I talk about mindfulness a lot.
Every day type of a lot.
It’s a primary part of what I do for a living, how I live my life, and what I see as important.
I think it matters. I think it’s the antidote to this dream (nightmare for some) that we are all living in. I think it is a return to our true nature, and that this can’t help but help us.
I also think it has become a fad and that it has been co-opted by many institutions and hierarchies as a way to keep people happy in crappy situations. It can certainly be exploitative in the wrong hands, and it can become a way of suppressing difficult things when practiced incorrectly.
Let’s look at some misconceptions about mindfulness.
Misconception #1: Mindfulness and meditation are interchangeable words.
This is probably the most pervasive misconception, and it’s more than simple semantics. Mindfulness is a kind of meditation, an aspect of meditation, so it is not interchangeable. Mindfulness refers to a set of practices that encourage us to allow things to arise and fall as they are, to come and go as they please, without attachment, without clinging or rejecting. It is a nonjudgmental awareness and observation of what is happening.
This is different from many other practices that involve strong concentration and focus. It is much different than meditations involving visualization or creation of mental objects for the purpose of relaxation or refuge from difficult emotional states. And this is exactly why it’s more than semantic nitpicking.
I often have people come to me to learn mindfulness so they can relax, but mindfulness is often far from relaxing. It can, in fact, be anxiety-inducing and very difficult to practice, especially if a person has trauma in their past or deals with overwhelming emotions of some kind. Our minds, in an effort to protect us, often build walls and other ways of protecting us from things we may have a difficult time sitting with or accepting in their fullness. We all have ways of avoiding or stepping away from things when they get too intense. While there is good in slowly wearing away these defenses and protections so that we can fully engage the world and our lives as they truly are, this is very hard. It is a little uncaring to throw someone into this without helping them know how to retreat to safety first, and may actually be dangerous for people who are dealing with some kind of disorder or serious trauma.
This is all further complicated by the fact that a deep mindfulness practice is all but impossible without initial training in maintaining a steady awareness (keeping your focus on one thing) because of the mind’s inherent tendency to run amok and chase thoughts. To put it shortly, not only is mindfulness not synonymous with meditation, you need to develop other kinds of meditation to practice it in a truly useful way.
Misconception #2: Mindfulness is a magical cure-all
This is the second most prevalent misconception I see, and it is due largely to the recent and present fad around mindfulness. This happens with all fads, and is part of the reason they die out. People go into them with very unrealistic expectations, so they are inevitably disappointed by the results. This tends to sour them to the entire enterprise.
Mindfulness has not escaped this trap. I have people coming to me asking for training in mindfulness so that they won’t be sad anymore, so they will stop getting angry or so they can quit using drugs or drinking easily.
Don’t get me wrong: a mindful lifestyle can very much help with these things, but it requires discipline and patience – it’s a practice, and a lot of hard work goes into being able to observe your experience with equanimity. We’ll talk more about that in a minute, but for now, let’s look at the things mindfulness won’t do for you.
Mindfulness will not keep you from ever getting angry or anxious or sad or jealous. It won’t prevent disappointment and it won’t keep you from ever having bad dreams. Mindfulness will not end your addictions or fix your marriage or make you the perfect parent. It won’t get you to work on time, it won’t mow your lawn, it will not help you find something better to watch on TV.
But here’s the thing – everything I just listed is part of being a human being. It’s part of this grand experience called life, and we shouldn’t seek to be free of it or avoid any of it. All of these things are real and true and we need to embrace them because they aren’t going away. Mindfulness can help us do that.
Cultivating a nonjudgmental awareness of the present, of what is going on right here and right now, opens up so many possibilities for us. It really is amazing how our life changes when we learn to recognize the difference between a situation we are experiencing and our thoughts about a situation we are experiencing. It really is a whole different world when we learn to recognize that we are not our thoughts or our opinions, and that having thoughts or opinions about things beyond our control does not serve us.
So you will still get angry and anxious and sad and jealous and disappointed and this is good because you are a human being and these emotions are part of being a human being. But a mindfulness practice can help take the edge off of these things and allow us to see them as what they are – warning lights on life’s dashboard. Something to notice, something to address, but not something to be driven or controlled by.
