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Mindfulness May Not Mean What You Think It Means

By: Jonathan Smith, Psy.D

person sitting in a chair on a porch with their eyes closed

March 2, 2023

I’ve spent a surprising amount of time trying to find ways to avoid using the word “mindfulness,” which is a strange and difficult position to be in as I am the owner of a practice with the word in its name. Many of the clinicians I work with who incorporate mindfulness into their personal lives and clinical work have shared that they face a similar dilemma. I wanted to write a bit about that dilemma and hopefully change the perception some folks have about mindfulness.

In recent years, mindfulness has become a buzzword in the world of self-improvement and mental health. From corporate wellness programs to self-help books, mindfulness is touted as a solution to everything from stress to anxiety to depression. While there is no doubt that mindfulness can be a powerful tool for improving mental and emotional well-being, the buzz around mindfulness can also be a distraction from what mindfulness is really about: learning to be present and compassionate with oneself and others.

The marketing of mindfulness has been targeted, as marketing often is, toward specific people. Specifically, mindfulness has come to be considered something that wealthy white people can pursue. This has left a lot of people out of the conversation and likely made many less willing to consider or explore it. Additionally, the focus on acceptance of the present moment has been misconstrued to mean that injustice, inequality, and other social ills simply need to be accepted and that no efforts should be made to make change. This can be a turn-off for socially conscious people and activists. In reality, applying mindful acceptance to these problems does not mean accepting them as unchangeable. It actually means accepting that the problems exist, which is a necessary starting point for any efforts to make change.

People are often turned off by the word itself because of how it is used and the associations that come along with it. As a non-religious person, I have had some people express surprise that I am interested in mindfulness. People often hear the word and think it is associated exclusively with spirituality of some sort. In reality, while mindfulness is key to some belief systems, such as Buddhism, it is a skill that each of us has. It can be strengthened in each of us and it can be weakened in each of us.

So, what is mindfulness? At its core, mindfulness is a practice of paying attention to the present moment with an open and non-judgmental attitude. It is about being aware of one’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations without getting caught up in them or reacting to them. Mindfulness can be practiced through meditation, breathing exercises, and other techniques.

While the buzz around mindfulness has helped to bring attention to the practice, it has also created some misconceptions about what mindfulness is and how it works. Here are some common misunderstandings about mindfulness:

  1. Mindfulness requires you to “clear your mind:” I have had many people say to me that they cannot meditate because their mind wanders too much. I have said similar things in the past before I understood what mindfulness is. First, your mind will not be clear as long as your brain is functioning. Our brains are vastly complex electrochemical machines. There is always something going on. The skill of mindfulness involves selecting what to focus on. People can become frustrated when they attempt to meditate but notice their thoughts wander. Often the response is, “just don’t judge yourself and return your focus to your breathing.” That advice misses an important point, which is that the entire goal of meditating is to notice when your mind has wandered and bring it back. A mindfulness instructor once shared a helpful reframe with me and the other students in a class I was taking. Refocusing your attention when it wanders is like doing a single repetition of an exercise. Each time we refocus, we strengthen that muscle a little bit more.
  2. Mindfulness is a quick fix: One of the biggest misconceptions about mindfulness is that it is a quick fix for stress and anxiety. While mindfulness can be helpful in managing these feelings, it is not a magic cure-all. It takes time and practice to develop.
  3. Mindfulness is only for certain people: Another misconception about mindfulness is that it is only for certain types of people, such as those who are naturally calm or spiritual or those who can afford the right meditation mat and Tibetan singing bowl. In reality, anyone can practice mindfulness, regardless of their personality, beliefs or means.
  4. Mindfulness is all about relaxation: While mindfulness can help individuals feel more relaxed, it is not solely about relaxation and it may not be all that relaxing when you first start. Mindfulness is about learning to be present with all of one’s thoughts and emotions, even the difficult ones.
  5. Mindfulness is a solo activity: While mindfulness can be practiced alone, it is not solely an individual practice. Mindfulness can also be practiced in groups or with a partner, and can help individuals build deeper connections with others.

To truly learn and practice mindfulness, it is important to move beyond the buzz and hype around the practice. Here are some tips for learning and practicing mindfulness:

  1. Educate yourself: Take the time to learn about what mindfulness is and how it works. Read books or articles on the subject or attend a workshop or class.
    Practice regularly: Set aside time each day to practice mindfulness. Start with just a few minutes a day and gradually increase the amount of time you spend practicing.
  2. Focus on the present moment: When practicing mindfulness, focus on the present moment, without judgment. Be aware of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations, but don’t get caught up in them.
  3. Be kind to yourself: Practice self-compassion when practicing mindfulness. If your mind wanders or you feel distracted, notice any judgment that arises. Thinking of bringing your attention back as performing a single repetition of an exercise can be helpful in reframing the experience of becoming distracted. Each time you notice your mind has wandered and bring your focus back, you’re doing a rep and strengthening that muscle.
  4. Seek support: Consider joining a mindfulness group or working with a therapist who has experience with mindfulness. Having support and guidance can be helpful in developing mindfulness skills.
  5. Notice the ways in which you are already mindful: If you read, you’ve probably found times where you continue reading even though your mind has wandered. You may have read multiple pages but have no idea what they said. When you decide in the moment to re-engage with the text and work to maintain focus on it, you are practicing mindfulness.

While mindfulness has become a buzzword, it is important to move beyond the hype if you want to enjoy some of its benefits. By educating oneself, practicing regularly, focusing on the present moment, practicing self-compassion, and seeking support, you can improve upon the already existent skill to experience the benefits of mindfulness. It is not a quick fix or a magic cure-all, but with patience and practice, it can be a powerful tool for improving well-being and effectively addressing problems large and small.