There are many widely propagated myths about Mindfulness and I can often be found busting them when I blog or in my speaking and training work. Now, the biggest myth in my opinion is the idea that Mindfulness is about achieving a state of calm or zoning out from life. In fact, Mindfulness is quite the opposite. This is what I need written on a t-shirt:
Mindfulness is about tuning in not zoning out.
I’ll take you back to 2011, I woke up in the middle of the night experiencing (what I now know as) my first panic attack. To cut a long story short, I was catastrophising about all the things that could go wrong in the conferences I was running when I worked in the tech industry. I was ruminating heavily on what I had said/done/thought etc and had no idea what was going on in my body. The anxiety from work had spilled over into my private life and the smallest things got me wired.
My mind was on overdrive and all I wanted was a break, to zone out.
I would frantically search the internet for ‘ways to reduce anxiety’ or calming techniques and yet everything made me feel that bit worse because, guess what? Said article/ book/ technique didn’t work for any duration and I was left falling deeper into low and anxious mood.
My mind was full of fog.
Fortunately, I lived in Oxford at the time when Mindfulness was already gathering steam. Oxford University does a lot of research into Mindfulness and consequently, it was being taken seriously. I first read the book ‘Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World’ as my intro to the practice. I wouldn’t have considered myself self-disciplined enough to do self-study but I felt terrible, so, I was willing to give it a shot and this book presented a programme to get me started.
What became apparent quite quickly was that I wasn’t undergoing
some kind of calm-inducing practice and I also wasn’t running away from my
experience during meditation, I was tuning in. By tuning in, I was (and still
am) developing a non-judgemental awareness of my moment-to-moment experience.
More about this in a bit.
What was what different (and somewhat relieving), was that Mindfulness wasn’t promising me a quick fix, it wasn’t even really a set of techniques. Yes, it involved a set of practices but what I was developing was a new way of moving through life through.
I was developing my own practice in my own way. This was empowering.
Another myth work reflecting on is that Mindfulness is a dogma. In fact, it is not.
Mindfulness in our modern world is pretty radical. The opposite is craving more and more things we want (the pleasant) and turning away/resisting/avoiding things we don’t like (the unpleasant). Our whole capitalist society is set up to encourage and propagate this so we want more. However, this way of living is highly limited and often leaves us feeling quite unhappy. This practice presents an alternative to being tugged around by the pleasant and unpleasant, a way of rebalancing.
As my training in Mindfulness continued, I took an 8 week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy course (MBCT) (the research based approach to training in Mindfulness which I now teach).
Soon I realised that the pace of this was different to anything else I’d worked on.
It wasn’t about achievement.
(As an ambitious person, I know this can be difficult to allow, which I’ve explored in a different blog: ‘Will I lose my edge?’
Instead, it was about familiarity with my own patterns and habits so I could have more choice about how to respond to them. I think people assume Mindfulness training is ‘a bit of breathing’. However, when run properly, this is cognitive training grounded in neuroscience, which requires the participant to work at it on a regular basis. The fruits of this practice for me in the long-term have been profound but it is one I continue each day. I always say to coachees and course participants that although I trained as a teacher, I am not the finished product.
I am working on myself each day too.
I think this misconception of Mindfulness being about achieving a state of calm is often rooted in a confusion of Mindfulness with practices such as visualisation. Any practice that involves you imagining something like the waves of the sea coming in and out or meditating to peaceful music, is simply not Mindfulness.
Mindfulness is being with the raw nature of our experience.
To give you a practical example, if you are (like I was) quite anxious when you meditate, then it is unlikely that when you sit down to do your Mindfulness meditation, that you will enjoy it. You might do, but, more commonly, you will probably be highly distracted, perhaps agitated, especially at first.
The first thing to know is that nothing has gone wrong here. This is just what busy minds do. So, now the task is to simply return to the point of focus such as the breath, over and over again. Here, it is often worth bringing in a sense of kindness, so we don’t yank ourselves back to the breath but instead, gradually escort our attention back. This takes practice, so just noticing you’re being hard on yourself is being mindful in itself.
When I said, ‘Mindfulness is about developing a non-judgemental awareness of our moment to moment experience’, this is what I mean. It’s noticing that the mind has moved to ‘worrying’ about something or a ‘shopping list’ and instead of judging ourselves as bad meditators or giving up, we escort the attention back to where it was intended. This creates discipline and not just in meditation but in our wider lives.
I have had to learn self-discipline from the perils of a highly undisciplined, anxious mind. It hasn’t been about ‘bells and smells’ of calmness as many conceive Mindfulness is about. Whether you think that’s appealing or highly off-putting, it’s not Mindfulness.
Mindfulness is more profound. It may not be a quick fix but, more importantly, it’s a discovery into the nature of your own mind. From this place, we can be less drawn into our thoughts and feelings and more aware, more tuned in to respond more skilfully.
You can also find out more about this topic in our Facebook live series for Mental Health Awareness Week 2019