I’m so pleased to have Sarah Rudell Beach, author of Left Brain Buddha, back on the blog. In this post, she clears up some common misconceptions about mindfulness. (You can read my interview with Sarah here.
“I had no idea you were so into mindfulness!” A friend said this to me when I started my blog about mindful living and parenting.
I wondered, Why? Don’t I look like someone who is into mindfulness?
Is it because I am rational and analytical, because I am scientific and skeptical and not very religious? Is it because I am a planner and a list-maker? Is it because I complain about my kids sometimes?
Apparently, we have some misconceptions about mindfulness. Please allow me to use my rational list-making skills to clear up the confusion.
1. Mindfulness is not “loving every minute” of your life. It is accepting what is in the present moment.
Practicing mindfulness does not mean we become Pollyanna and play “the happy game” all day. It does not mean we see the world through rose-colored glasses.
Rather, mindfulness is nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. It is simply noticing and accepting what is, and not immediately reacting with an assessment of its desirability. Our lives are not made of Facebook status updates, ready to be “liked” or not.
When I first started practicing mindfulness, many of my books suggested I practice mindful awareness during ordinary tasks, like washing the dishes. So I did. The narration in my head went something like this: “The water feels so good and warm… The soap smells so nice….” It felt more creepy than soothing.
Being mindful of our task doesn’t mean liking our task. It may be pleasurable, but that’s not the point. It’s about stopping the chatter in our minds, and simply noticing the feel of the water and the smell of the soap, and not judging it.
Many aspects of parenting are not pleasant. We don’t love every minute of sibling arguments and diaper disasters and homework battles. The serene Buddha smile comes from our deep internal joyfulness, not because we are happy all the time.
2. Mindfulness is not navel gazing. It can be active and engaged.
Our entire day can be a mindfulness practice. We don’t need to go on month-long meditation retreats or set aside hours for meditation each day. We can practice mindfulness while walking the dog, brushing our teeth, making lunches for our children, or even doing the dishes.
There is value in taking time each day for stillness. But life intervenes and some days we just don’t get to our meditation cushion. And on those days, we can bring mindful attention to the activity of our lives.
In her memoir Devotion, Dani Shapiro shares the story of a Buddhist teacher in India, a widow with several children and no time for seated meditation. How did she do it? “How had she achieved her remarkable ability to live in the present? The answer was simply this: she stirred the rice mindfully.”
3. Mindfulness is not never thinking about the future. It is bringing deliberate awareness to the act of planning.
When I first started practicing mindfulness, I wondered, “How can I ever make plans, or even a grocery list, if I’m supposed to only focus on the present moment? Isn’t the desire for a future outcome a form of craving?”
While the Buddha taught that we must overcome selfish craving, he did recognize that we live in the world. One of my favorite images of the Buddha is the one where he is seated in meditation, yet touching the ground, reminding us that he was of this world. We must engage in our lives on earth, and that means making plans for the future.
When we plan for the future, we are aware that we are planning for the future. We can aspire to something, while avoiding clinging to a vision of the future that has to be just so, never changing, or else we won’t be happy. That craving will lead to suffering, because life is always changing, our kids are always changing, and, as all parents know, things don’t always go according to plan.
We can make our plans with mindful awareness. Our deliberate attention to planning helps us distinguish between selfish desire and meaningful aspiration.
4. Mindfulness is not a New Age fad. It is an ancient tradition supported by modern research.
We hear a lot about mindfulness today, and we might assume it is “just a fad,” or New Age pseudoscience. But mindfulness has a long history. Virtually every one of the world’s wisdom traditions includes practices that involve meditation or silent contemplation.
Mindfulness is taught today as a form of therapy for overcoming depression and anxiety. Research has demonstrated that a meditation practice can bring many benefits, including improved immune functioning and cognitive functioning, neurological growth in the brain, and even increased compassionate behavior.
While mindfulness is often incorporated into a spiritual practice, it can also be completely secular. It is being used in many schools, businesses, and therapy settings today.
5. Mindfulness is not “thinking of nothing.” It is awareness of our thinking.
Over lunch one day, my colleagues and I were discussing meditation. One of them dismissed the practice, saying, “It’s just impossible to think of nothing! No one could do that!”
Mindfulness meditation is not mindlessness. It is observing the ebb and flow of our thoughts as much as it is observing the rise and fall of our breath.
Our “monkey minds,” jumping from thought to thought to thought, are normal. Thinking is what minds do. Mindfulness is being aware of the thoughts, without attaching to them or judging them.
We can no more stop our thoughts in meditation than we can stop our breath. But we can acknowledge when our minds have wandered, and bring our attention back to the breath. The awareness of the patterns of our thoughts is the whole point of mindfulness.
So there’s my list. It was rational and scientific. And I only complained a teensy bit! It must be all that mindfulness practice…
Sarah Rudell Beach is a teacher, mother, and writer. She is the creator of the blog Left Brain Buddha, where she explores her journey to live and parent mindfully in a left-brain, analytical life. In her free time, she enjoys reading, yoga, and hanging out with her littleBuddhas. And making lists. You can follow Sarah’s writing on Facebook and Twitter.