You will still struggle with addictions and marital trouble and parenting decisions, but a mindfulness practice can help you address them all more intentionally and purposefully. It can help you recognize the impulses and drives that are feeding the addiction, or the leftover memories and struggles from your own childhood that are bringing you distress as a parent. It can help you see your own expectations and fears that are driving unhealthy behavior in your relationships. It can make mowing the lawn a time to calmly abide in the moment rather than a chore.
All of this is possible, and even guaranteed with practice, but that leads us to our next misconception.
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Misconception #3: Mindfulness is automatically easy and peaceful and freeing and fun
When I first started meditating I thought I would find some sort of peace right off the bat. I’d seen movies where people were calmer and happier – even smarter – almost instantly. They didn’t even need a cool montage to demonstrate rapid progression – it just happened.
It didn’t work that way for me.
The first few times I sat down to meditate, to simply observe my experience, were miserable. I’d spent years building up the walls and protections I mentioned a few paragraphs back, and suddenly sitting in the middle of myself was nauseating. It nearly made me panic, and I couldn’t sit for more than 30 or 40 seconds without getting up in frustration.
I tried all sorts of shortcuts.
I set up a super comfortable little area in the corner of my room – pretty much a blanket fort for grown-ups. Or twentysomethings who are pretending to be grown-ups at least.
I tried listening to classical music while I sat, and when that didn’t work I ordered these binaural beat CD’s off the internet. They promised to get me all Zen in the shortest amount of time, and I was able to sit longer when I listened to them, but I still wasn’t peaceful. I really hated it, in fact.
The idea that we are suddenly going to correct years of running amok in the mind in a few sessions on the cushion is crazy, this is obvious in hindsight. We spend a majority of our waking lives lost in thought, driven by thought and distracted by thought. To believe we are going to fix this immediately is delusional (and nothing more than an idea driven by thought).
I ended up signing up with a meditation center here in town. I would walk to the farthest side of the room before sitting down to ensure maximum disruption if I chickened out and left once the meditation started. I used my ego to conquer my fear.
And it worked. I was there for a year before venturing out to get certified in teaching meditation so I could share it with others. It worked, but it was a difficult process. I see people struggle to different degrees. People with overwhelming emotions or trauma have a longer road to walk much of the time. People who are deeply invested in thought or intellectualism may have a more difficult time, as may people who are deeply invested in the ego due to being very talented or being told they are.
Some things definitely make it more difficult while other things may make it easier, but it doesn’t matter. Mindfulness is a practice everyone can participate in, it just takes a little discipline at the beginning.
There are probably more misconceptions, but let’s move on to what mindfulness is.
At its heart, mindfulness is a simple awareness of what is happening right now. This entails many things.
The sounds you are hearing, what you are smelling and tasting, the temperature of the air on your skin, what you are seeing. Your thoughts and your emotions.
Here’s the deal though: all of this information is tainted by our memories and things we’ve learned and our experience in life. The sight of a rainbow is beautiful unless it reminds you of the day your mother died. The sound of a police siren brings a different response depending on your history with them. The smell of vanilla may remind you of a warm cozy house or that time you got food poisoning. All of this is conditioned and conditional.
This brings us to an important feature of mindfulness: being nonjudgmental of what we are experiencing. This is difficult in and of itself because we are so used to having an opinion on everything. Not just having an opinion, but believing that this opinion is objectively and externally valid in some way. It’s not that I dislike chocolate chip cookies, it is that they are gross. It’s not that the sound of a baby crying bothers me, it is that it is an objectively terrible sound. We do this with so many things, and this puts us in a constant state of tension and opposition with reality.
One of the amazing things mindfulness can do is to help us strip away the layers of conditioned opinions about things, and simply let them be exactly as they are. It can help us arrive at a place where we are meeting reality as it is instead of how we think it should be or what we want from it. These are radically different perspectives.
In short, mindfulness is about returning to a state of being in the world instead of thinking about the world. It’s about being present for our experience instead of allowing it to be mediated by our thoughts, expectations, desires and emotions. It’s about living our lives in a real way.
Once I understood this – really understood it and let go of the misconceptions, it was life-changing. I got certified to teach it and incorporated it into my counseling practice, and my life has never been the same.
Neither will yours.
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