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Mindfulness Misconceptions

Mindfulness Teacher and Author of Into The Heart of Mindfulness

IP Interview
Published on April 30, 2020

Why is this interview interesting?

  • Mindfulness practice is not primarily about trying to calm the mind
Executive Bio

Ed Halliwell

Mindfulness Teacher and Author of Into The Heart of Mindfulness

Ed is a UK-based mindfulness teacher. He has written three books: Into The Heart of Mindfulness, Mindfulness: How To Live Well By Paying Attention (published in a new edition as Mindfulness Made Easy) and (as co-author) The Mindful Manifesto. He is an associate of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre and Sussex Mindfulness Centre, and regularly speaks on mindfulness-related topics, in the media and at conferences, festivals and other events. He leads public mindfulness courses, workshops and retreats in London, Surrey and Sussex, and has introduced and taught mindfulness in workplaces such as Accenture, UNICEF UK, Imperial College Business School, and the Houses of Parliament.

Interview Transcript

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.

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