Today, in part two of our interview, Michelle shares her insight on the various misconceptions about practicing mindfulness – and the important lessons along the way.
Q: What are several misconceptions about mindfulness?
A: I’ve already suggested that mindfulness is not about philosophical speculation, and yet the funny thing about the term “mindfulness” is that it sounds like it is some kind of head trip (i.e., emphasis on the “mind”). Actually the opposite is true. Becoming fully conscious of what you are experiencing is a way to “step out” of the endless stream of thoughts flowing through your head.
One of the best ways to do this is to use your body to expand your awareness and shift your energy away from the thinking process (which is constantly planning, organizing, reviewing, etc.) and come back to your physical experience in the present moment. One of the most common instructions for doing this is to focus on your breathing, which requires you to pay attention to what’s happening in your body.
The beauty of breathing is that it only happens in the present. You can’t breath in the future or in the past. You are always breathing now, and this is why paying attention to your breathing—to the flow of air going in and out of your body—is such a wonderful method for returning your consciousness to the present. It is a method for returning your awareness to your embodied experience—to what you are feeling, sensing, and knowing through your physical form. This ability to “return to” or “listen to” your body can help you stay grounded when the thoughts in your head are agitated or stressful.
Another common misunderstanding is perhaps the opposite of the first, namely, that mindfulness means getting to a place where you are no longer thinking. In this view, the epitome of mindfulness is the absence of thought. Though it’s possible to experience awareness of an inner stillness—a place beyond words— within yourself through mindfulness practice, most people continue to experience a flow of thoughts even during formal mindfulness meditation. In fact, for a long time I thought that either I wasn’t doing it (i.e., meditation) right, or that I was just hopelessly a failure at meditating because my mind is so relentlessly rambunctious.
Then I read something by a wonderful Buddhist teacher in the Tibetan tradition named Pema Chodron. She said that even after 30-plus years of practicing mindfulness, sometimes her mind still goes “off to the races” with various plans and thoughts and ideas as soon as she sits down to meditate. The big difference for her now is that, after decades of practice, her approach to these endless thoughts is: “no big deal” (her words).
She is able to notice the thoughts and feelings as they arise, not cling to them, and eventually watch them pass away. She doesn’t judge herself for having them or assume she is doing something wrong. She simply practices being aware of the activity that’s happening inside her. This awareness helps her to let go of the story-line of whatever she’s thinking, and this brings a great deal of peace.
The emphasis on watching or observing your thoughts/feelings and letting them go is important because another common misconception about mindfulness practice is that it’s about suppressing your thoughts and emotions. This is a potentially harmful misunderstanding since (as those of us who have experienced eating disorders know all too well) repressing something is a good way to make it grow bigger!
The main teaching I’ve encountered in my study of mindfulness is not to suppress unpleasant feelings or thoughts that emerge during meditation, but rather to simply notice them, to pay attention without judgment or evaluation. Paradoxically, it is precisely this gentle, accepting attitude towards ourselves and our experience that opens the door for transformation since such acceptance spawns the compassion we need for healing.
Tomorrow, Michelle talks about the other benefits of mindfulness and how you can practice at home. Stay tuned!
Do you practice mindfulness? What would you like to know about mindfulness? What are your thoughts about mindfulness?
P.S. I just read Ashley’s post on body image over at Nourishing the Soul, a blog that also covers disordered eating and media literacy. It’s a must-read, so please check it out!
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Last reviewed: 27 Oct 2010