Mindfulness is in the headlines. Time recently devoted a cover story to the subject. The essence of mindfulness is paying careful attention to your present experience, whether it be a sight, a sound, a taste, a smell, a sensation in the body, or mental activity (such as an emotion or thought).
I’ve been studying and practicing mindfulness from a Buddhist perspective for over 20 years. Its entry into mainstream culture is a positive development; studies even attest to its health benefits. But I also think there are several misconceptions floating around. This piece covers seven myths about mindfulness.
Myth #1: Mindfulness is ethically neutral.
The Buddha didn’t just teach mindfulness. He taught what’s variously called “right mindfulness,” “wholesome mindfulness,” “skillful mindfulness.” I take this to mean that there’s “wrong mindfulness,” “unwholesome mindfulness,” “unskillful mindfulness.” Mindfulness as a practice is inseparable from the intentions of the person practicing it. It is tied to 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’ve started defining mindfulness as “caring attention to the present moment.” Caring attention is characterized by an intention not to harm and by the proactive intention to be kind, compassionate, and generous. And so when, with mindfulness, 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, 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 connected to 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 can be remembering to be mindful! It does get easier with practice, 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’re likely to 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 a major component 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 every activity, 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 yogurt 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 when 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!
I wrote about the six benefits of mindfulness outside of meditation here.
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. 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 and kindness.
Myth #6: Mindfulness is passive.
Mindfulness can be used in a relatively passive way—to rest and calm the mind—and this has many documented health benefits, from relieving stress to lowering blood pressure. But mindfulness can also be used as a wisdom or insight practice, providing invaluable 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 see 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 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.
And finally, 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.
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 talk to a trained meditation teacher (with experience in these matters) or a counselor who can help you resolve these issues.
Speaking personally, 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 only makes 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.
© 2014 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I'm the author of three books:
How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow (2013). Section Two is devoted to mindfulness and includes many practices, both in and outside of meditation.
All of my books are available in audio format from Amazon, audible.com, and iTunes.
Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information and buying options.
You might also like these two pieces: "Mindfulness: The Gift of Taking Refuge in the Present Moment" and "Mindfulness: Potent Medicine for Easing Physical Suffering."