By now most of us have been introduced to the concept of mindfulness—the idea that by focusing our attention on the present, and bringing an attitude of openness and acceptance to whatever is happening, we can reduce our suffering and live fuller and more meaningful lives.
In the past couple of decades, mindfulness-based treatments have become the “third wave” of cognitive-behavioral therapy. These treatments are highly effective in lowering stress and treating anxiety and depression, among a wide range of other conditions.
In my clinical practice I usually incorporate training in mindfulness into a person’s treatment. Through this work (as well as in other areas of my life) I’ve run into a number of objections to the practice of being mindful. For the most part these objections seem based on misunderstandings of what mindfulness is about.
1. Mindfulness is a fringe or cultish practice.
Being in our lives and actually doing what we’re doing isn’t a weird concept. No doubt this pathway to authentic connection with our experience is older even than the eastern religions that it’s most closely associated with.
While mindfulness practices are often tied to “new age” spirituality, the experience itself doesn’t belong to any particular religious or spiritual approach. We don’t even have to label it “mindfulness”—everyone I’ve met has had experiences of being fully present, and the vast majority didn’t involve incense, dim lights, or soft music. Mindfulness is available to everyone at any time, and is as normal as breathing.
2. Mindfulness is a religious practice.
Mindfulness is indeed a major part of some religious traditions; as a result, people of different faiths (or no religious faith) sometimes resist the idea of adopting this approach.
However, mindfulness is often practiced apart from any religious tradition, including mystical spirituality. The practice itself does not assume or require any religious belief. At the same time, there is nothing about mindfulness that is inherently contradictory to any religious tradition. Whatever our beliefs and values, we can practice them more fully through a mindful approach.
3. Mindfulness means condoning things that are wrong.
“If I’m accepting of what’s happening, doesn’t that mean I’ll put up with things I shouldn’t?” Many people raise this objection, thinking mindfulness means that if I’m overweight I shouldn’t try to lose weight, or that if my boss is abusive, I should just take it.
Part of the problem comes from the different ways we use the word “accept.” Sometimes we mean—as we do in the practice of mindfulness—that I am willing to see a situation for what it is. I am not denying that reality is reality. Other times we mean we’re not going to try to change something: “I’ve accepted that I’m never going to dunk a basketball.”
The practice of mindfulness does not assume that inaction will follow acceptance of things as they are. Sometimes acceptance is the catalyst for change.
4. Mindfulness is weak and wishy-washy.
Related to the belief that mindfulness implies never taking a stand is an association of mindfulness with weakness and being wishy-washy. This image is easy to understand if we equate fighting and resisting with strength.
If we begin by thinking that mindfulness is an easy or lightweight practice, we quickly find that it’s anything but easy as we work to let go of our habits of mind and behavior. Letting go is hard. It takes a lot of energy to stop fearing the future and perseverating on the past. When we practice mindfulness we direct our strength and resolve in ways that serve us.
5. Mindfulness means never having goals or planning for the future.
One could easily wonder, “If I’m focusing on the present, how can I plan for the future? And if I’m supposed to practice acceptance, does that mean I can’t set goals?”
Although it might seem paradoxical, planning for the future and setting goals are perfectly compatible with mindfulness. As discussed above, acceptance of what is leaves open the option to take action to change a situation. For example, I might accept that my current study habits did not let me reach my academic goals, and change my habits accordingly. And when I’m setting goals and planning for the future, I can be present in those actions—because I’m doing them now.
6. Mindfulness = meditation.
When we hear the word “mindfulness,” the first image that comes to mind is probably someone sitting cross-legged with their eyes closed—and for good reason: Meditation is the most common formal mindfulness practice.
But while meditation is tremendously beneficial, it is just one activity during which we can focus on the present. Hammering a nail, driving a golf ball, eating a plum, holding a child, walking in the rain, arguing with a spouse—all of these activities, among infinite others, are opportunities to be mindful.
Formal mindfulness practices like meditation and tai chi do give us a chance to train our minds to focus on the now. We can bring that training—the essence of meditation—into any moment of our lives. Research evidence suggests that being mindful during our daily activities is at least as helpful as meditation.
7. Mindfulness is at odds with science.
Because mindfulness is often associated with religion, it’s sometimes seen as being unscientific. This misunderstanding is the easiest of all to dispel. As mentioned above, a large and growing number of rigorous studies have found that practicing mindfulness is good for pretty much everything. It helps with chronic pain, a wide range of psychiatric conditions, and has even been found to change the brain. The scientific grounding of mindfulness practice is strong.
If we can expose these kinds of beliefs about mindfulness as myths, we can remove one barrier to being in our lives in a deeper way. Most of us find it challenging enough to practice mindfulness consistently even without having serious misgivings about the approach.
Are you aware of other misconceptions about mindfulness? Please post them, or any questions or comments you have, in the Comments section.