Myths of Mindfulness, Part One
When you hear the word ‘myth,’ what does it conjure up for you?
Fairy tales, falsities, outright lies?
In this episode of Mindfulness Off the Cushion, we delve into six common myths of mindfulness - teasing apart our myriad ways of understanding the practice of mindfulness to hopefully land on a nugget or two of truth. Our Season Two special guest, Dr. Richard Sears, penned an entire book on the topic in 2021. So between his ample wisdom and our wellspring of curiosity, as you can surmise from the title of this podcast - there will be a part two.
A Definition of Myth
Dr. Sears has provided a clear-eyed definition of myth that will propel our entire examination of the myths of mindfulness in this podcast. Warning: major wisdom nugget dropping….now.
Myth is not necessarily falsity. Myth is one way in which humans attempt to explain our experience of the world and its natural phenomena. Within every myth, there may be a degree of truth, no matter how small or distorted it has become in its telling.
This definition of myth directly relates to something we’ve been grappling with since the first season of this podcast - that mindfulness, too, can be explained or described in many ways. Without any further ado, let’s break down our first six myths of mindfulness in this short series.
Mindfulness Myth: Mindfulness Comes from Buddhism
Over 2,600 years ago, there was a man named Siddhartha Gautama who taught that the only way to be awakened is to be truly present in the moment. This presentness of mind, mindfulness, was imparted with a pointed caveat - don’t take anything that I tell you, or that any authority tells you, as the truth. Rather, direct experience is the way to find it for yourself.
Countless Eastern wisdom traditions have taught people how to promote attentiveness of mind, or mindfulness. But to say that this method of developing presentness of mind originated in Siddhartha Gautama alone - or any one teacher or tradition - is to vastly oversimplify. To make a myth of the matter. Many Western traditions, wisdoms rooted in both religious and secular understanding, have also developed modes for achieving mindfulness.
Dr. Sears makes a nice example of something many humans have experienced for millennia. Imagine being a child again. You find a rock and become lost in its colors, speckles, shape, texture. Time seems to stop. You are fully present and aware - not lost in thought of your chores or the future. Simply aware of the rock in your hand.
We all have access to this depth of mindful awareness, without necessarily foregrounding it in the teachings of the Gautama Buddha.
Mindfulness Myth: Mindfulness is About Having a Clear, Empty, or Blank Mind
Stop everything, it's time to meditate.
Step one - stop thinking.
You can’t, can you?
No one can shut their mind off at will. Often, the harder we try, the louder our minds become in the effort. Which brings us to another common mindfulness myth - the myth of an empty mind. The reality of mindfulness is more that there are different filters which we knowingly, but more often unknowingly, apply to our awareness. Filters of thoughts and filters of emotions.
Regardless of the filter by which our awareness directs itself, mindfulness is not about totally clearing out the mind, becoming a blank slate. Rather, it is about learning the ability to not get lost in our thoughts and emotions. Dr. Sears encourages us to, the next time we feel frustrated about not being able to shut off our minds in meditation, instead reframe our understanding of mindfulness.
We have the capacity to discern between having a thought and knowing when we’re having a thought instead of getting lost in the snowball effect of thought after thought after thought. In this way, we become more open to experiencing the present moment, just as it is - no myth-making necessary.
Mindfulness Myth: When You are Mindful, You Rise Above Your Emotions
Similarly to the previous myth, this one can be really easy to beat ourselves up over if we perceive ourselves as failing somehow.
Our emotions are natural and can be functionally useful in helping us to move through the world. Our emotions can also take us for wild rides - we can find ourselves getting stressed over stress, anxious about anxiety, or depressed about depression. We can latch on for the ride and, before we know it, we can lose our perspective and become entirely reactive. This reactivity is what mindfulness can help us to step away from - not the emotion itself.
Mindfulness helps to impart a sense of observation, of acceptance and acknowledging the emotion as a transient experience of the mind. The point is not to eliminate or control the emotion. Similarly, mindfulness is not a method of replacing a ‘negative’ emotion with a ‘positive’ emotion. Let’s look at why.
