Misconceptions about Mindfulness
Updated: Sep 6, 2018
There is no shortage of internet articles, self-help books, and talks out there that proclaim the benefits mindfulness, self-awareness, enlightenment, and the like. Just hearing these buzz words may bring to mind the image of a tranquil monk meditating beneath a Bodhi tree, or a yoga fanatic in downward dog position, adorned in lululemon attire, smiling hugely and radiating light beams of love. Reaching such a state or adopting such a lifestyle may seem unobtainable to many. In my experience, it is largely people’s misconceptions about the true meaning of mindfulness which lead them into either rejecting it altogether or applying it in a way that is missing the point. Doing so may not only be unhelpful, but actually potentially detrimental.
To explain what I mean, allow me to first review a well-known definition of mindfulness, from Dr. John Kabat-Zinn, an influential figure within the field of mindfulness in the Western world;
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgementally.”
Now, let’s take a look at a few of the most common misconceptions about mindfulness I’ve observed in my clients, along with some clarification.
Misconception # 1: Mindfulness is only for yogis, hippies, and those seeking enlightenment.
“That stuff is not for me,” I’ve heard from many clients, when even just inquiring about their associations with the word mindfulness; “I’m too much of a practical person.” Based on the misconceptions that have come to be, I can understand why some people have this reaction.
Clarification: Mindfulness is practical. In order to obtain greater life fulfillment, we must come to understand the ways in which our minds are getting in the way of that greater fulfillment. We must pay attention to our thoughts and feelings and be willing to get to know ourselves better. Mindfulness is not a way to distract or escape from reality, but rather to face it head on and move through it.
While it is important to properly credit Eastern Philosophy (particularly Buddhism, Hinduism, and yoga) with having developed the foundations for mindfulness, mindfulness in and of itself is not linked with any particular religion, philosophy, or dogma. In fact, mindfulness practice encourages a letting go of all the labels and assumptions that we have learned to associate with things, in order to see things more clearly, just as they are.
The effectiveness of mindfulness is scientifically proven. Overwhelming amounts of research have linked mindfulness practices with health benefits like reduced stress, increased immune functioning, improved concentration and mental clarity, emotional intelligence, etc.; practical benefits which are desirable to most humans.
Misconception # 2: Being mindfully accepting and compassionate means loving everyone and accepting all of people’s behaviors, even when you aren’t being treated well.
Clarification: Having acceptance and compassion does NOT = taking shit from people. Acceptance does = accepting that it is not within your control or responsibility to change or ‘fix’ other people.
This one can also be quite dangerous. Accepting people as they are, wherever they are in their own stage of growth is one thing, however, accepting a person does not mean that you have to accept that person’s behaviors or keep them in your life. Loving and accepting someone from a distance is possible, and in some cases the only self-respecting option.
Something I’ve noticed that comes up a lot for my clients when it comes to contemplating exiting relationships (and I mean any kind of relationship) that aren’t working, is guilt, concern, and fear associated with the thought of ‘abandoning’ the other person. Interestingly though, one of the costs of remaining in these relationships, usually involves ‘abandoning’ some part(s) of themselves. Another cost of staying usually involves giving beyond their means. Both of these costs almost always lead to resentment, which then funnels back into the relationship, only making things worse.
So guess what? The decision to remain in a relationship which requires that you shrink down, abandon, or deny parts of yourself in order to appease another person, is NOT a way of showing compassion for yourself OR the other person in the relationship. In fact, I’ve seen it happen countless times that the moment one person within a relationship begins to make more self-respecting choices (even to the point of ending the relationship), the other person is more likely to make positive changes for themselves as well. While as I said, we cannot change other people, the best shot that we have in influencing them in a positive way is by doing whatever it takes to maintain respect for ourselves.
Misconception # 3: Being mindful means being calm, understanding, and peaceful all the time and never getting angry or upset.
Clarification: Mindfulness is a commitment to a practice, not to a specific outcome. While it is true that the effects of a long-term mindfulness practice may indeed lead to an increased sense of inner calm, peacefulness, and less emotional reactivity, this takes time and practice.
When we hold too firmly in our minds ideas about what something should look like or feel like, rather than what we are actually experiencing, we remove ourselves from our true experience, thereby invalidating ourselves and possibly even activating negative feelings such as self-judgment and shame. It’s natural for all of us, especially when experiencing peaks of discomfort, to wish that we could be further along in our process of self-work than we actually are. Unfortunately it’s not a “fake it ‘til you make it” type phenomenon and it’s not supposed to be easy.
Committing to mindfulness requires a commitment to getting to know yourself very well; being brutally honest with yourself and whatever it is that you are authentically feeling and experiencing in any given moment. The important piece here is to begin where you are and to honor that place with curiosity rather than judgment. Get your eyes off the “prize” and keep your mind in the here and now.
It is possible to be authentic without being mindful, as it is also possible to act mindful without authenticity to the self. Allow me to demonstrate, through an example, the differences between what I will term as mindless authenticity, inauthentic mindfulness, and authentic mindfulness (the one to strive for).
Suppose, for example, you’ve just found out that your partner has cheated on you. Instantly, you become filled with rage and the impulse to gather up all of your ex’s belongings and throw them out the 12th story window of your apartment. Now, following this impulse without stopping for a moment to think and tune in to your experience would not be the most mindful or constructive way to respond, but such a behavior would be an authentic expression of the feeling felt in that moment. I will call this mindless authenticity. While it may feel empowering and temporarily relieving to have freely acted upon your anger, acting on impulse often brings undesirable consequences. When one of your ex’s gym sneakers hits and hurts someone on the sidewalk below, you may have just created a slew of further problems for yourself.
Now, let’s take the same scenario but imagine that you are practicing mindfulness, and unfortunately have the misconception that mindfulness means never getting upset. You sit on your bed, fuming, but to the best of your ability, you push down your anger and any other ‘ugly’ emotions that arise, because that is what a mindful and enlightened person should do, or so you think. You tell your ex that you accept their behavior, while your insides are screaming and kicking. In this case, you are playing the role of a mindful person, pretending to be more calm and peaceful than you actually feel. This is not mindfulness, but rather quite the opposite. This is inauthentic mindfulness. And it can be rather dangerous, as it involves denying and suppressing authentic emotions.
Taking the same scenario and applying true authentic mindfulness would entail allowing yourself to feel and connect to your feelings arising in the moment, in this case anger, rage, betrayal etc. The goal would be to identify your feelings, your bodily sensations, impulses, etc. and to accept that you are having these experiences without acting out your impulses of the moment. Sitting with, witnessing and accepting the totality of your experience, you would likely find that your urge to throw your ex’s belongings out the window will reduce in intensity, thereby giving you more control over your emotions and allowing you to then the opportunity to respond instead of react.
The ironic thing is that once you do get mindfulness ‘right’ and commit to the practice of tuning into yourself with nonjudgmental curiosity, it stops mattering as much how far along in your self-growth journey you are, because the self-judgement and criticism begins to lose its potency. This is likely because when you accept and allow for the full spectrum complexity of your human experiences and feelings, (the positive, the negative, and the shamefully ugly), you are no longer at war with yourself. Nothing is good nor bad, it all just ‘is’. It all becomes ‘grist for the mill’. But once again, this sense of calmness and tranquility cannot be forced or manufactured. It follows only as a reward of doing the real work.