Last updated 14/09/2023
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What is mindfulness? Mindfulness is paying attention to things that are happening in the present moment. That's it! Often the word 'non-judgemental' is included, because if your attention is engaged with making judgements, it is not focused on something in the present moment. There are different ways of getting into this state that involve developing calmness (e.g. focus on the breath) or developing compassion (e.g. loving-kindness or metta). There are also different “accompanying contemplations”, like the idea that everything is temporary, the idea that everything is linked in a cause-and-effect chain (e.g. dependent origination), the idea that there is no stable self, or the idea that attachment is the root of suffering. These are extra bits that surround the practice of mindfulness, though, and if they are overwhelming can be left until later. This post isn't about an approach to mindfulness, or meditation, it is about what mindfulness is, and some of the myths around mindfulness that either become barriers to mindfulness, or take people down a different path.
There is a lot of confusion about what mindfulness is. Why is this? I think there are several reasons. Firstly, people often assume that mindfulness and meditation are the same thing. Mindfulness is often developed during mindfulness meditation, and so it makes sense that people might use these words interchangeably, especially if you aren't talking about mindfulness or meditation on a very consistent basis. There is research into mindfulness, and there is research into meditation, and there is research into mindfulness meditation, and so the outcomes might get blended together if people aren't unusually interested in the details of the methods sections of these research papers.
Mindfulness is the act of paying attention to something happening in the present, and meditation is a practice of sitting and doing something structured with the mind. There is mindfulness meditation, but there are different meditations, as well, from various cultural backgrounds around the world.
It's also possible that some confusion exists because our culture often encourages positive thinking, staying strong, getting over things, or in some form moving emotions and thoughts along, and the idea that you can pay attention to these emotions and thoughts without moving them along might seem counterintuitive or unhelpful.
Add to this the idea that moving past thoughts and emotions is so strongly embedded in our culture because it is an approach to functioning that is often successful in the short term, and going in the opposite direction might be something that feels distinctly wrong. When something goes directly against what we want to do and what we are encouraged to do, it's easy to misinterpret. It's also really easy to come up with reasons not to do something we don't want to do.
But misconceptions about what mindfulness is don't need to discourage people who would otherwise be interested in practicing it. So I wanted to look at some common myths that block or derail mindfulness:
Myth 1: Mindfulness is about clearing the mind of thoughts
Many forms of mindfulness meditation involve the instruction to notice when your mind is wandering and bring your attention back to the object you are supposed to be attending to. This is an attempt to try to prevent you from getting stuck in a spiral where you lose awareness of what is happening in the present moment because you are focused on the past or the future.
Have you ever had the experience of sitting for a while, thinking about something, then going on and doing something else and forgetting what you thought about? Or going to a different room and then forgetting why? This can happen when we become so engrossed in our thoughts that they sort of carry themselves along, and we aren't even really conscious or aware of them.
This doesn't mean though, that you shouldn't have any thoughts at all. The historical Buddha was a major proponent of mindfulness, and the goal there was to develop insight into suffering and the mind, and eventually achieve enlightenment. Not having thoughts would make it difficult to gain insight into these suffering and the mind. The difference is thoughts as a wandering current that is forgotten about, compared to thoughts to which we pay conscious attention.
Let's compare two scenarios, one being mind wandering and one being mindful thoughts.
Mind wandering: I need to get this project finished (attention is focused on the future)... I wonder what I should have for dinner tonight? (attention is focused on the future)... I need to catch up on that TV show (attention is focused on both the past and the future)... Is there a bill I forgot to pay? (attention is focused on the future)... (this may continue for some time, after which you suddenly "come to" and realise that you have been doing nothing for a while, but you might not really remember everything you have been thinking about, and might not act on any of the thoughts or understand why they appeared).
Mindful thoughts: I need to get this project finished (attention is focused on the future). I'm having the thought that I need to get this project finished. My mind must be trying to motivate me. Thank you, mind (attention is brought back to the present by attending to a thought that the mind generated). I wonder what I should have for dinner tonight? (attention is focused on the future) My mind has wandered to my dinner plans. It's natural for the mind to wander in search of something to look forward to. Thank you, mind (attention is brought back to the present by attending to a thought that the mind generated). I need to catch up on that TV show (attention is focused on the past and the future). My mind is again searching for something to look forward to. I wonder why it is searching? Is it perhaps trying to distract me from some discomfort? Thank you for looking out for me, mind (attention is brought back to the present by attending to a thought that the mind generated). Is there a bill I forgot to pay? (attention is focused on the future) My mind is circling back to trying to avoid discomfort, this time by trying to predict things that may go wrong. Thank you for trying to protect me, mind (attention is brought back to the present by attending to a thought that the mind generated).
This example also includes personifying and showing gratitude for the mind, which isn't neccesary but can be helpful.
Myth 2: Mindfulness is about becoming calm
Some forms of meditation are intentionally focused on calming the mind, and many of these meditations are quite valuable. However, becoming calm isn't specifically a goal of mindfulness. Becoming calm can be part of some approaches to mindfulness, because it might be easier to be mindful if you aren't feeling anxious. But if we say that mindfulness is about bringing your attention to the present moment, it makes sense to say that this is possible whether you are calm or not, and so while becoming calm might be a side effect of mindfulness, or it might help you to be mindful, it isn't the core goal.
Myth 3: Mindfulness is something you can be bad at
Many people try to sit down and practice mindfulness, and find that their mind wanders quite a lot. This is normal. This also doesn't mean that you are bad at mindfulness. Mindfulness can involve noticing when your mind has wandered.
The moment you realise your mind has wandered is a moment of mindfulness, and that is a moment and a realisation that can be celebrated, rather than something to feel bad about.
Myth 4: Mindfulness requires a significant time investment
Mindfulness can be more intensively developed through regular mindfulness meditation, but the quality of paying attention to the present is something that you can do at any time. If you try to remember to ask yourself 'What am I noticing in this moment?'' as often as you can throughout your day, you are being mindful.
Myth 5: Mindfulness doesn't work
This is related to other myths about the goal of mindfulness or being bad at mindfulness. If the goal of mindfulness were to be calm, or to clear the mind of thoughts, or if it were possible to be bad at it, then it would make sense to say that sometimes it doesn't work, and sometimes it can't work because a person is so bad at it. But if the goal is to be aware of what is happening in the present, there is no "working".
Why would anyone do it if this is the only goal? Here is where I need to prompt my future self to include a future link to a post I haven't written yet on implicit memory and the process of change in therapy. It will likely have something to do with the idea that therapy is about updating implicit memory or the subconscious to more accurately reflect the present reality. Accepting and tolerating thoughts can also be easier when we understand why they are there. From a scientific standpoint, the 'neuronal workspace theory of consciousness' suggests that the mind organises around things that are at the centre of our attention, which might be why sudden moments of self-insight can result in emotional changes. In that sense, the practice of mindfulness can be more than just a 'present moment' exercise; it could be a gateway to a deeper understanding of ourselves, a resolution of internal conflict, or a pathway to acceptance.
If you would like to know more about mindfulness, or different approaches to mindfulness, here are some resources:
With Each and Every Breath: This is a free, short e-book, written by a Buddhist monk. Something this accessible and authentic doesn't come along every day.
The Mind Illuminated: This is a longer, paid book written by someone who was both a neuroscientist and a Buddhist monk.
Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: This is also available for free, and presents a modern approach to achieving enlightenment through mindfulness.