Do frustratingly calm cross-legged figures appear in your mind’s eye? Are they sitting empty minded by beautiful still lakes, displaying expressions of absolute bliss on their calmly smiling faces? Or do you maybe see elderly men sitting on top of mountains, engaging in some mystical communion with a greater Being?
These images are often used by the media to illustrate mindfulness… and, unsurprisingly, they can create a certain amount of cynicism about its value and meaning!
These days, mindfulness is often portrayed as a trendy spiritual self-help technique which will fix all the problems we face in our modern lives. It will relax us, make us more efficient at work, make our children more successful at school, and beat the anxiety and depression epidemics our modern society is facing. How? Easy. All we need to do is to switch our phones off, rid our mind of our worries, chill out, live in the moment and smell the roses! We will then find eternal contentment and maybe even enlightenment (whatever that is).
Well I am sorry to say that mindfulness is not this miraculous technique invented to yield us the unfailing and effortless peace and happiness we dream of!
Although, don’t get me wrong: the current widespread interest in mindfulness is an extremely positive and necessary shift in the busy, mindless, distracted and productivity-focused Western society we live in today.
Nevertheless, there are a number of common ‘mindfulness myths’ which can lead people to be sceptical and even suspicious about the practice of mindfulness. In order to debunk these, below are 10 reflections on what mindfulness is NOT:
1. Getting rid of our thoughts: Have you tried to getting rid of your thoughts? Of course you have, we all have. But it’s intensely frustrating – because it’s impossible. The classic example is trying not to think of a pink elephant for two minutes. Please let me know if you manage it! Instead, mindfulness is about developing greater awareness of our thoughts. Thinking is part of our human experience. Our minds are designed to produce thoughts and often do an amazing job. Practicing mindfulness of our thoughts is effectively becoming acquainted with our minds as they seemingly perform what they are best at!
2. Relaxing: Mindfulness is not about reaching a peaceful state of mind. In fact, trying to relax is often counter-productive. There is no “successful” way to be or feel or think when practising mindfulness. It is more about kindly and curiously turning towards our experience as it is, and noticing what is there, whether we are frustrated, angry, restless, tired calm, joyful or excited. Relaxation is often a by-product of a regular mindfulness practice, but if we focus on achieving a relaxed state while practising, this expectation will get in the way of us simply being aware of what is right now.
3. A self-help technique: In fact, mindfulness is not a ‘technique’ at all. It is more a way of being and quality of mind that is part of us all, but rarely nurtured in our Western culture. It isn’t a technique to put in practice when you want some peace and quiet, nor is it about “taking time out” of life. On the contrary, it’s about taking time to be “with life”, whatever our experience. And it is a way of being that is relevant to us all, whether we are happy or unhappy, calm or agitated, healthy or not.
4. Fixing our problems: In our achievement-focused Western society, we find it hard to understand that mindfulness is not a solution to a problem. It is not a goal-orientated activity. Its long-term practice can be helpful to us in dealing with some of our problems including stress, anxiety and depression. But this is more a by-product of mindfulness practice. Developing awareness and curiosity about life around us and within us is an end in itself. A goal-oriented view of mindfulness may get in the way of simply being with our experience, which is what true mindfulness is about.
5. Giving up planning, future-thinking, or daydreaming: A number of people have asked me: “What if I don’t always want to live in the moment? What about planning and daydreaming? Does this mean I can’t be mindful?”. Of course not. Practising mindfulness does not mean we can’t engage in thought or fantasy. If you are sitting on a train daydreaming of gazing into the eyes of your lover, then, you may choose to indulge those thoughts. If you were in a meeting at work with your boss and you were having similar thoughts, you may need to choose to let them go for a while! Mindfulness is being aware of being lost in thought. Once aware, we can choose whether to pursue the thoughts, or let them go. In this way, we have a choice about where to place our precious attention, at every moment.
6. A religious practice: There is nothing religious about mindfulness. Its practice was inspired mainly by teachings in the Eastern world, from Buddhist traditions. But the training of paying attention to a particular aspect or our experience in order to develop a greater flexibility and strength of mind is relevant to all cultures – and does not depend on any religious beliefs.
7. Sitting back, accepting everything and taking no action: I have read articles claiming that mindfulness is about phasing out and accepting everything. This is not the case by any means. On the contrary, as we develop greater awareness of the reality of life within and around us, we can choose to take more positive action for ourselves and others.
8. Living in isolation: Although mindfulness can be explored on retreats (alone or with others), it can be practised anywhere. In fact, mindfulness is about developing relationships: with ourselves, with others and with the world around us. Its true value is found in everyday life. It is about being present with our experience wherever we are, whoever we are with, and whatever we are doing.
9. Complicated… nor easy: Mindfulness is a simple practice. In this way, there is nothing complex about it. However, it is not easy. Life is often complicated, and when we are suffering, experiencing negative thoughts and feelings, we may feel scared about turning towards them. Practising mindfulness requires courage, resolve, patience and kindly discipline.
10. Serious: Although mindfulness requires regular practice, patience and persistence, it is best not taken too seriously. After all, we are just exploring our experience of life. You can’t succeed, nor can you fail. Mindfulness is best practised with kindness, gentleness, playfulness and a smile!
At its simplest, mindfulness is a gentle invitation to explore our various experiences of life – with the added bonus of some beneficial by-products over time!
Well, I can’t see any good reason to be cynical about that, can you?