Saturday, October 19, 2013

6 Common False Views About Mindfulness Practice

Inspired in part by some of the comments on this blog, I posted this on the Huffington Post earlier this week:

Mindfulness is often times misunderstood, and that's unfortunate. Such misconceptions can lead folks to give up their practice prematurely. It can also prevent them from reaping the full benefits of true mindfulness. Here are some of the most common false views about mindfulness that I have encountered and ways to change them: 

1. I can't stop my thoughts. 

Mindfulness is not about stopping one from thinking. Rather it is about noticing when thoughts arise and then bringing the mind back to the intended object of our awareness, often times the breath. To expect the mind to not think is ludicrous. The brain is programmed to think, and we spend most of our waking life thinking. It is unreasonable to expect the brain to shut off its thinking mode, just because we want to. When we meditate, we realize we are not in control. 

2. A few minutes is good enough. 

Even mindfulness is not immune to our fast-everything culture. There are teachers, and books that promulgate the idea that just a few minutes of mindfulness from time to time is enough. That is unfortunately not so. While it is true that a little bit of mindfulness is better than none, the reality is that mindfulness is just like any other skill. Practice a little, and you will make little progress. Practice a lot, and you will gain a lot. A good rule of thumb for mindfulness practice is 30 minutes of formal practice every day. I recommend first thing in the morning, as one is more likely to practice that way, and also one can reap the benefit of their early practice during the whole day. 

3. I imagine I am in a meadow. 

Guided imagery has its own set of healing properties. And it is not mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is about cultivating awareness of the present moment, not being taken away somewhere else. Next time you decide to meditate, remember to stay where you are! 

4. I feel worse when I meditate. 

With that statement, comes the immediate implication that meditation is not a good thing and should be abandoned. This idea comes from the false assumption that mindfulness is about feeling good. While it is true that mindfulness often leads to feeling more peaceful and content within oneself, there are many moments along the way when practice is all but pleasant. It is not unusual for new meditators to feel physical and emotional pains they were not aware of before. Meditation is about being mindful of what is, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant. 

5. Mindfulness is about just being aware. 

Another misconception is the notion that mindfulness is strictly a passive activity. Mindfulness in daily life -- not when sitting for formal practice -- encompasses both moment-to-moment awareness and skillful interventions based on what is observed. If I find my thoughts going in a direction which I know is harmful to myself or others, I am to stop those thoughts and substitute them with other more adaptive thoughts. This comes with practice, and is an important aspect of mindfulness. Commonly used cognitive therapy techniques for depression and anxiety, are a version of such mindfulness practice. 

6. I paint, that's my meditation. 

To get lost into the flow of a pleasurable or creative activity is not mindfulness, although it does entail the ability to concentrate which is part of mindfulness practice. When I used to paint for hours, I would get so absorbed into what I was doing, that I would lose track of time. But I could not remember much of what had happened during all those hours. When I meditate, the opposite happens. The emphasis is on putting my full attention on the present moment and being aware. It also involves insight, the ability to learn about myself in relationship to the present moment experience. 

I hope this is helpful... and I wish you to practice well!


  1. Interesting to contrast point 1 (“we are not in control”) with point 5 (“I am to stop those thoughts and substitute them with other more adaptive thoughts”). While this busy process of trying to control one’s thoughts -- stopping some thoughts, creating other thoughts -- undoubtedly can have its place as a useful tool for some people in some situations, ultimately thoughts are not the real problem.

  2. Very well said. I have gone through all of them!!

  3. Yes indeed, this is an helpful article for newbies and (pro's who underestimate the power of mindfulness). mindfulness practice allows you to feel each time you take breath in and out. Beauty of this practice is that you can’t do it wrong, and you can’t do it right. For those don't know it, they must try it, two times a day, for about 2 weeks, and notice how they feel.

  4. Good points and good solutions! A couple or three of them feel uncomfortably familiar ...

  5. This is such a helpful post. I think you are correct in your idea that mindfulness is often misunderstood. Reading your post has brought to light some ways in which I have had wrong views about mindfulness, and so I am very glad that you have pointed these out. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and experience. If you don't mind, I hope to point any readers of my blog here because I think that anyone can benefit from what you have so skillfully written.

    May you be well and happy!