Clearing up some of the myths of mindfulness is a good way to lay the foundations when you start out learning mindfulness.
Some of the myths about mindfulness are common place and such misunderstandings can threaten to put you off the idea of taking your first steps, or lead you to giving up before you have even begun to experience some of its benefits. Just to get you interested, some of the possible benefits of mindfulness include: improved attention and focus, awareness of own mind’s natural patterns and habitual tendencies, greater resilience to life’s ups and downs, an ability to let go of thoughts as just passing events in the mind, and a decrease in anxiety and improved mood. In fact, mindfulness has been well researched as a way to lessen the frequency and severity of recurrent depression. There are many more well documented and researched benefits, but too many for the scope of this article.
Let’s look at some of the things which many people say about mindfulness so you can start fresh with a curious and open mind…
Myth one: Mindfulness is about emptying your mind
The is the biggie. Many people come to mindfulness meditation because they have been told somewhere or read that mindfulness will clear your mind. More than once, in a yoga class or such like, I have heard instructors ask me to ‘clear my mind’. Unfortunately no, this one isn’t going to happen. The human mind is made to think, plan, judge, wonder, create, ruminate and worry. There is no stopping it. In fact, the opposite is true, if you actively try to clear your mind or suppress thoughts, they will stick around even longer. Test this out for yourself: spend a minute or two trying not to think of a giant white polar bear, and try very hard to get rid of this thought. I’ll leave you with that for a moment. What happened?
Thoughts will keep coming because thinking is what our mind was designed to do, so beginning with the intention of creating a mythical blank mind slate is only going to frustrate you. The nugget hidden behind the truth is that you can learn to settle your mind. Think of your mind at times, if you like, as a giant snow globe which has been given a vigorous shake. When you practice mindfulness you can learn to allow the contents of your mind to settle and calm. Life may agitate it again, but you can once more return to your mindful focus and allow the thoughts to settle.
Myth two: You need to be spiritual
No, no need to have any spiritual beliefs at all – even atheists can practise mindfulness. Mindfulness can be begun whatever your religious or spiritual beliefs – it is inclusive. There’s no need to burn any incense or adopt new religious beliefs. All you need is a willingness to pay attention to the present moment and endeavour to accept and acknowledge what you notice. Of course, if you wish to burn incense or candles, this can be soothing and pleasant, but there’s certainly no need. You may also wish to read up on the Buddhist origins of mindfulness meditation. This can be enlightening as some of these ancient teachings have many parallels in what we know about the workings of the human mind, but again no need to become a Buddhist. Mindfulness can be a purely secular practice – carried out with the intention of learning how better to handle life’s ups and downs.
Myth three: You need to sit on a cushion
No, you don’t need to sit on the floor legs crossed like a pretzel! Mindfulness can be practised in a chair, lying down or, it may surprise you, walking, running or carrying out everyday activities. In fact, there are so many possible ways of practising mindful attention that there is something achievable for everyone. Even if you are someone who thinks they don’t have time to fit mindfulness into their life, you can be sure there are practices where you tone up your mindfulness muscle as you go about your day.
Myth four: Mindfulness is easy
Well, paying attention certainly sounds simple to do, but in practice can be deceptively challenging. One of the first obstacles in starting out might be thoughts such as, “My mind is too busy” or “I’ll never be able to do this”. We might say that you can learn to recognise those as just one of the busy stream of thoughts you will encounter while practising mindfulness, so those of us who are used to these tricksy thoughts would encourage you to just notice, acknowledge and let those thoughts go whilst sticking with it a little longer.
More challenging aspects of mindfulness practice, such as tolerating difficult thoughts or feelings can be hard. For example, focusing on the breath or body can increase anxiety in those who are upset by bodily sensations, and for those people it can be advisable to begin a mindfulness practice with a focus on external objects. There will be times in life when mindfulness is harder than usual, and that is to be expected, but with ongoing practice you would be learning that you are not your thoughts and that these thoughts are passing events in the mind, which you can choose to buy into or not.
If you are struggling emotionally or if you find that your rumination or worry is increased by an internal focus, it would certainly be worth seeking out the support of a therapist who uses mindfulness as part of their treatment options or an experienced mindfulness practitioner.
Myth five: Mindfulness is all about relaxation
There’s no simple answer to this. Relaxation is a welcome side effect of mindfulness, but – beware – if you pursue mindfulness with the sole intention of relaxation, it is less likely to come. An individual mindfulness exercise may or may not be relaxing – the goal of a mindfulness exercise is to practice paying attention to the present with a kindly and curious attentiveness. The more you try to achieve relaxation the more elusive it can be. Just as the more you might struggle to sleep, the more awake you become, so it is with mindfulness. Mindfulness is about accepting what is in a given moment, and as long as you can be accepting, endeavor to be without judgment, you may experience a side effect of calm. The more you can loosen up on a goal of achieving calm through mindfulness meditation, the more chance of success you have. See?
If you want to give a simple exercise a try straightaway, you can try a simple mindfulness of breath exercise.
Ali Binns is a CBT therapist based in Bath. She helps client to overcome their emotional problems using cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness based approaches. You can find out more about her work at www.alibinns.co.uk