Mindfulness has become so popular in the past few years and is now made relevant to almost everything – parenting, business, driving, sports, art, lying in bed, walking, swimming, sex, eating …. just about anything. The word is so ubiquitous that it runs the danger of not meaning much any more.
Yet, as someone who has found meditation and awareness practices to be central to my well being and my clinical practice, I need to keep sifting through the hype and asking myself, what is it really all about?
At it’s core, mindfulness is simply a practice of being aware with an “open focus”. We hold whatever is in our present moment experience with a sense of knowing what is. This can be directed to our inner experience or our perception of what is happening around us. With mindfuln awareness we become a little less identified with our sense of self, and life feels much lighter. At least, this is my experience of it.
When I teach mindfulness in my clinical practice or in groups, I always have to start with finding out what people know about the practice and how it has helped them. Inevitably, because there is so much information about mindfulness, there is a range of experiences and inaccurate perceptions about what mindfulness is, especially as it pertains to mental health.
A common statement I hear from people is, “I tried it but it didn’t work for me.” This is unfortunate as many who are seeking relief for their mental health may be discarding a tool based on inaccurate perceptions of what mindfulness is and how it can be relevant to helping them. Instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water, I hope to address some of these misperceptions that I commonly hear and clarify what we are talking about when we talk about mindfulness for mental health:
1. Mindfulness is meditation
First and foremost, mindfulness is not synonymous with meditation. Meditation is simply a tool to practice this kind of awareness. It provides the container for us to experience this present moment awareness and it helps us to transfer this awareness to our daily lives in all that we do. Also remember, that not all meditation practices are mindfulness meditation. Meditations can use imagery or evoke a particular feeling or state which is not the same as being open to what is here in the present moment. It is important to make the distinction that mindfulness is not meditation and not all meditations are mindful.
2. Mindfulness is relaxation
Another common myth is that mindfulness is relaxation. It is understandable that people are attracted to mindfulness because there might be a promise of feeling calm and relaxed. However, this is not goal and intention but certainly a desired outcome for many of us who experience too much stress in our lives and for those suffering from anxiety and depression. The benefit of being aware of our experience is that it gives us information about what needs to be changed. If we are stressed and anxious, then we may become aware that we need to let go of muscular tension, slow down thoughts, breathe a little deeper, and that may help to let go of stress. However, the first step is to be aware of what we are feeling which may at first feel quite unpleasant. It may take some time and patience with the practice to feel more balanced and at ease especially if the nervous system is constantly revved up.
3. Mindfulness is cessation of thoughts
Just as we cannot every stop breathing, we can never stop our minds from thinking. It is not uncommon for people to think they cannot meditate because they keep having constant thoughts. Mindfulness helps us see thoughts from an observer perspective, but we can never stop the thoughts from happening. Awareness helps us to get less identified with thoughts and also see the thoughts as they are happening. This perspective also can help us be less identified with unhelpful thoughts that lead to anxiety and depression.
4. Mindfulness is a special state
Sometimes we go into meditation with an expectation of going into a special state. Indeed, in groups we may hear of one participant feeling blissed out, while others feel like a failure for just going over their mundane to do list or feeling overwhelmed with anxiety. With mindfulness we just acknowledge what is without preference, whether it be a blissful or anxious state. People who are struggling with addiction may be somewhat susceptible to this belief as it may be seen as a drug free alternative to spacing out or escaping.
5. Mindfulness is attention control
Lastly, mindfulness is not about attention control although we use practices to focus our attention on what is. The breath is a common point of focus we use to train the attention on the present moment. However, the end goal is not to just control attention but to stabilize the mind. Once we have given time to keep returning attention to the breath, we become much more aware of how the mind works and the tendencies to get pulled into anxious thoughts and rumination.
This list of myths does not get to the actual practice and insights that emerge from engaging in mindful awareness. My hope is that addressing the myths will help people to approach this practice with an open and curious mind rather than with set expectations from the barrage of information out there. It is only through engaging in the practice, ideally with the support of an instructor and group, that people can make sense of mindfulness as a tool for managing their stress and mental health.
In future blogs I will expand on the practices as we address them in the MAST program.
A great, short video that addresses the myths of mindfulness can be found in Andi Puddicombe’s TED talk, It Only Takes 10 Minutes a Day.
Rachael Frankford, MSW, RSW is a clinical social worker in private practice. This blog is to share musings on mental health and about the intersection of mindfulness, neuroscience, and psychotherapy.