I’m passionate about mindfulness and I’m on a mission to make it as easy and accessible as possible. I believe it’s one of the best ways to find balance and avoid burnout. Mindfulness can serve as the perfect antidote to stress, it can help with many mental and physical health issues, as well as generally improving our performance, relationships, and wellbeing.
Since creating and launching my course, Mindfulness for Modern Life, I’ve realised people have a lot of misconceptions about mindfulness and how it works. Sadly, these misconceptions are preventing people from engaging with a practice that has the potential to improve their life. For this reason, I think it’s important to debunk common mindfulness myths and help people understand what it really is.
‘Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally’John Kabat-Zinn
Mindfulness is the simple yet powerful practice of training our attention. It’s simple because it’s primarily about paying attention to what’s happening here and now (i.e. sensations, thoughts and emotions) in a non-judgmental way. It’s powerful because it can interrupt the habit of getting lost in our thoughts, mostly about the future or past, which often generates more stress on top of the real pressures of everyday life.
Living mindfully isn’t something new or foreign to us. Chances are, you spent much more time in a mindful state as a child. Children might walk into a garden and become fascinated by a line of ants as they march across a stick, whereas our adult minds might start building a to-do list. The grass needs cutting, the fence painting. An adult mind might also start comparing. How come the neighbor’s garden looks so much better than mine? Then they might start judging themselves and feeling down. All while a child might be enjoying the garden, just as it is.
When you’re doing familiar or repetitive tasks, like driving your car or eating breakfast, have you ever noticed your mind can be miles away thinking about something else? You might arrive at your destination without any recollection of the roads you took to get there. Or you might go for another bite of toast only to find you’ve already finished.
This is known as being on autopilot. Our bodies are present and engaging in tasks they know well, but our minds are caught up elsewhere. Perhaps you’re mentally going over a conservation from yesterday, trying to solve a problem, fantasising about a future holiday, or worrying about how that work meeting might go.
Being in autopilot mode isn’t all bad. Our ability to remember and reflect on our past experiences, solve abstract mathematical problems, or imagine various possible future scenarios, all while carrying out a task such as manoeuvring a car or cooking a delicious meal, is an incredible quality of the human mind!
But if we’re always in our heads, churning over the past, worrying about the future, or creating mental to-do lists, it can be easy for low mood, stress or anxiety to set in. And if we’re always thinking about and analysing our lives, we can miss out on the joy of directly experiencing things, as they happen in the present.
Now I’ve made a strong case for mindfulness and its many benefits, let’s look at some of the most common mindfulness myths.
Mindfulness has a significant scientific evidence base. It’s being used in numerous settings, including hospitals, schools, businesses, universities and prisons, as well as among the general population. As part of my role within the NHS, I used to facilitate an 8-week mindfulness course specifically for people who experience recurrent depression, as recommended in the NICE guidelines.
Meditation typically refers to a formal, seated meditation practice. There are many types of meditation — mantra meditation, transcendental meditation, chakra meditation… the list goes on. Mindfulness is the simple act of paying attention, noticing and being present in whatever you’re doing. You can practice mindfulness anytime, anywhere, and with anyone by being fully engaged in the here and now. Mindfulness can be practiced both informally (at any time/place) and formally (during seated meditation).
In other words, meditation is one of the ways in which you can practice mindfulness. You can think of it as the training ground for mindfulness. If mindfulness is like strength or flexibility, meditation is like running or going to the gym.
The purpose of mindfulness isn’t relaxation, although it can often be a welcome by-product. One of the main goals of mindfulness training is improving self-awareness which increases your ability to manage yourself. In turn, this helps improve our wellbeing. Whilst mindfulness isn’t a relaxation technique, for some people (but not all!) it might help you relax.
Mindfulness is secular and doesn’t rely on any religion. Yes, some concepts are borrowed from Buddhist teachings (e.g. noticing present thoughts, feeling and sensations without judgement). However, there’s no belief system connected to mindfulness. It’s simply a technique for enriching your life by learning how to fully engage with your moment-to-moment experience.
You don’t need to sit still to practice mindfulness. While people often practice mindfulness by meditating and meditations are commonly done sitting down, mindfulness and meditation can also be done in movement. For example, mindful stretching, like yoga, and mindful walking, or simply just paying mindful attention to a task like washing up or an activity like taking a shower. Mindfulness is a practice of paying attention in the present moment, which can just as easily be done while your body is moving.
I often hear people say they are ‘bad’ at mindfulness because their mind wanders. But, here’s the thing, that’s what your brain is designed to do. Mindfulness isn’t about clearing your mind. That’s not the goal. It’s about giving your mind something to focus on (such as your breath or body sensations), noticing when you become distracted (which is inevitable), and gently returning your focus to whatever you have chosen to focus on. As long as you’re doing that, you’re practicing mindfulness. Even if you have to do it 100 times.
So, mindfulness isn’t about stopping or getting rid of your thoughts, it’s about relating to them differently. It’s about allowing them to come and go without getting caught up in them. It’s about becoming more aware of the unique patterns of your mind.
Like any other skill, mindfulness takes time, patience and practice – but this doesn’t mean you need to sit cross legged on the floor for hours each day meditating! While meditation is one way to cultivate mindfulness, there are also many other things you can try too. Read my Beginner’s Guide to Mindfulness for more tips and advice or discover some simple exercises here. You can also learn more about my eight-week Mindfulness for Modern Life Course and join the waiting list now.