

Myth No. 1:
“It’s about positivity”

If ‘positivity’ means always looking on the bright side no matter what, then this is not what mindfulness is really about. Mindfulness does not try manufacture a particular mind state, including happiness. It is very much about noticing how we are actually feeling and seeing if we can bring some kind acceptance to that, even if we are struggling. The idea is to allow ourselves to be with our feelings just as they are, without resistance but with a sense of curiosity. When we take some time to do this, it often happens that any difficult emotions we may be experiencing become more manageable and less intense. It is important to recognize however, that in certain life situations we will inevitably experience emotions such as fear, anger or sadness. Mindfulness doesn’t necessarily stop us from having these emotions but it can help us to navigate our way through them and to recover more quickly from their effects.

Myth No. 2:
“It’s about clearing your mind and stopping your thoughts”

Person on a hill with eyes closed

This is a common misunderstanding about mindfulness. Stopping your thoughts is not unlike trying to stop the waves coming in to shore. People sometimes do experience periods where it seems as if they have stopped thinking but this mind state rarely happens as a direct result of consciously trying to stop your thoughts. In mindfulness meditation, the usual advice is to start noticing the flow of the breath in the body or to pay attention to sounds in the background or to sensations in the body. When the attention of the mind is anchored in this way, it is possible to get a break from the endless stream of thoughts. They usually don’t all go away but we may have a sense that the mind is less busy and we are less distracted by the thoughts in our mind.

Myth No. 3:
“It’s about being relaxed”

Mindfulness meditation is often confused with relaxation exercises and many people turn to mindfulness to become more relaxed. That experience of feeling relaxed after practicing mindfulness is more of a natural side effect than the main objective in being mindful. It is useful to distinguish between mindfulness as a type of alert state of mind which we can bring to any activity whether it might be driving a car, loading the dishwasher or sitting by the bedside of a sick relative, in contrast to the practice of mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation is often done sitting or lying down with eyes closed for perhaps twenty minutes or so.

The purpose of the meditation is to develop that alert state of mind that we mentioned, balanced with a sense of calm and clear-sightedness and a friendly acceptance of ourselves and others as we are in the present moment. We practice this type of mindfulness meditation so that when we are not meditating and going about our ordinary activities, it becomes natural for us to slip into this kind of mindful awareness. When we are mindful, we are less likely to react foolishly to situations and we can respond more skilfully in handling our own and other people’s emotions. When the house is on fire ,we don’t want to be too relaxed but we do want to take quick decisive action and mindful awareness can support us in doing that.

Myth No. 4:
“It’s about being self-indulgent”

Person sitting on dock looking out over body of water

The idea that practicing mindfulness meditation is somehow self-indulgent is very understandable. After all, when someone is engaged in mindfulness meditation it appears that they are basically sitting around doing nothing. Maybe the grass needs to be cut or emails need to be answered. The meditator seems to be just naval gazing, just focussed completely on themselves. Wouldn’t it be much better to be out and about helping others rather than becoming too obsessed about oneself. Admittedly, there are some meditators who have a tendency to be self-obsessed and who use meditation as a way of avoiding the practical demands of everyday life.

However, mindfulness meditation when properly practised, actually promotes greater awareness of others and of the practical things we might need to pay attention to, to keep our lives in balance. Mindfulness works on the ‘oxygen mask principle’ that anyone who has ever flown in an aeroplane will be familiar with. We are told to put on our own mask first before helping someone else (such as a child) to put on theirs. Why? Because if we don’t, without oxygen we may not get an opportunity to help others to put on theirs. Similarly, with mindfulness meditation. We spend some time taking care of our mental health so that not only can we mind ourselves better but we will also be more attuned to others and want to help them if they are struggling.

Myth No. 5:
“It’s about never getting upset”

There is often a tendency in our culture to be judgemental of people who express emotions such as anger or depression or anxiety. We spend a lot of time just trying to ‘look good’ or trying to keep a lid on our emotions. But there can be a price to be paid for this suppression of how we might actually be feeling. On the other hand, we have all seen ourselves and others being out of control and we know the potential dangers of expressing strong emotions. In mindfulness meditation practice, we first learn to accurately recognise what our emotions actually are. We do this by learning to track their effects on our thoughts, seeing the links between body sensations and our state of mind. We also learn to explore how our breathing seems to both reflect how we are feeling and acts as a regulator of those feelings. We learn also that when we are having a hard time emotionally, we tend to criticise ourselves and reject how we are feeling. This kind of non-acceptance and resistance usually makes the situation worse.

Mindfulness meditation encourages us to really pay attention to what is going on inside of us. We are encouraged to do this with a friendly curiosity and sit without resistance and without any agenda, to change how we are feeling. If we do this regularly enough when we are upset, there is often an easing of our emotional difficulty or at the very least, we see what is needed to best take care of ourselves in the situation.

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Dominic Cogan

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