As mindfulness has entered the mainstream there has been a mixture of excitement, confusion and scepticism. It claims to reduce stress, but is not necessarily relaxing. Our mental space becomes clearer but it is not making the mind blank, or zoning out. We observe and engage with thoughts, yet don’t try to control, manage or modify them. Some of these training tools are variants of ancient mind training techniques, but practicing mindfulness doesn’t make you a Buddhist.
Recall from previous blogs the invitation to listen mindfully, how you can use the transitional pause practice as you move from task to task, or home to work, and the benefits of mindful eating. All these activities will help you to train your brain to be more often in a “mindful mode”.
To help you get the most out of these experiments, this blog will bust some of the common circulating myths and confusions mentioned above. This will allow you to proceed with confidence with mindfulness in your day to day life.
Where would it be helpful for you to be a bit more attentive, a bit less reactive and a bit kinder? It is often in relationships that this really pays off but there may be other areas where you see that distraction, judging and getting in a reactive flap are getting in the way of what you really need to be getting on with – at work, or in your life more generally.
Look out for these common “de-railers” of mindful mode:
- When we pause, sit still, the body often relaxes…….and the mind follows. Falling asleep is very common in the early stages of mindfulness training. Our bodies are so happy to be still and the breath can (sometimes) be so soothing. We drift, lose focus and then nod off. This is fine if we need to sleep, but less helpful if we want to train our attention networks and get the full power of mindfulness. We want to be relaxed in the body and alert in the mind – the optimum of human functioning.
- Many people use visualisations such as going to their “happy place” to help them feel more confident or relaxed. While this engages the default mode network (a brain circuit that can draw up memories and create images in our mind), it is not the same as mindfulness. Mindfulness asks us to monitor the flow of bodily and mental states, not create mental sensations and get lost in them. Would this be helpful at work when you need to be present, responsive and right there? Day-dreaming and zoning out are mind states where we are not present, not engaged and not alert to the changing context around us.
- Attempts to control or argue against thoughts is not mindfulness. There are techniques to suppress, distract or challenge thinking and they work for some people. However, a more energy efficient way is to engage mindfully with our thoughts, without judging them or needing them to be different. We don’t indulge them, but we also don’t scold ourselves for having them. Let them have space, but also be firm. You want to be fully present. Use bodily sensations and especially the soles of the feet to help you get back to here and now. You can’t attend to the sensations of your feet on the floor from five minutes ago or five minutes in the future.
While mindfulness can induce a sense of relief, it is not the same as relaxation. With mindfulness, we are lightly but actively monitoring the present moment and our mind’s tendency to wander. Getting familiar with the wandering mind means we can learn its patterns and signatures. We can practice being present and less judgemental and reactive. When we can do this with our own body and mind, somehow it is easier to be kinder and more open to others.
Is it Buddhism?
It is true that many of the practices taught in today’s secular mindfulness courses are variants of contemplative practices. Many teachers of secular mindfulness have themselves trained in these traditions but are keen to share the benefits as widely as possible. This is why we now have “secular” mindfulness. These are mindfulness techniques that have been adapted and extracted from contemplative traditions so they can be delivered in health, work, and educational settings.
One aspect that seems key in gaining the benefits of mindfulness is the development of self and other compassion. The idea of being kind to ourselves and taking care of others is one that is seen across many spiritual and religious traditions. It seems to have been forgotten in much of today’s world. When we slow down, pause, reduce reactivity and really look with kindly interest at what our bodies and our minds are up to, we can discover many areas of thinking and doing where we are being quite harsh on ourselves. Mindfulness can help us to cultivate and generate a gentler inner voice, a less critical inner dialogue and a greater acceptance of ALL the emotions that make up our psychological life. When we have familiarity with this, we have more possibilities to act skilfully and wisely and in a way, that is in line with our own personal values and ideals. We also learn more quickly and efficiently. This seems very relevant to the challenges we face in today’s world.