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How People Misunderstand Mindfulness

Are you enjoying the full benefits of mindfulness?

Key points

  • Awareness and acceptance of whatever comes to mind are components of mindfulness.
  • Sometimes people practice mindfulness so that the two components are unrelated or even at odds with each other.
  • Those who equate mindfulness with stress relief may misunderstand the concept and potentially undermine its long-term benefits.
Public Domain/Pixaby
Source: Public Domain/Pixaby

Mindfulness is a state of mind that can help people engage with life more effectively. However, some people seem to believe that mindfulness is just about stress relief. This is potentially a problem because when people focus their mindfulness practice on reducing or avoiding short-term stress, they may fail to enact behaviors that more effectively help them engage with life and manage their stressors over the long term.

Mindfulness is often thought of as a form of consciousness that allows people to become aware of the contents of their minds and accept those contents non-judgmentally. This psychological openness allows people to respond less impulsively to situations, to act instead of reacting, and to conduct themselves in a way that better helps them engage with life’s challenges.

However, recent research suggests that sometimes people misunderstand what mindfulness is all about and orient themselves to their mindfulness practice in a way that can reduce their tendency to reflect upon their experiences, thus compromising their ability to navigate the stressors they face effectively.

As suggested above, mindfulness has two primary components – an awareness component that involves paying attention to the contents of consciousness. An acceptance component involves being open to whatever comes up in one’s mind, regardless of whether it is pleasant or disagreeable.

Suppose these two components are operating together effectively. In that case, awareness and acceptance should be strongly associated with each other, and both components should demonstrate positive associations with people’s tendency to engage with the vagaries of life. But research that my colleagues and I have recently conducted demonstrates that this is not always the case. Sometimes people practice mindfulness so that the two components are unrelated or even at odds with each other.

First, we conducted a meta-analysis, which is a process that statistically combines multiple studies on a topic. Our meta-analysis focused on a common measure of mindfulness to see if the awareness and acceptance components would be related to each other in three different samples: an expert sample, a clinical sample, and a sample of everyday folks. We found that the two components were positively associated with each other in the first two samples. Still, among everyday folks, they were not positively associated. They were sometimes negatively associated.

This means that more awareness is sometimes associated with less acceptance among people with little mindfulness training or practice. This is problematic because failing to accept the contents of consciousness is not a recipe for effective engagement with life’s challenges. As I’ve noted in a prior posting, mindful awareness without acceptance can lead to trouble.

Second, using different samples from the general population, we looked at the relationship between the two components of mindfulness and some outcomes representing engagement and disengagement. Specifically, we looked at the outcomes of wise reasoning, cognitive reappraisal, and suppression.

Wise reasoning involves adapting to challenging situations by taking others’ perspectives, searching for compromises, and considering diverse viewpoints. Cognitive reappraisal involves reframing situations to alter their meaning or emotional content. Both wise reasoning and cognitive reappraisal involve actively engaging with situations. Suppression reflects disengagement and involves inhibiting emotional expression.

Although the results were not unambiguous, we found that the awareness component of mindfulness was positively associated with wise reasoning and cognitive reappraisal. Still, the acceptance component was negatively associated with these outcomes. Also, the acceptance component was positively associated with suppression. These results, again, show that sometimes awareness and acceptance can work at cross-purposes and suggest that sometimes people interpret acceptance, or “not reacting” to their experiences, as simply denying or hiding their impact.

Sometimes, people misunderstand the acceptance component of mindfulness as involving the avoidance of difficult issues instead of conceiving it as an openness to experience that can foster more, not less, engagement with life.

These results show us two things. First, when people engage in mindfulness without much instruction, knowledge, or practice, they may fail to implement the two components in a way that is faithful to the concept of mindfulness. Second, by practicing mindfulness improperly, people may be undermining their ability to engage with life’s challenges instead of promoting them.

Mindfulness is meant to help us participate fully in life. To be sure, reducing stress and other desirable outcomes such as relaxation may be associated with mindfulness, but these represent outcomes of mindfulness, not the process of mindfulness itself. Practicing mindfulness successfully involves being accepting of the contents of consciousness to consider our thoughts, emotions, and circumstances so we can conduct ourselves more effectively.

But this openness is not the end goal of mindfulness. It is only a stepping stone – a waystation on the path to active engagement with life. Those who equate mindfulness with stress relief misunderstand the concept and potentially undermine the long-term benefits mindfulness can provide.