Mindfulness is hot, and like all hot topics, it comes with a lot of truths and a lot of falsehoods. Teaching mindfulness, I hear the same questions arising time and again, misunderstandings really about what mindfulness is and what it means as a practice or way of life. Indeed, most of the obstacles that we believe stand in the way of living mindfully are, in fact, not obstacles at all.
The Big Three: Misconceptions about Mindfulness
#1 Mindfulness is not for the average Joe–not applicable to a regular life.
As one client expressed, I have kids, which means that I am constantly planning for then… camps, holidays, dinner recipes, weekend babysitting etc. etc. I can’t just be here in the now, it’s not practical for real life. Mindfulness doesn’t apply to my always-planning mom existence!
Many of my clients arrive with the belief that having to do anything that involves or is about the future disqualifies them from being mindful. In truth, mindfulness simply means being conscious or aware of what is happening inside and outside of you right now. Being awake to life as it is unfolding. Planning for the future and attending to the past are necessities in modern life, and neither has anything to do with being mindful. While the contents of what we are planning may be related to the future, the planning itself is something that is happening right now. Perhaps we are making an airplane reservation—the airplane will take off in the future but conversing with the agent, experiencing sensations in the hand holding the phone, receiving thoughts about what you are hearing, taking in sounds from the room, feeling emotions about the upcoming travel, all of it and a thousand other events are all occurring right now. Making plans, with mindfulness, simply means paying attention to the experience of making plans, being awake to what it is like for you to live this moment of planning. The subject of the moment is irrelevant; the moment itself is always happening right here and right now. Nothing can ever be happening in any time but now. If at this moment your body is breathing, then there is a present experience available to you, and thus mindfulness is possible.
#2 Mindfulness means focusing on my breath or meditating, which isn’t always possible in everyday life. Hence, mindfulness is a step away from or out of life. A client put it this way, when a strong emotion comes up, like when I get really angry at my boss at work, I can’t always just check out of the conversation and start listening to my breath or chanting om. Mindfulness, for this reason, is not really viable in real life tough situations.
The truth is, practicing mindfulness does not require checking out of life, but just the opposite, checking into life. When a strong feeling such as anger arises, mindfulness simply means paying attention to what that anger feels like in the body, how it manifests, what thoughts and stories accompany it, everything that is happening inside and outside you as you experience the anger right now. Mindfulness means witnessing that strong emotion with full presence, watching the weather of anger erupt in the sky of awareness. Sometimes it does help to come back to the breath, just for a moment, to get grounded in your body and not spin off in the storm of mind, but this is not necessary for practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness means staying here where you are—with whatever is here in the present moment, and meeting your direct experience, your life, as it actually is.
#3 I can’t be mindful with this mind, my mind as it is; if and when my mind is different, calmer perhaps, then possibly, mindfulness can happen. Many people believe that mindfulness requires a certain kind of mind, a baseline of peacefulness or tranquility, and that their mind as it is is far too wild to practice such a skill.
In fact, mindfulness does not depend on any particular kind of mind and certainly not a calm one. If mindfulness required a calm mind, it would have died out as a practice a long time ago. In the same way that meditation is an investigation of your inner world as it is, right now, without preference or judgment, similarly, mindfulness is just an honest look at the way your mind, your direct experience, and your life is at any given moment. You are not more mindful if what you discover is that you like the moment you are living and no less mindful if what you become aware of is not pleasing. Mindfulness only means that you are noticing, becoming conscious of and dwelling in your direct experience, not pushing it away, or if you are trying to push it away, noticing that too. Mindfulness is not about what you find when you drop down into yourself, but that you do drop down into yourself, and that you do so with an attitude of compassionate curiosity. If, in turning the lens on yourself, what you notice is that your mind is judging your experience unkindly, then mindfulness would entail bringing an open and kind curiosity to that unkind and judging mind. And so it goes. There are no right answers in mindfulness, no better things to discover under the lens of your own attention, and no better kind of mind to practice with. The only things needed for mindfulness are a mind to practice with, a willingness to try and stay present, and an interest to meet yourself and your actual experience.
The next time you hear the thought that mindfulness doesn’t apply to you, with the way your life is, your mind is, your circumstances are, notice that thought, and maybe the feeling or sensation that comes along with it. Pay attention to what it feels like in your body to be listening to that thought. Before you know it, the you who can’t practice mindfulness will be practicing mindfulness in its most authentic and powerful form!