De-bunking the myths of mindfulnessBack to blog
‘How long before meditation actually works?’ my good friend Steph asked me over a pub meal recently. She had just declared her intention to cultivate a regular meditation practice and wanted to know how much time she would have to invest before she reaped the fruits of her labour.
Not an unreasonable question, and one I am certainly familiar with.
I paused for a moment before answering with another question.
‘What is your motivation for wanting to cultivate a regular practice?’ I asked.
‘I want to clear my mind of its thoughts – I always have so much going on, they are always racing, and I’d like to slow them down,’ she shared enthusiastically.
I chose my words in response carefully. ‘Steph, I’ve been meditating regularly for over eight years and I still have thoughts – lots of them. However, as a result of my regular meditation practice, I relate to my thoughts in a new way. More often than not, they are an object of my awareness, rather than something I am subject to. They don’t have the power over me the way they once did. They are simply thoughts – not facts.’ I then went onto share that once I related to thoughts as mental events rather than as facts, and as such, understood that they do not provide an accurate representation of my current reality, I was better able to not react to their content and emotional charge and freer from their attraction and repulsion.
Steph looked disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? I certainly was when I discovered I still had thoughts – many of which drove me mad – despite my efforts to remove them when meditating!
Later that night, I sent Steph a message with a link to some Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and learn to meditate courses near where she lives. My conversation also prompted me to compile some of the top myths associated with mindfulness meditation, which I’ve debunked below.
Myth 1: Mindfulness meditation is about removing thoughts
Many of us are drawn to meditation in the hope of learning how to escape the incessant chatter of our minds. There is often an expectation that a meditation practice will clear our minds of thoughts. And who can blame anyone for hoping for this especially when our thoughts can be the cause of so much pain and suffering? However, as outlined in the introduction above, meditation is not about removing thoughts or changing their contents – instead, it is about becoming more familiar with the patterns of contents of our own minds. Meditation can teach you to understand the nature of your thoughts and to observe the relationship you have to them. During a meditation practice, the invitation is to acknowledge and accept thoughts, adopting a gentle and curious rather than judgmental stance towards them. Your work with thoughts in a meditation practice is simply seeing (acknowledging, allowing and accepting) and letting go. When you practice in this way, you will find that thoughts that are anxious and fearful in content will seem less powerful and threatening. They will have less of a hold over your attention because you are now seeing them as ‘just thoughts’ and no longer as ‘reality’ or the truth.
“What a liberation to realise that the voice in my head is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that” Eckhart Tolle.
Myth 2: Meditation is about relaxation
Mindfulness is about bringing our attention to the present moment – in a formal seated or lying down practice, this could involve tuning into the breath or body; in an informal practice, it would involve bringing our attention to the task at hand. If we are feeling particularly stressed or anxious, being mindful will not change this but that is not the goal of mindfulness – the goal is be aware of what is here in the moment – our thoughts, emotions, body sensations, etc – and this can be anything but relaxing.
That said, when we pay attention in certain ways, we can stimulate the relaxation response (turn on the parasympathetic nervous system) and as a result, we often begin to feel more relaxed. In this way, relaxation is a by-product of mindfulness but it isn’t the goal.
As shared by Elisha Goldstein, the paradox here is that when we are able to just be present to our thoughts, sensations and emotions, the stress tends to calm down. When we try and quiet the mind (i.e strive for peace), we tend to fuel the fire and end up stuck in reacting in our usual habitual ways (Suffering = Pain x Resistance)
Myth 3: You have to meditate each day for hour to experience the benefits
The pace of modern life makes for busy schedules. Given this, who has an hour available to meditate each day? Thankfully, you do not need to meditate for an hour each day to experience the benefits. A 2012 study found that just 10 minutes of daily meditation improved people’s focus and attention over the duration of a few months.
For those undertaking the 8 week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program which involves 45 – 60 mins of daily meditation practice, benefits included decreased anxiety and stress.
Chris Kresser reminds us as is the case with diet and exercise, you will experience the greatest gains from consistent effort – whether that effort is for just minutes or an hour a session.
Myth 4: Mindfulness is not escape from pain or transcending day-to-day life
Contrary to what many people in the mindfulness based stress reduction program expect, mindfulness practice is not about transcending ordinary life or escaping pain – in fact, it is the opposite! Mindfulness is about learning to be with and relate to what is painful and difficult in life. Through my studies at Openground, I began to appreciate that pain is part of any human life and that a mindfulness practice is a tool that provides both the space and time to explore our relationship to pain and painful experience. Rather than pushing it away, the invitation is instead to be both accepting and curious of our pain. As course participants learn, a great deal of suffering is created when you react against some feeling, thought or sensation which you don’t like. Simply giving your attention to a mindful appreciation of what the experience is, rather than ruminating about how to change it, can interrupt a spiral of distress. Again, Suffering = Pain X Resistance
Myth 5: Mindfulness is difficult
The only instruction is to bring your attention to the present moment. In a formal practice, this could be the breath, the body, sounds, thoughts, emotions, etc. When you realise your attention has wandered, simply bring it back to the object of your awareness. New meditators worry that the losing focus means they are not doing it properly – but the re-focusing in the practice. The more often you lose focus, the more opportunity you have to re-train your brain. For those that are learning to play golf, you might appreciate the following analogy: The more often you miss the hole, the more often you have to practice your golf swing and hitting of the ball! It is not possible to do this practice perfectly, nor is it possible to fail.