Five Things Everyone Gets Wrong About Mindfulness

Mindfulness may be everywhere these days—but people still get a lot wrong when they talk about what it is and why you should practice. Barry Boyce breaks down five myths about mindfulness.

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Myth #1: Mindfulness is just Buddhism in disguise

Mindfulness is a basic human inheritance and capability, and it’s not owned by any group, religion, or philosophy. As a capacity of the human mind, mindfulness can be trained with practices and disciplines, just as one can become a more skilled violinist through long practice or build one’s strength through weight training. Buddhist practitioners have done deep research on the subject, and the many Buddhist traditions offer myriad insights, but that doesn’t mean Buddhism owns mindfulness any more than Italians own pasta or Greeks own democracy.

Ironically, two concerns surround the relationship between mindfulness and Buddhism: Some Buddhists are concerned that mindfulness, if ripped from its moorings in Buddhism, is a sham; another group of critics is concerned about the opposite: that mindfulness—in a hospital or school, for example—is stealth Buddhism that will pop out and ensnare participants once they’re trapped in its web. Both of these assume mindfulness is inexorably married to Buddhism. It is a central practice in Buddhism, but the Buddha would not have claimed to have invented mindfulness, just as Newton would not have claimed gravity as his invention.

Some say it’s simply wrong to take mindfulness out of the context of Buddhism. They argue that it can be ineffectual—or even harmful—without two supports they feel are essential to meditation practice: ethical action and wisdom. Yet, the notion of ethical (or beneficial) action and seeing things clearly were also not invented by the Buddha, nor did the compassionate Buddha regard them to be part of a closed system. It’s unfair to deny the benefits of meditative practice to people because they’re not Buddhist and presume they can’t discover their interdependence with others and find ethical conduct and wisdom within themselves and the communities they’re part of.

For most of its history, mindfulness was not a word in wide use. This made it ripe for the picking when translator T. W. Rhys Davids decided to use it to render the Pali word sati, a Buddhist term for one of the key elements of meditation practice. Some commentators like to make reference to this event to establish the true meaning of mindfulness. But words don’t have “true” meanings. They grow and change and enter new contexts. Semantics is tough enough for concrete words, but when you venture into describing aspects of mind, you’re in a whole nother mess of bother. Words fail you.

Mindfulness today is no longer only the English translation of sati. It has also become a general term to describe qualities and virtues that arise from meditation, including compassion. Buddhism is a healthy and growing tradition with a long history of dedicated meditation practice and insights that have been contributed to the world. But mindfulness, both the innate human ability and the practice to cultivate it, are open source. 

Myth #2: The result of meditation is a boring, bland, cult-like calmness and complacency

It’s so easy to confuse the practice of meditation with what the results are presumed to be. Since we slow down when we meditate (we move little or not at all, and our thought process eventually decelerates a bit), it’s natural to think this means everyone who meditates is supposed to be slow, forever, in everything they do: Meditators can’t be short-order cooks, nor sprinters. They do everything in slowmo, one thing and one precious thought at a time. Air traffic controllers can forget about meditating.

According to this mythical notion, the meditator is colorless, bland, blissed out, and checked out. So wrapped up in her own mind and how it’s doing, she has no time for worldly matters. She’s not only a pacifist. She’s a passivist. No outrage, lust, sarcasm, or humor allowed. Unfailingly earnest at all times.

This is an old stereotype, but like all stereotypes, it’s pernicious and evergreen. And it gains new currency from new commentators. In a screed in GOOD magazine a few years back, a writer lamented the years she lost to meditation, the ones where she “moved at such a slow pace and got so little done and participated in so little in the world outside of those who have the luxury to yoga-fy and meditate and manage their thoughts that I am ashamed.”

A healthy mind and a healthy community is diverse and able to draw on all its glorious parts to their fullest extent. 

Whoever suggested mindfulness meditation requires you to manage or police your thoughts—and also get nothing done out in the world—missed the point. The point of slowing down during meditation practice is to allow one to see how one’s own mind operates. And there are, as we all know, countless types of minds (shy, outgoing, fast-moving, slow-going, ambitious, reflective…) and within each mind a vast array of emotions (from sad to ecstatic and every shade in between, including complex amalgams of various emotions that defy description). A healthy mind and a healthy community is diverse and able to draw on all its glorious parts to their fullest extent. 

One of the leading institutions studying meditation is about just that. The Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, founded by neuroscientist and emotion specialist Richie Davidson, uses that phrase to refer to inquisitive minds that make full use of a wide range of capacities and colorations. Meditation is one means to enable that fundamental healthiness of mind. Far from dulling us into sameness, mindfulness practice allows us to be ourselves more freely, with all the juicy and unique bits in full flower.

Myth #3: Mindfulness fixes something that’s wrong with you

What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do this? I’m so bad at it. I’m just bad altogether. My mind is a scattered mess! These other people seem fine. Everyone who has ever meditated, or tried anything new—playing the guitar, becoming a parent, snowboarding—has had thoughts like these running through their head. Often repeatedly, and in a downward spiral that ends with “I’m not cut out for this. I’m no good. I quit.”

It’s an odd trait we humans have. We like to beat up on ourselves. We like to say, “the problem with you/me is…” And popular meditation literature can provide lots of adjectives to complete that sentence: 

Too distracted

Too speedy

Too negative

Too spaced out

Too etcetera

All of them lead to corresponding ideas of
what meditation must be like. We’ll solve these problems! Heads vacuumed free of thought, utterly undistracted, we’ll go to a special place where each and every moment is momentous. We’ll be… Wait for it, cue flute music… Meditating. 

But it’s not like that.

