Despite the growing popularity of secular mindfulness around the world in recent years, there are still many misconceptions about the practice. One of our goals in making The Mindfulness Movement documentary, which is available worldwide here with subtitles in many languages (along with 4 free resource videos), was to clear up some of those misconceptions, both for people who are new to mindfulness and for those already practicing. Let’s bust some of the top mindfulness myths:
1) Myth: Mindfulness and meditation are the same thing.
Reality: Mindfulness is a quality of attention and meditation is a type of mental training which can help build that mindful quality of attention. There are many different types of meditation, such as insight meditation, Zen, Transcendental, mantra, loving-kindness and an almost endless list of others. Think of meditation as a category like sports, with a huge number of sports falling within that category. Depending on what type of meditation you practice, you can train your mind to develop certain qualities such as focus, insight or compassion. The specific type of meditation known as mindfulness meditation is based on re-focusing the mind every time it wanders using a central point of focus such as your breath or a spot on the wall. So mindfulness meditation develops the “mental muscle” of bringing yourself into the present moment.
But when people use the word mindfulness by itself what they’re really talking about is a mindful quality of attention that you can carry with you throughout the day. There is no single definition of mindfulness but they all contain some key elements like intentionally focusing on the present moment with awareness of your thoughts, feelings, sensations and surroundings in a non-judgmental way. So awareness, curiosity and avoiding labels such as “good” and “bad” are important aspects of mindfulness.
2) Myth: Meditation is the only way to develop a mindful quality of attention.
Reality: While formal, seated meditation may be the main way to build mindfulness, it’s not the only way. There are many types of present-moment awareness exercises such as mindful walking, mindful eating and mindful listening. So any time you slow down and fully focus on what is happening inside of you, both physically and mentally, and on your surroundings at that moment in a non-judgmental way is an opportunity to boost your mindful quality of attention.
As Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the pioneers of the secular mindfulness movement and author of many books on mindfulness says in our film, “There’s no moment that’s not a wonderful moment for mindfulness,” which is why he and other experts say you can be mindful while you’re doing the dishes or stuck in traffic or when you’re not really doing anything at all.
3) Myth: When I meditate or practice other present-moment awareness exercises, my mind is supposed to be completely blank and if thoughts keep popping into my head then I’m doing it wrong and should quit.
Reality: The truth about the way our brains are wired is that our minds never go completely blank for very long. A lot of people get discouraged when they start trying to meditate or practice mindfulness in other ways because random thoughts will keep popping into their heads and they’ll assume they’re bad at being mindful, get discouraged and quit.
Actually, the moment when you realize your mind has wandered and you return your focus to your breath (or another point of focus, like a spot on the wall) is a moment of mindfulness! That’s the part that’s like doing a rep of lifting a weight at the gym, the moment when you’re building your mindful mental muscle. So instead of seeing the moment when you realize your mind has wandered as a failure, take the opportunity to see it as a success and another step on the way to building a more consistent mindful quality of attention!
4) Myth: It takes a long time to see any benefits.
Reality: You don’t have to meditate for hours each day or move to a cave in the mountains to start experiencing the benefits of a mindfulness practice. While there’s no magic number for the minimum amount of time to practice each day, indications are that meditating for about 10-15 minutes and finding other quick moments during the day to take a few mindful breaths and refocus is enough to deliver benefits such as reduced anxiety and depression, lower blood pressure, as well as increased focus, feelings of contentment and many other benefits.
In fact, as neuroscientist Richard Davidson, co-author of “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, & Body,” says in the movie, studies have shown that structural changes in the brain (such as growth in the prefrontal cortex and reduced mass in the “fight or flight” part of the brain) can be measured after just two weeks of practice. Psychologist Daniel Goleman, co-author of Altered Traits, adds in the film that even in the first few weeks of a mindfulness practice, “You’re triggered less, you recover more quickly and when you’re triggered you get less upset.”
5) Myth: Practicing mindfulness is selfish and self-absorbed.
Reality: While a mindfulness practice does involve taking time for yourself to meditate, engage in other present-moment awareness exercises and observe your own thoughts, the ultimate objective of an ethical mindfulness practice is to become more focused, less emotionally reactive and more compassionate so you’re better able to help others. As mindfulness teacher George Mumford, author of “The Mindful Athlete,” says in the film, “it’s really about cultivating wisdom so that we eradicate or alleviate suffering.” That means relieving suffering for yourself and others.
We hope that busting these mindfulness myths will help you either begin a mindfulness practice or re-energize your existing practice so we can all create a healthier, happier world together! For more information, inspiring stories of personal transformation and examples of mindfulness helping people of all ages and backgrounds, check out our movie at TheMindfulnessMovement.com.
Please note: the producers of The Mindfulness Movement may receive an affiliate commission from books purchased through the links above. Bookshop.org is a non-profit that supports independent bookstores.