Mindfulness Myth: Mindfulness Makes You Happy
Dr. Sears describes a popular cartoon about mindfulness that shows a person sitting in meditation. The figure is thinking ‘today, I’ll be fully present in the moment - unless the moment is miserable. Then I’ll eat a cookie.’
This quip relates to our discomfort with our more difficult emotions, our desire to distract ourselves from them rather than to transform our relationships to them. Again, this desire, like all desires and emotions, is natural. The point isn’t to fight it. But just gently reframing it can help make the experience a bit friendlier - and a bit more mindful.
Put another way - compare an experience you’ve had of chasing happiness and not achieving it with an experience of feeling happiness come spontaneously.
Both times, the happiness will leave eventually, whether you cling to it or not. But didn’t that clingy chasing experience feel less, well, happy, than the spontaneous experience of happiness did?
Just as we can’t force negative emotions away, we can’t force happy emotions to stay. Mindfulness is not a tool of force - but it can help us to experience the present more fully. When we experience the present more fully, we become better equipped to notice those tiny moments of gratitude and contentment that are available to all of us.
Mindfulness Myth: Mindfulness Cures Mental Disorders
While mental health is an extremely broad topic, one useful way to look at it is that it involves a relative degree of mental flexibility.
Decades of clinical research have shown that psychological flexibility is useful in helping individuals achieve what is, for them, their own relative range of adaptive behaviors or responses. Psychological disorders from across the diagnostic manual share one common denominator - psychological inflexibility. This inflexibility results in individuals repeating behaviors that do not work out for them, a persistence in unhelpful responses to internal or external factors.
Clinical studies have also shown that practicing mindfulness can help us relate to our thoughts and emotions in a more adaptive, flexible way, allowing us to step out of our own way to make conscious choices more, and to react less.
While mindfulness and mental flexibility are interrelated, they are not necessarily the same thing. Mindfulness and mental health are not necessarily mutually inclusive, either. Dr. Sears mentions that one of the big challenges in clinical research lies in developing a concise way to measure or standardize mindfulness as a treatment. With the rapid rise in scientific and popular interest in mindfulness, thousands of studies have been conducted - but not all are equally scientifically valid.
As clinicians continue to pave the path towards a standardized model for treating mental disorders with mindfulness, we recommend a moderate, multi-pronged approach. Mindfulness practice is a tool. Used in daily life and in conjunction with conventional therapy, mindfulness can effect positive changes - but it cannot ‘cure’ disorders.
If you are experiencing any sort of distress that is interfering with your day to day life in negative ways, seek qualified professional help.
Mindfulness Myth: Mindfulness Completely Rewires the Brain
This final myth of the episode is deeply related to the previous myth, and an important one to tease out just a bit further. Perhaps the best way to attack this myth is to cut right to the point - mindfulness is proving to help subtly rewire the human brain, not completely.
Recent advancements in brain scanning and imaging have allowed us to finally seek out and directly witness the physical effects of mindfulness on the mind. Dr. Sears introduces us to a concept known as Hebb’s Rule, which goes something like this - neurons that fire together, wire together. In other words, if we use certain brain circuits regularly, our brain prioritizes them for greater efficiency of use.
This has been demonstrated in controlled studies comparing participants both before and after incorporating mindfulness practice in their daily lives. Not only were participants able to more calmly, non-reactively abide with stressors, but their brains also evince greater volume in areas of the brain associated with impulse control. The key was the habitual use of mindfulness based practices - habitual exercise of the neurons responsible for positive growth and adaptive responses in humans.
You’ll have to tune into the episode to learn all the incredible details of Dr. Sears’ clinical work, but perhaps this will give you a taste:
right now, at this very moment, your brain is taking in new information. In order to take in this information, something needs to change. Your brain is rewiring itself, right now.
We hope this episode recap has sparked interest in you. Perhaps you have your own myths surrounding mindfulness that you are already beginning to re-examine. We look forward to having you join us next week as we tackle six more myths of mindfulness!
Listen to the Mindfulness Off the Cushion podcast and learn how to be as alive as you can be while you have the chance!