Mindfulness has become a buzzword that is being dropped around every corner. Anxious? Depressed? Overweight? Or even just feeling blah about life? Try mindfulness!
But what is mindfulness and how does it help such a wide range of issues?
It can be described as the practice of intentionally focusing attention on the present moment without judgment. Sounds simple, but there are a number of misconceptions about this age-old practice that get in the way of people trying it and experiencing its many benefits in their lives.
Christine Bates, a therapist at The Ranch rehabilitation center who specializes in mindfulness, clears up a few of the most common misunderstandings:
1. I’ll have to suppress my thoughts and feelings
In practicing self-awareness, it might seem like a logical goal to try to shut out “negative” feelings like sadness, anger or frustration or to stop thinking altogether. But mindfulness is not about selectively pruning out negative or painful thoughts or clearing the mind entirely (which likely would be a fruitless effort), but rather paying attention to the full range of feelings and bodily sensations with an attitude of curiosity and acceptance.
“The goal of mindfulness is not trying to stop thoughts, but to develop tools that can help us stop getting lost in the content of thought,” says Bates. “We also learn to experience feelings without getting carried off, to see that conflicting feelings can live side by side, and to cope with what is happening in our minds without engaging in harmful or self-defeating behaviors.”
In fact, the pain we feel is often the result of trying to deny or resist feelings we don’t want to face. Our bodies then contract and tighten, resulting in both physical and emotional discomfort. One of the first mindfulness exercises Bates introduces is scanning the physical body for areas of pain or tension and then softening and widening around that pain to make room for it, rather than pushing it away.
2. I’ll be physically uncomfortable
When you imagine mindfulness meditation, do you picture someone sitting cross-legged on the floor chanting “Om?” Getting twisted up like a pretzel and making unusual sounds is not a requirement for mindfulness meditation. Many people meditate on a chair, lying down or in any position they find comfortable. It’s helpful to practice mindfulness in all sorts of daily situations, but for regular formal training, Bates recommends creating a peaceful spot where all you do is mindfulness practice. This way, your mind is conditioned to get quiet every time you enter this space.
3. Mindfulness is all about seriousness and suffering
Mindfulness practice is sometimes seen as weighty and solemn – far too serious to be any fun. However, many people find that the times when it’s easiest to be “in the moment” are when they’re at play.
“Mindfulness practice came from Buddhism, but it is a mistranslation of the teaching to say that life is all about suffering,” says Bates. “Mindfulness is a powerful aid to our freedom from suffering. Through practice, we turn toward and get to know our suffering up close instead of pushing it away, so that we can clearly see and let go of its causes. In fact, the people I know who have practiced mindfulness the longest enjoy more freedom from suffering than the average person.”
4. Mindfulness only helps me observe my feelings, it doesn’t help me make changes
We cannot attempt to solve a problem before we understand its scope. Similarly, we can’t make needed changes in our lives without recognizing (observing) what’s wrong.
Writer Anne Lamott says, “My mind is like a bad neighborhood I try not to go into alone.” However, Bates says, the reality is that we live in that neighborhood. “I like what teacher/author Noah Levine says, that by practicing mindfulness, we’re setting up a neighborhood watch.”
“With mindfulness, we’re not just paying attention to what’s going on but we’re doing it in a way that is supportive of ourselves and that opens up options we hadn’t seen before,” says Bates. “We can watch what is going on in our minds, not in a way that is unkind or abusive, but using mindfulness as a firm, caring guardian that has compassion for us and others.”
A growing body of research shows that changing your thought processes through mindfulness meditation can actually change the structure of the brain. By building new connections among brain cells, mindfulness practice can actually rewire the brain, improving the brain’s capacity for self-observation, compassion and creativity and minimizing feelings of depression, anxiety and fear. The more mindfulness is practiced, the better equipped the brain is for change.
5. Mindfulness is useful only for stress relief
Mindfulness is a practice that often begins with identifying and releasing tension in the body. As such, it can be a powerful stress reducer, but it is much more than that. It can provide freedom from suffering on a much deeper scale. It provides tools people can use to self-soothe rather than turn to substance abuse or other harmful behaviors. It helps people realize that their thoughts do not define them; that they do not need to identify with what’s happening in the mind. Going into a mindfulness session with the limited goal of reducing stress can, paradoxically, undermine its benefits.
6. Mindfulness is a religious practice
The formal development of mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism and is a practice encouraged in many religions, but it is not itself a religious practice. Mindfulness is both a human trait and a practice that helps us cultivate that trait. Think of it as strengthening the mind in the same way you would exercise the muscles in your body. Mindfulness has been proven to be an effective complement to treatment for a wide range of physical and mental illnesses, regardless of the individual’s spiritual beliefs.
7. Mindfulness is just some New Age fad
Although it has gained a broader following in recent years, mindfulness is by no means a fad. Mindfulness stems from Buddhist meditation practices that reach back over 2,500 years. Western psychology has been impressed in the last 10 years or so by the significant body of research documenting its effectiveness. Between centuries of benefit and years of quantitative evidence, all signs suggest that mindfulness practice is here to stay.
8. Mindfulness practice is quick and easy
So you sit quietly and listen to your mind and body — sounds deceptively simple.
“Our brains have evolved as problem-solving machines,” Bates explains. “This makes it difficult to let it be or to pay attention to something else when there’s pain or discomfort.”
At first, becoming more mindful can be surprisingly uncomfortable, Bates advises. Sitting quietly with oneself and experiencing feelings without reacting can be intimidating. We see the suffering we’re usually too distracted to see, especially in our culture, where success is measured as the ability to make things go our way.
“Through mindfulness practice, people learn that thoughts and feelings arise and may create discomfort, but they also pass,” Bates says. “When people realize their thoughts do not define who they are, that they don’t have to do everything their minds tell them to do, a world of options opens up that they didn’t even know they had.”
Some people believe they can master mindfulness practice in a few weeks; others believe it takes decades of concentrated effort to reap any benefits. The reality is somewhere in between. Indeed, senior practitioners tend to be skilled in quickly achieving a state of mindful awareness, but studies have shown that benefits can accrue in as little as eight weeks.
Mindfulness is a quality and a tool — a very powerful one. It won’t, by itself, bring eternal bliss or answer all of life’s questions, but it can bring a sense of connectedness and peace to the practitioner, which can translate into fewer self-defeating behaviors like substance abuse. It also helps cultivate other qualities, such as wisdom and compassion, that lead ultimately to greater satisfaction, even in difficult circumstances.
Is mindfulness still a mystery to you? Debunk your own misconceptions by giving it a try.