Mindfulness has become the biggest thing since sliced bread. In many ways this is a great thing. According to science, mindfulness can help us lead happier, healthier lives. But as the mindfulness movement gains momentum, misconceptions and misinformation have popped up all over the place. Here are a few of the biggest myths about mindfulness and the facts that contradict those myths.
THE 5 BIGGEST MYTHS ABOUT MINDFULNESS
Myth #1 – Mindfulness is meditation.
Mindfulness is awareness. It’s paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment. You don’t need a meditation cushion, or even more than a split second, to be mindful. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the first American mindfulness researchers, likens mindfulness to being behind a waterfall. You’re not under the waterfall, caught in the swirl and pounding of thoughts, emotions, and sensations, nor are you trying to stop or change them. Instead, you’re behind the cascade, observing all that’s happening without judgment.
Mindfulness meditation is a practice. It’s the awareness of mindfulness, sustained on an object. Most commonly your breath, but it could also be your bodily sensations, sounds, or even the thoughts running through your head. Additionally, you can mindfully meditate on the sensations of walking, washing dishes, or eating a cookie. You can be mindful of anything, and likewise, anything can be the object of mindfulness meditation. (1)
Myth #2 – Mindfulness is about taking time out to rest and relax.
Although stress reduction may be a side effect of mindfulness, mindfulness isn’t relaxation. Checking with your thoughts, body, and emotions decreases the chances of being yanked around by them, which in turn can decrease the drama in your life. Likewise, the “without judgment” part of mindfulness can also help reduce stress. (1)
Myth #3 – Mindfulness is about focusing or concentration.
While the benefit of increasing the ability to concentrate and focus can come from your mindfulness meditation practice, it is certainly not about focusing and concentration. Remember, mindfulness is about cultivating awareness. Concentration can be an important skill to cultivate for our well-being, but it is not mindfulness.
You can be sitting in meditation focusing on the breath and have your mind wander off hundreds of times. The fact that it wanders doesn’t mean you are unmindful. Every time you notice your mind has wandered, you are present, in a state of mindfulness. In that space, there’s the choice to gently bring your attention back.
In one moment you were mindful of a wandering mind, in the next you were mindful of the breath. Both involve awareness. (2)
Myth #4 – Mindfulness wears down your “grit”.
Having “grit”—being able to persist toward our goals, even when things get rough—is something many of us strive for. It’s a quality that’s valued at work, school, and life. But one could argue that mindfulness—with its focus on accepting “what is”—might keep us from caring about goals or pushing ourselves to achieve.
However, a recent study says otherwise. Students who reported being more mindful overall were found to be more “gritty” four months later, while the reverse wasn’t true—meaning, being grittier didn’t predict later mindfulness.
Myth #5 – Mindfulness makes you morally ambivalent.
If mindfulness is about accepting our present experience without judgment, we might think that practicing it would make it difficult to discern right from wrong. Furthermore, if everything is good just as it is, why would we think any behavior is bad?
But mindfulness may make us more discerning about moral behavior.
In a recent study, business students were randomly assigned to either an eight-week mindfulness course or a course in self-management (including emotional intelligence, trust, and creative thinking). Then, they were tested on their moral reasoning levels—or, how well they thought through moral dilemmas. Researchers presented them with a morally challenging scenario, like being asked by a boss to ignore an illegal transaction you uncovered between your firm and a favored client. Then, researchers asked them a series of questions, including what they would do in that situation and why. Their answers were recorded, and their moral reasoning was evaluated by independent raters.
Additionally, after running analyses, the researchers found that students receiving mindfulness training became more compassionate and less egocentric, and they had higher moral reasoning skills than those receiving self-management lessons. This suggests that mindfulness might improve moral reasoning—a precursor to better behavior—by helping students to care more about others.
Other studies have found similar results, though this line of research is relatively new. Still, mindfulness does seem to decrease egocentrism and increase compassion, both of which seem likely to lead to more ethical behavior. (3)
So, now that we’ve dispelled some of the myths about mindfulness, I invite you to try it out yourself. Here’s a five-minute breath awareness practice to get you started. Who knows? Maybe you’ll become a fan like so many others before you!
May your day be filled with peace,