Mindfulness is such a pervasive topic these days that it feels like it’s infiltrated every corner of life (even the NY Knicks are using it!). And, everyone has tips on how to be mindful. Headspace, the mindfulness training app, is advertising during sporting events. Wall Street and large corporations are bringing in mindfulness experts, as are schools, and mindfulness is the biggest and best treatment of the moment for everything from anxiety to depression to obesity! With such high expectations and so many public figures touting its amazing results, there’s a lot of pressure on people to do it, do it well, and feel “better” because of it.
That last part is the real problem with the explosion of mindfulness onto the scene; mindfulness isn’t really about feeling better! And, in an effort to widen its appeal to the masses, mindfulness has been watered down to the point that it is no longer connected to its roots. It’s no wonder that author Ruth Whippman would write an article talking about how the mindfulness backers of the world have created a system that seemingly shames people for being mindful “wrong.” Maybe it’s time to clear up some mindfulness myths that Ms. Whippman (and many others) hold.
Mindfulness Brings Happiness
In Ms. Whippman’s article, she states that “in order to maximize our happiness, we should refuse to succumb to domestic autopilot and instead be fully ‘in’ the present moment.” This way of thinking, that the goal of mindfulness (or life, for that matter) is to feel happy is one of the greatest myths about mindfulness that causes the greatest amount of people to feel that it doesn’t work for them, or that they are doing it “wrong.” Mindfulness is about experiencing whatever is happening for you in the moment, good or bad, without judging it. Sometimes, moments are terrible and you don’t feel good. That is a part of life; to live means you will have moments that are uncomfortable and that you wish were over. A mindful approach suggests that you experience this discomfort, without trying to “escape it” or even to understand it. Just experiencing your own discomfort in the moment is enough.
As you read this, you might be wondering, “Why would I want to experience discomfort? I don’t really like discomfort, and if thinking about my upcoming vacation makes me smile, then why wouldn’t I do that?” It’s a great question, and it depends on what you want to get out of the moment. If you are sitting with a friend who is in pain and you start to think about your vacation you might not be the friend you really want to be in that moment! Sitting with your (and their) discomfort and noticing your urge to think about something else is mindfulness.
Distraction from Everyday Worries is a Good Thing
One of the major arguments that Ms. Whippman makes against being in the present moment is that we get pleasure and meaning in our lives from having goals/thoughts/wants about the future that we strive for. Her argument is that thinking about those pulls us away from the moment, and that we need them, so we should forget about mindfulness. In fact, she goes on to say that for many people, everyday life stinks, and it’s in your best interest to think about something different from what you’re doing in the moment. Again, this is part of the happiness trap that we all live in, which says that we should feel good all the time, no exceptions.
The problem with that is that it doesn’t hold up to research, even the research on happiness. In his TED talk, Matt Killingsworth tackles this topic and shares his research on over 30,000 people. The end result is that we are happier when we are present in the moment, even if that moment is something we dislike doing.
Present Moment means No Day Dreaming or Planning
This is perhaps the most difficult myth to debunk, especially when mindfulness is distilled down to buzz words and phrases that lose the nuance that they were originally imbued with. Present Moment Thinking means that whatever your current moment is, you are intimately involved with it. For some, the present moment is about day dreaming, or planning that future trip. It may even be a choice one is making to think about that trip because the experience of what they are undergoing is so difficult, and they lose nothing by making the choice to escape mentally. Ms. Whippman said “Surely one of the most magnificent feats of the human brain is its ability to hold past, present, future and their imagined alternatives in constant parallel,” and she is right! It is an amazing gift we have, when it’s used properly.
Mindfulness is trying to help people avoid the phenomenon Dr. Killingsworth discusses as Mind Wandering. This is when we are mentally taken out of a moment without having made a conscious choice to do so, or when we are leaving a moment to help soothe discomfort in the moment (and we suffer a cost in the end). For example, when you’re sitting in a boring meeting, and your mind wanders to what you’ll get for lunch, and now you’ve missed important information that you need. Or, go back to the example of the upset friend. Allowing your mind to wander comes at the expense of your friendship.
Mindfulness is about so much more than meditation or being “in the moment.” It is about being able to be an observer of yourself, and make conscious decisions and choices about how you want to engage in your life.