Mindfulness is no longer some alternative, hippy dippy, new age practice. Mindfulness is mainstream. Its influence can be seen across industries from psychology to education, from corporate wellness programs to NFL coaching strategies. Mindfulness is a multi-billion dollar industry. And you have every right to be skeptical of that fact. Most people have at least heard of mindfulness and can take certain context clues from headlines or Internet memes to surmise what they think it means without having to go through any proper training in it. And this is where widespread misinterpretations prevail. The following are five of the most common myths that I end up having to correct for anytime I give a talk or training in mindfulness: Myth #1: Mindfulness is about clearing your mind. You can force yourself not to think about as well as you can force yourself not to feel your legs. Thoughts and sensations just happen and there is not much you can do to eliminate them. The very instruction “Don’t think,” is a thought. You already blew it. So no, mindfulness is not about clearing your mind or stopping your thoughts. It’s about noticing your thoughts, rather than thinking them.
Myth #2: Mindfulness is about positive thinking. If I could choose my thoughts all the time, I would prefer to have positive thoughts rather than negative ones. Thinking positively is certainly a good thing. But it isn’t mindfulness. Just because two things are “good” doesn’t mean those two things are synonymous. You can be mindful of any thought whether they are positive or negative. Mindfulness is about non-judgment. Positive judgments are still judgments. Mindfulness helps us to look at our experience for what it is without the lens of positive or negative. It’s about suspending evaluation. Myth #3: Mindfulness is about being happy. Happiness is a byproduct of living a purposeful life. It is not a state to be strived for or sustained. Happy people also experience sadness and frustration, and boredom, and anxiety, and any of all our human emotions. Happiness is not the absence of painful emotions. Mindfulness is about being present for all of your experiences, whether you like them or not. If you are sad, mindfulness is about feeling sad, and not trying to change how you feel or obtaining something “better.” It’s about being right where you are. Myth #4: Mindfulness is about self-improvement. This one is kind of an extension of myth #3. Mindfulness is the opposite of self-improvement. Unless you can equate improvement as being more of what you already are, rather than something that you’re not. I’ll buy that. But our Western culture is so fundamentally imbued with striving and achieving for something greater, something better. The “American Dream” is propaganda for this psychological disservice. Mindfulness is recognizing everything is exactly as it should be and dropping the struggle to be something else. Myth #5: Mindfulness is about Buddhism. The term “mindfulness” was actually coined by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the late sixties as he brought the practice of Buddhist meditation to the West to be studied and applied clinically as a psychological tool. Mindfulness can be viewed scientifically as a set of cognitive processes that can be measured. No belief or cultural traditions are required to implement these evidence-based processes we now call mindfulness. So while the practice of meditation has been appropriated from Buddhist traditions, mindfulness remains a secular application. People of all faiths or no faith at all can practice mindfulness without changing their existing religious or philosophical beliefs. Many have found it to enrich their spiritual experience all the more.