Meditation is not getting to a fixed destination. It’s exploring. We get to venture into the workings of our minds: our sensations (air blowing on our skin or a harsh smell wafting into the room), our emotions (love this, hate that, crave this, loathe that), and thoughts (wouldn’t it be weird to see an elephant playing a trumpet). 

The practice of mindfulness—being curious about what’s happening in our mind—is freeing: We come to feel that the movement of mind is not so mysterious, so we can learn to navigate sensations, thoughts, and emotions more skillfully. The voice in our head is less annoying. All the benefits of meditation arise from experiencing our mind as more workable. We can focus and guide it better, and we can also let it go. More dance, less straitjacket.

But it’s not fixing. Your mind is naturally capable of mindfulness, awareness, kindness, and compassion. It’s not in need of fundamental repair. 

Of course we stumble and stray and flail about in confusion from time to time, and sometimes frequently. What we need first is a modicum of stability. By gently repeating a simple habit, returning to an anchor for the mind, such as our breath, bit by bit a steadiness emerges that allows a better view of what’s happening in our mind and more opportunities to make choices. The point of returning to the breath is not that thinking itself is problematic. When you’re learning to cook, you may turn the heat up too high and burn something. It doesn’t mean you’re not a cook. It means you need to adjust the heat. 

Myth #4: Mindfulness is being used to create perfect soldiers…and capitalists

Now that mindfulness is taught in so many practical contexts, a fear has emerged that it’s becoming no more than a handy trick to improve mental acuity. And the even bigger fear is that mindfulness is being used toward any end whatsoever, regardless of the ethical consequences. Critics who voice this concern worry that mindfulness practice without an ethical system will result in a world filled with snipers trained to aim “mindfully” and mindfully rapacious CEOs like Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street.

But genuine mindfulness practice—taught by experienced practitioners properly trained to teach—carries with it the understanding that the bare attention of mindfulness naturally grows into broader awareness and inquisitiveness. It causes one to see and take into account one’s interconnectedness with other people, the community, society, and the planet. Mindfulness can also give you the space to rediscover, examine, and refresh the underlying values that drive your choices in the heat of the moment. 

The mindfulness programs under development for police and soldiers are intended to help them regulate their nervous systems so they make better choices and act less impulsively—and to mitigate the trauma inflicted on their bodies and minds.

The mindfulness programs under development for police and soldiers are intended to help them regulate their nervous systems so they make better choices and act less impulsively—and to mitigate the trauma inflicted on their bodies and minds. Whatever military choices political leaders make on our behalf, the fact remains that soldiers can reduce harm to themselves and others if they can keep a cool head. In addition, stints in the military are short. When soldiers return to civilian life, meditation practice may still be of great benefit, to them personally, to their families, and to society at large. This is a key part of the vision of those who teach mindfulness to military personnel.

Some people say workplace mindfulness programs are no more than cynical tools to squeeze more work out of people by improving their focus. This viewpoint is rarely informed by actually talking to people who have taken part in these programs. Most of us work somewhere, would like to enjoy our work more, and want to be better at it. Yes, employers look at the bottom line, but in the main they know it’s important that we feel our work is rewarding and our workplace is a good place to be. Programs that genuinely improve employee health benefit both the employee and the employer.

Any good thing can—and will—be misused, but raising the specter of mindful militias or mindful corporate sociopaths is demagoguery. Extreme examples are used to cast a harsh light on something that’s largely beneficial, like saying mental health days for students will lead to a lazy do-nothing generation. Mindfulness training doesn’t dictate the ethical choices you should make, but it puts you in a better position to make those choices for yourself.

Myth #5: Mindfulness is just the next trendy industry

The media and marketing machine can’t help but make the worst of a good thing. Think of natural, organic, green, holistic. Now mindful is having its moment: mindful burgers, mindful petcare, mindful this, that, and everything. (And yes, Mindful magazine.) Once a word gets trendy and overused, it can grate on the ear, but because organic has been overused doesn’t mean that genuine organic food has somehow become a shallow thing of no value. Just so, with mindfulness. Everyone feels they know a little bit about it, so that naturally leads to a lot of misconceptions, and indeed it can lead people and companies to try to make a fast buck off it.

But there will always be sham versions, knockoffs, and snake oil. Already writers for The New Yorker, The Huffington Post, The Economist, and The Guardian, among others, have claimed that mindfulness is big money. I know a large number of mindfulness teachers. Their median income is modest, to say the least, and almost all of them have “day jobs.” 

If authentic mindfulness teachers are to beat out the scam artists, they’ll need to be able to earn a living. It takes time to learn how to teach mindfulness, and it’s hard. It’s as much a calling as a profession, and just as in other callings, like college professor or clergy, it’s not ignoble to draw a paycheck.

The danger of the over-commercialization of meditation is real. The problem is not money per se. Some selling has to take place. Anyone who started meditating was sold on it by someone, but it’s overselling that’s the real danger. When meditation is presented as a panacea, with Pollyannaish language that makes it sound as if five minutes of easy, breezy meditation will transform you, it’s literally too good to be true.

Mind training is serious business. Our minds are powerful and wonderful, and basically sound and good, as noted above, but there also be dragons there. We are capable of developing or inheriting mental illnesses; we have deep, dark fears; and our lives and our world, however glorious and joyous they can be at times, are filled with pain. Real mindfulness must take place within full view of the whole truth of life, with all its challenges and difficulties. 

To go there, we need good guides, who themselves are continuing to explore and learn—and learn together with those they teach. As interest in mindfulness continues to grow because of the genuine benefit it brings, weaker, phony versions of mindfulness will also keep popping up. But because they offer empty calories and ultimately don’t satisfy, many people will continue looking  and find their way to authentic mindfulness. And we’ll all be better for it.