- Mindfulness is inseparable from the intentions of the person practicing it.
- Practicing mindfulness outside of meditation has many benefits.
- The present moment is not always a pleasant moment.
- The practice of mindfulness does not conflict with religious beliefs.
“Mindfulness” has entered the mainstream culture. Many definitions are floating around, but they all have one thing in common: pay attention! In my view, mindfulness means paying caring attention to your present moment experience, whether it be a sight, a sound, a taste, a smell, a sensation in the body, or mental activity (the latter includes emotions and thoughts).
I’ve been studying and practicing mindfulness from a Buddhist perspective for 30 years. While there may be physical and mental health benefits, there are several misconceptions about it. This post covers five of them.
1. Mindfulness is ethically neutral
The Buddha didn’t just teach mindfulness. He taught what’s called “right mindfulness” or, my preferred phrase, “skillful mindfulness.” This suggests that there is “unskillful mindfulness.” I would agree because mindfulness is inseparable from the intentions of the person practicing it. It is tied to the Buddhist precept of non-harm, which means that mindfulness is not ethically neutral. The focused attention of a sniper who is looking through the sight of a rifle would not be mindfulness as taught by the Buddha because mindfulness cares.
Caring attention to the present moment is characterized by the intention not to harm and by the intention to be kind, compassionate, and generous. This means that when you become aware that a person is suffering, you do what you can to help, even if you’re only able to silently wish for the person’s suffering to ease.
In addition, with caring attention, you’re better able to become aware of how your actions might be harmful to you. For example, if you have a drinking problem, focusing on a row of whiskey bottles in the grocery store may be careful attention, but it’s unlikely to be caring attention because the odds are high that it will increase your suffering as opposed to alleviating it.
2. Mindfulness is to be practiced only during meditation
Not so. At meditation retreats, mindfulness outside of meditation is a major component of the retreat. Participants are instructed to walk mindfully, eat mindfully, and do their chores mindfully.
Practicing mindfulness outside of meditation not only heightens your awareness of every activity but also gives you insight into how your mind works. You’ll start to see circumstances in which you’re caught up in an intense desire. As in: “Forget eating mindfully; I have to eat fast or second helpings of cake might be gone.”
And you’ll start to see circumstances in which you’re caught up in aversion and even anger. As in: “I don’t like the schedule at this retreat; I absolutely hate being told when to do this and when to do that.” (I’ve been on enough retreats to know that the mind can blow these types of trivial desires and aversions way out of proportion.)
Seeing how your mind gets trapped in desire and aversion allows you to begin the process of changing those habitual reactions that are a source of mental and emotional suffering for you. This is the investigative quality of mindfulness, and it holds the promise of learning to greet your present moment experience with equanimity, even when that experience is not to your liking.
There are other benefits to practicing mindfulness outside of meditation, such as learning to appreciate the world around you. Try taking a “mindfulness walk,” paying attention to the sights and sounds arising all around you. As you do this, keep in mind that the goal of mindfulness is not to rid yourself of thoughts. In my experience, that’s impossible because it’s what the mind does—think!
When you’re on a mindfulness walk, treat that mental chatter as just that. Let it arise and pass without aversion. And if you become aware that you're lost in a story that your mind is spinning, gently acknowledge it and then return your attention to the world around you.
If you’d like to read more about this, see: “Six Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness Outside of Meditation.”
3. Mindfulness is synonymous with joy
Paying attention to the present moment if you have a headache or have just fought with your partner is not a joyful experience. The present moment is not always a pleasant moment. That said, 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.”
4. Mindfulness conflicts with religion
There’s no religion-based belief system connected to mindfulness. It simply teaches you to fully engage your present moment experience. This helps you make peace with your life as it is and turns you into a more caring and compassionate person.
And finally, a myth that’s specifically about meditation:
5. Mindfulness meditation is an effective treatment for psychological problems
Although it’s an uncommon reaction when engaged in meditation, if you have unresolved psychological issues (for example, mistreatment by overly critical parents or an unresolved past trauma), these repressed or charged thoughts can come up—issues you may have been keeping at arm’s length or that you didn’t even realize existed.
If this happens, don’t blame yourself. Instead, with kindness and compassion over the suffering you’re feeling, stop meditating and either talk to a meditation teacher who has experience in these matters or consult a mental health practitioner.
My best to everyone.
Section Two of my book, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow, is devoted to mindfulness and includes many practices, both in and outside of meditation.