Myths of Mindfulness, Part Two
Updated: Apr 1, 2022
In Part Two of our podcast series on unpacking the myths of mindfulness, we jump right back into the good stuff - busting those myths. Our Season Two special guest, Dr. Richard Sears, penned an entire book on the topic in 2021 and we encourage you to check it out to explore the topic further. As you read or listen along, pause to take note. Which myths resonate most with you? What might they be pointing to, in terms of work you can do to overcome any hurdles to mindfulness that you may be experiencing in your life?
Mindfulness Myth: I Don’t Have Time to Be Mindful
It’s a bit of a paradox. A mindfulness practice can contribute greater ease to the stress of our busy lives - yet it takes time and commitment, which is in short supply for many of us these days. Dr. Sears offers up a surprising answer to this question, by way of one of the great modern mindfulness teachers, Jon Kabat-Zinn.
When a student asked Kabat-Zinn “What do you do if you’re too busy to be mindful?,” his reply was this - “Just don’t do it.”
Coming from a major proponent of mindfulness meditation, this answer may seem unorthodox - even inappropriate, but it's actually pointing to a useful reframing of the term ‘practice.’
If carving out the time and space for one more activity simply isn’t realistic for you, then there's a rather low likelihood that you will actually accomplish it. Why beat yourself up for that? Instead, Dr. Sears draws from Kabat-Zinn’s answer by advising that we instead focus on a more informal mode of practice. This leads us directly into the second myth we discuss.
Mindfulness Myth: Mindfulness Can Only Be Done With Formal Daily Exercises
Rather than fixating on the need to formalize your practice, dig into the possibilities of being mindful in an informal way.
One funny way to look at it? Remembering to remember more. This isn’t so much about memory recall as it is about reassembling yourself, recalling where you are right now.
Again, this isn’t some elaborate, formal practice. Perhaps that’s checking in with your body periodically while you’re sitting at your desk and performing a brief body scan. Notice where you feel any tension. Notice where you may be holding your breath, your neck, your shoulders tightly. If remembering to take this time to notice - without interrupting your day - gradually builds up to become a regular habit, all the better.
When you commit to being more attentive of the present moment, you may just find yourself there. As Claudio remarked, that act of noticing in and of itself can be a powerful thing. Dr. Sears also shared a wonderful nugget of wisdom from his recently passed Zen teacher. Ask yourself - “what is this?,” and respond to yourself with “I don’t know.” Thinking is not the same as experiencing, directly knowing, reality. When we remove some of this urge to formalize and analyze in our approach, the barriers to mindfulness begin to come down.
Mindfulness Myth: It Takes Years to Become Mindful
In dismantling this myth, we get the pleasure of digging into Dr. Sears’ wealth of experience in Ninjutsu. While you’ll have to tune in to hear all the details, we come away with the sense that there is plenty of intentional overlap between the philosophy of the ninja and modern mindfulness. Even with a sixth degree black belt, Dr. Sears is constantly learning and applying new ways to come back to his own presentness of mind. Just the same, each of us has the tools it takes to become mindful, right now. There is no magic number or degree of wisdom that precludes us from attaining mindfulness. As Lance summarizes, there is no ‘secret ninja flavor of mindfulness’ - your life is your practice.
Mindfulness Myth: Mindfulness Interferes With Your Ability to Work
Speaking of life as practice, we easily segue into this next myth. They say that we spend one third of our life at work. So it stands to reason that, if we commit to making mindfulness practice an innate part of our lives, we may begin to see quite a lot of interference in terms of our productivity, right? Well, not quite. This myth seems to be grounded in studies that take on attention-grabbing, if somewhat misleading, headlines in the popular press.
One study found that workers who paused to do body scans seemed to actually use the practice as a means to momentarily escape work. Does escape count as mindfulness practice if the intent is skewed? Another study brought about even bigger questions. The more attentive participants became while practicing mindfulness at work, the more they began to question: were they doing something that actually mattered to them? Does the work matter?
In examining the questions these types of studies pose, alongside other broad generalizations that mindfulness is the key to improving literally all workplace woes, we come to a land on a middle ground. Mindfulness is not a productivity tool, nor is it a stress reduction tool. Mindfulness is not a productivity killer, either.
When we take away the goal-oriented approach to incorporating mindfulness at work, we may take away a bit of the allure that it has for so many HR departments. But removing this goal-oriented attitude also frees us up as individuals to be mindful in work, in life, without expectations. Removing expectations can, in turn, actually free us up from just a bit of the stress we encounter that surrounds them. Which brings us to our next myth.
Mindfulness Myth: Mindfulness Requires Non-Judgmental Acceptance
Now, this one may be a bit of a head scratcher. Isn’t non-judgmental acceptance one of the core tenets of mindfulness? Dr. Sears acknowledges that he included the term non-judgmental to get our minds spinning around what that means. Rather than accepting everything point blank, it may be more useful to frame mindfulness as a temporary suspension of judgment. When we intentionally practice setting aside our judgements and comparisons, just for a bit, we are able to listen to and observe what is actually happening in the present moment. We can extend that temporary suspension to other people, to phenomena around us, and to ourselves. In this way, we may even be practicing compassion - without even realizing it. Without judging.
Mindfulness Myth: You Can Only Be Mindful in a Peaceful Setting
Not all of us can afford the luxury of escaping to the Himalayas to practice meditation in the company of monks. But we’d like to think that in dismantling some of the previous myths we’ve looked at, it's become apparent that mindfulness can be taken with you anywhere you go.
In fact, mindfulness is much more beneficial to us when we can pull it out of our pockets on the go, rather than waiting for the perfect setting to present itself to us. Dr. Sears recounts teaching mindfulness in action to a group of emergency room staff members - even in the midst of great urgency, pain, and stress, we all have the ability to call upon our attentiveness of mind. The point, importantly, is not to escape to a happy place but to be fully present, wherever the moment takes us.
In wrapping up our epic exploration of the myths of mindfulness, Lance throws a bit of a curveball at his co-hosts and combines two myths in one. Only the great saints can practice mindfulness - it's just not for me - and it takes years to accomplish it, anyway. So why bother? Here, Dr. Sears leaves up with a reminder. We are all born with mindfulness. It is not an abstract concept, nor is it an achievement reserved only for the few ninjas and monks of the world.
Minds of all abilities and ages are just that - minds. We all have the capability to get lost in the flow of experiencing life, simply as it is, from moment to moment. On the flip-side, we all have the habit of getting carried away in our thoughts, emotions, judgements, and expectations.
Stand back and ask yourself, “who am I?” It’s a loaded question and can be seemingly impossible to answer. Identifying with your thoughts and emotions can frequently bring about stress - and the urge to control it. We all do it! But as many good counselors and therapists would like to remind us, we are not our thoughts. We are not our emotions. We can observe thoughts and emotions as they come and go inside our brains, but they are not who we are.
As a final tip for more mindful living, we end the episode briefly discussing the impact that sleep can have on our attentiveness. Might prioritizing sleep also help us in our quest for more mindful living? This may be a topic for a future episode, so stay tuned - and in the meantime, go get some quality zzz’s.
Listen to the Mindfulness Off the Cushion podcast and learn how to be as alive as you can be while you have the chance!