Or, 8 Ways Mindfulness is Not a Magic Unicorn
I recently spoke with a client who asked me why everyone seems to be pushing her to “do this mindfulness thing.” Like many things, things that become more mainstream, they start to get watered down. And if the ideas stick around long enough, they simply become marketing materials.
So, before we discuss what mindfulness is not, let’s get clear on what mindfulness is. Below are three definitions:
Oxford English Dictionary
1. The quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.
2. a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.
1. The quality or state of being mindful.
2. The practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.
“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. Mindfulness is a quality that every human being already possesses. It’s not something you have to conjure up; you just have to learn how to access it.”
Mindfulness is the journey of awareness, learning to be present, conscious, and nonjudgmental of our feelings, thoughts, and actions. Most importantly, mindfulness is a process of growth.
Unicorns, Mindfulness, and Myths
Unicorns are creatures who exist in the myths of many cultures. Some myths claim magical healing properties, while others attribute them the ability to differentiate right from wrong. Throughout unicorn lore, they are symbols of peace and prosperity.
Like unicorns of legend, mindfulness is a journey that may move you towards healing and peace. Unlike magic, it is not magic. Mindfulness means developing a practice and working towards growing your awareness.
Unlike chemotherapy for people with cancer or vaccines for viruses, mindfulness does not cure a disease directly. It does support the healing work of other modalities. Studies have shown that people with chronic illnesses, including cancer, diabetes, or lupus, have decreased their stress levels by 30-40%. Reduced stress levels improve the outcomes of medical treatments.
Myth #1: All mindfulness is meditation and requires a quiet mind and a still body.
When I ask people what they imagine someone who is engaging in mindfulness looks like, I often get a version of the elderly wise monk sitting silently on a mountain top. In this image, he sits cross-legged, alone, and with his eyes closed.
Yes, mindfulness is meditation. And it’s so much more.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, also known as DBT, defines the “what” of mindfulness as observing, describing, and participating. Within these guidelines, all behavior can be mindful with practice. For more on how to practice the DBT What Skills for mindfulness, follow the link to 6 Steps to a Better Mindfulness Practice.
Myth #2: Mindfulness is about relaxation.
Over time, practicing mindfulness can reduce stress and help to increase calm and a sense of peace. However, the purpose of mindfulness is to develop a greater awareness of your self. A regular mindfulness practice will raise awareness of your thoughts and your emotions, providing an opportunity for greater self-awareness.
Myth #3: Mindfulness has no thoughts; it’s about focusing or concentration.
In addition to increased self-awareness, a benefit of regular mindfulness practice may be an increased ability to focus on the task at hand. However, this is not accomplished by eliminating thoughts and creating an empty mind. Mindfulness practice supports us in learning to detach from our thoughts. As we become more mindful, we can notice our thoughts and not become attached to them. A thought is just a thought. We don’t have to act upon it.
Myth #4: The goal of mindfulness is bliss, to always be mindful.
Human beings feel many emotions throughout the day and often experience dozens of emotions in an hour. At the same time, our brain is processing thoughts about work, our relationships, the finances, what we will have for dinner, whether or not we will finish the report for our boss by the end of the day, and so on. As we cannot eliminate our thoughts and emotions, it is impossible always to be mindful and always to experience joy. Yet, the more that we practice mindfulness, the more often we can find calm in the eye of the storm.
Myth #5: Mindfulness is always staying in the present moment.
We live our lives at this moment. And as such, mindfulness can help us spend more time fully participating in the here and now. However, the goal of mindfulness is not to eliminate our past or our future.
While living in the past can be unhealthy, our history is our story. Some memories may be painful, and reflecting on difficult situations can help us manage future events. Other memories may be happy or heartwarming. These memories encourage us to continue building a life worth living.
Focusing too much on the future can increase anxiety, and yet we need to look forward to make decisions. What will we prepare for dinner tonight? Would it be more effective to save for a new car or spend money on repairing our current vehicle?
Myth #6: To practice mindfulness, you must create a quiet, mindful space.
As mindfulness is not merely meditation, creating a “mindfulness space” is not necessary to develop a mindfulness practice. Mindfulness activities can include taking a walk, washing dishes, working in the garden, or knitting. It can also include counting breaths, engaging in visualization exercises, doing yoga, or writing. Mindfulness can be done anywhere: at work, at home, at the store, in the library.
Myth #7: Having a mindfulness practice requires a lot of time.
Since mindfulness can be practiced anywhere that you find yourself, your mindfulness practice can take as much or as little time as you have. I often encourage clients to begin with 30-60 seconds of observing their breath, the sounds that they hear, or an image such as a piece of art or a photo. When they become comfortable with this practice, they can increase the time they engage in mindfulness activities or choose to have brief mindfulness activities throughout the day.
“There’s never a good time for mindfulness, and there’s never a bad time. Mindfulness is one of those things you simply do, because if you practice being aware – completely open to the universe, just exactly as it is – you will transform your life in time.” ~ Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., ABPP
Myth #8: Mindfulness is just a fad.
While mindfulness is not a religion or a religious practice, it does have its roots in Buddhism. Buddhists have practiced mindfulness for centuries. Mindfulness began migrating West from Asia in the mid-1800s as trade increased. Mindfulness meditation became popular in Europe and the United States in the 1960s. Over time the mental health community embraced the benefits of mindfulness and developed therapies that incorporated mindfulness, including Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). With the widespread use of these therapies, mindfulness is here to stay.
Set aside the magical unicorn and start your mindfulness practice today.
“Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.” ~ Thích Nhất Hạnh
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Seeking Health and Happiness One Day at a Time.
Marcy Berg is a writer and therapist living in the Pacific Northwest and Exploring thoughts on mental health, wellness, and happiness. She can also be found at Growing Through Life.