De-bunking Myths about Mindfulness
By Emily Hanna, LLMSW
In recent years, “mindfulness” has become a buzzword holding the promise for mental clarity, and as the antidote to stress, sadness, anxiety, burnout, and addiction. While its resurgence into mainstream Western culture has prompted more accessible ways for people to learn about and practice mindfulness, it has also made the meaning of mindfulness reductive and elusive. While numerous studies show mindfulness practice to produce myriad of positive effects, these are often touted in mainstream media to be an instantaneous “chill pill”. This promise can cause people to become frustrated when they hop off the cushion with the promise of “mental clarity” and “instant stress relief” unfulfilled.
The following is a list of common “myths” about mindfulness, de-bunked, in order to clarify some questions people may face when deciding whether or not to begin a mindfulness practice. It is important to hold in mind that mindfulness is meant to change one’s relationship to one’s experience – not change one’s experience itself.
1. Mindfulness only takes place sitting on a cushion or lying down.
As defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), mindfulness is “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally”. It is not, as often advertised, to be a practice of clearing one’s mind – but instead, it is a practice of tuning into one’s mind and external surroundings. Formal practice on a cushion is simply one way to practice for what takes place off the cushion, in real life.
Mindfulness can be accessed at any time, whether you’re savoring your morning cup of coffee, paying attention to a rudimentary task, such as washing dishes or brushing your teeth, or simply tuning into your surroundings and internal experience while walking. Whatever you are doing, you can apply the principles of mindfulness: paying attention in the present moment, without judgment, and simply noting your internal and external experience.
2. I cannot practice mindfulness because my mind is too active.
“Monkey mind” is a Buddhist term for a mind that feels “uncontrollable” or “restless”. In the age of constant smartphone notifications and “the culture of busyness,” the feeling of “monkey mind” is all too common. While practicing mindfulness, every mind wanders to thoughts of the past and the future. This is what minds do. In the context of mindfulness, this is expected and normal. The practice of mindfulness cultivates the ability to simply note the thought - or even thank your mind for doing its job - and then gently ushering your attention back to your present point of focus. The practice of redirecting back to the present without judgment is the practice.
3. The more I practice mindfulness, the easier it will become.
Just like learning anything new, mindfulness requires practice. However, one cannot count on their internal or external circumstances to be the same from day to day. Therefore, mindfulness is firmly a practice and not a destination. One may experience fewer thoughts straying from the present moment one day, and the next, feel a strong pull from thoughts to the past and future. This does not mean you are “doing it wrong” – it is just another experience to acknowledge, without judgment.
4. Practicing mindfulness will always feel good and leave me feeling less stressed.
It is commonly thought that mindfulness is meant to solely to tune into positive feelings or produce a feeling of calm. However, in the context of mindfulness, emotions are neither good nor bad – they are simply fleeting internal experiences. Mindfulness can be a powerful tool to examine difficult emotions. As mindfulness is about paying attention to what is here now, it is applied to one’s spectrum of emotions, and not just what feels pleasant.
5. I cannot fit a mindfulness practice into my schedule.
As mentioned above, mindfulness can be practiced in a multitude of ways by tuning into your internal experience and external surroundings. You can start by picking just one activity, such as cooking, walking, or drinking a warm beverage, to do mindfully every day.
Apps are also a useful tool to begin a mindfulness practice that can easily fit into a busy schedule. A few recommendations include:
Headspace - an app that gives you the option to practice the “basics” of mindfulness for 5 or 10 minutes a day, and offers more meditations tailored to more specific needs. They also offer 1-3 minutes short, restorative meditations.
Calm - another app with a free introduction option, with premium content tailored to more specific meditative practices.
Insight Timer – this app offers guided and non-guided meditation options, as well as a library of meditative courses.
For those who may benefit from specialized mindfulness instruction, Grove Emotional Health Collaborative offers individual mindfulness sessions with two experienced mindfulness teachers, as well as a wide range of mindfulness and meditation groups.