What are some common misperceptions about the practice of mindfulness?

There are quite a few. The most common ones are that it’s, primarily, about relaxation or getting to a place of calm. By the way, it’s not that that can’t happen, but it seems to be unhelpful to try to get there. If we approach mindfulness meditation with the desire to become calm or relaxed, then we’re introducing a standard to try to get to, so we’re back into doing driven mode. As we know, let’s say I’m not feeling calm or relaxed today and I’m making that my goal, then the result is likely to be more stress. You’re actually likely to feel less relaxed and calm because, not only am I not feeling relaxed and calm, but I’m failing at meditation which, actually, isn’t the case.

If we can turn that into just noticing what’s going on and working with what’s going on, in a gentle, allowing, interested way, then there’s no failure, because we’re just noticing what we’re noticing and that’s useful information. Over time, it may be that that way of meeting your experience, may indeed lead to greater equanimity. But the trick is not to try to get there.

Another myth that sometimes comes up is that we’re going to have blank minds, if we meditate. There is going to be, somehow, this place of no thoughts.

I remember a quote from a friend of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who was a successful scientist, who said that he’d be worried about losing his mind, if he developed a formal (meditation) practice.

Sometimes, particularly with people who are very intelligent, there is that fear that, somehow, they might lose their edge, their sharpness, their capacity to do and make decisions. First of all, if you have a prolonged period of no thoughts, then let me know, because you’d probably be a good case study. The reality is that human minds think. This isn’t about trying to stop that. It’s about knowing that thinking, knowing that process and realizing, perhaps, that much of that thinking is automatic. Therefore, turning the thoughts from master into servant. Rather than being dominated, taking that perspective of looking. It’s about looking at our experience and noticing when we are driven by habits or thoughts that are not helpful.

Rather than, actually, turning us into zombies or making us less effective, I would argue that the opposite is true. By coming to know the way that our minds, to really understand what’s going on, and the practice of maintaining presence, is much more likely to help us be more resilient, healthier, happier and more effective, more skillful. The research bears this out. There are, currently, about 800 peer reviewed journal papers, with the word mindfulness in the title. In general, it’s a developing field, but the overall body of evidence points to the helpfulness of this way of meeting experience, for all of these different areas of our life. For our own wellbeing, for our relationships, for our capacity to meet difficulty with skill. Also, to experience the pleasurable aspects of life, with full presence, as well, to really savor when things are enjoyable and pleasant.

A way that I like to conceptualize this is to imagine our minds and bodies like a piece of equipment for which, very often, we’ve not been given the manual. Okay, maybe we’ve had some help in our childhood, perhaps. Family, school and some of that might have been more or less helpful. But it’s, somehow, often not explicit. I certainly remember, from my education, I learned a lot of stuff; I learned all my subjects and I ingested a lot of information. But nobody really ever taught me what it was or who it was that was ingesting that information or, indeed, what to do with it.

Initially, when I went out into my life, post-university, I won’t say rude awakening, as it took me a little while to realize I was asleep. In some sense, it was a rude awakening, in realizing how ill-equipped I was to handle the day to day of working life but, also, just life, outside of the confines of the educational system and outside of my family of origin. However, what mindfulness meditation helped with is to, if you like, find the manual and be able to read the manual. Which, of course, is ourselves anyway. To be able to read ourselves and to start to actually know how this thing, us, operates. Therefore, if we understand how it operates, that gives us the capacity to choose how to use it well.

As a final point on this, we talked about your example of somebody fearing that they might lose their mind, by practicing mindfulness meditation. Well, it turns out that many of our decisions and choices are made somewhat unconsciously, particularly if we’re not paying attention. Many of them are actually driven at the level of the body, driven by emotions and that’s a bit of a shortcut. There’s ways in which we actually make sense of our world, without needing to think about it, rationally. In many ways, it’s a good system; we learn something and it becomes automatic and a really quickfire response in the brain and the body. I don’t have to relearn how to tie my shoelaces every day or relearn how to drive a car. Those skills, by having been practiced over and over again, are embodied.

But it does mean, because those skills happen unconsciously, that we often lose our awareness of how they are used. For example, it’s very easy for me, if I am on autopilot, to drive a car and miss my turning, particularly if it’s a route I travel every day, if I’m needing to go somewhere else. I often hear people say that they have been driving a car and actually ended up in a different place from where they were intending to go. This was mostly before the days of satnavs. They ended up in a different place, because they were on autopilot. Only when they reach that destination do they realize, hang on a minute, this isn’t where I intended to go. Well, if that can happen driving a car, when else does it happen that we might end up in a place we didn’t intend to go, just because it’s the way we usually do things?

If we’re not paying attention, our emotions can drive us, our body sensations can drive us, our habits can drive us and our thoughts can drive us. We can end up in places we didn’t mean to go, because we weren’t paying attention. By paying attention, actually, we can be more aware, perhaps, of where we are intending to go and we can become more conscious of what is actually going on around us and not be driven, so automatically, when that’s not helpful.

I’d say that, maybe, this is more about finding ourselves than losing ourselves.

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