Myth #1: Mindfulness-based approaches encourage you to never think, plan, contemplate, problem-solve or worry
Recently I read an article that criticised mindfulness for encouraging people not to think. The author argued that thinking is important not only an individual level, but also in terms of our society progressing. New ideas, inventions, perspectives and innovation all happen when we think. On this point, I couldn’t agree more. To suggest that the mindfulness encourages people to stop thinking though is a misunderstanding of the concept of mindfulness.
The goal of mindfulness is not to stop thinking. The goal it is to change your relationship with your thoughts. Mindfulness involves watching your thoughts as they unfold, without judgement. So rather than seeing thoughts as “good”, “bad” “true” or “untrue” in mindfulness all thoughts are equal. When we are mindful we step back and observe our thoughts rather than buying into them.
Your mind is a thought machine. Telling your mind not to think is like telling your eyes not to see or telling your ears not hear. Up until a decade ago “thought stopping” techniques were popular in the world of psychology. Since this time however, researchers have discovered a paradox – when you try to stop yourself from having a particular thought this thought ends up dominating your attention. The thought becomes louder, more intrusive, more obsessive and more distressing.
Myth #2: Mindfulness is the same as distraction
Distraction involves deliberately shifting your attention away from some aspect of your experience, usually because it is too distressing. Mindfulness is about staying with your experience, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable or upset. Instead of struggling against our thoughts and emotions by buying into them or avoiding them, we work towards acceptance of them as they are. By accepting our experience we are not saying that we like, want or approve of what’s going on for us. We are simply accepting that this is how it is, right now, and that struggling against our experience is not effective or helpful in the short or long term. Ultimately this struggle creates more pain and suffering.
Having said all this, as a psychologist (and for myself as a person) I believe that there is a time and a place for distraction. Some emotions, thoughts, physical sensations and urges feel like a tidal wave, particularly if they are associated with traumatic or painful experiences. If accepting and staying with your experience doesn’t feel right, distraction can be effective alternative. Distraction techniques help you to get some space between you and your emotion. These techniques temporarily help you to stop thinking about your emotion, giving you time and space to think about how you will cope with the emotion (because it can be difficult to think rationally when we are caught up in strong emotions like anger, guilt or sadness).
It is really important to note that distraction is very different from avoidance. Avoidance is avoiding emotions permanently – making a choice not to confront them. Distraction, on the other hand, is a temporary measure – the idea is to come back to your experience once the emotion has died down.
Myth #3: Mindfulness is a form of relaxation
As a psychologist I find that this is one of the most common misunderstandings about mindfulness. Relaxation can certainly be an effective strategy for improving mental health, particularly stress and anxiety, but it is not the purpose of mindfulness (although at times it can be a bonus by-product). The goal of mindfulness is to develop the skill of sitting with your experience, no matter what it is. Through mindfulness practice we can develop the ability to stay with our fear, our anger or our sadness without trying to change it or alter it in anyway.
Myth #4: Mindfulness is about always living in the moment
Mindfulness practice helps you to live “in the moment” more. It wouldn’t be safe or wise for us to be living in the moment all the time though. In certain situations it is necessary and helpful to spend time planning for the future. Reflecting on the past can also help us to understand ourselves better and assist us in making better decisions about our future. Mindfulness is about restoring the balance so that you spend more time being present in your life and less time up in your head.
Do you ever find yourself mid-way through a conversation suddenly realising that you haven’t really been listening to the person in front of you? Perhaps you were off in your head planning what you need to buy at the supermarket or replaying a conversation you had with your partner. With ongoing mindfulness you’ll begin to notice sooner rather than later when your mind has wandered off. This awareness will help you to be more conscious and present in your interactions with others.
When you do decide that you want to spend some time reviewing the past or making plans for the future, you’ll be more likely to make a conscious choice to do this. This will bring a different quality to your thinking process, perhaps leading to more clarity.
Myth #5: Before you start practising mindfulness you need to know the theory well
I have a penchant for self-help and psychology books. My bookshelf and bedside table are overflowing with all kinds of personal stories, techniques and theories about psychology and mindfulness. Ironically, one of the things I have learned through my reading about mindfulness is that to really understand and benefit from mindfulness you need to get your hands dirty and actually “do it”. Reading about it only got me so far.
If you think you could benefit from using mindfulness in your own life, but don’t know where to get started contact us to arrange an appointment today. Each of our psychologists are experienced in the use of mindfulness for improving mental health and enhancing wellbeing and satisfaction with life.