We all come to the practice of mindfulness with preconceived ideas about what mindfulness means and what meditation should look like and feel like. It’s not “wrong” that we have these ideas — that’s just how our brain works!
But it’s important to be aware of these ideas because bringing unrealistic expectations to our practice is one of the most common ways we get in our own way when it comes to mindfulness and meditation.
1. Mindfulness and meditation are about quieting the mind/emptying the mind/not thinking…
This is probably the #1 misconception out there about mindfulness — I hear it almost daily!
You can no more stop thinking than you can stop breathing — lungs breathe, brains think! Mindfulness is about being aware of the activity of the mind. If we think we have to STOP the activity of the mind, we’re setting ourselves up for an exercise in frustration.
Mindfulness is about observing the process of thought production and maintenance. It’s knowing what we’re thinking when we’re thinking it. Once we start becoming more aware of our thoughts, we can learn how to work with them more skillfully, and not let them run the show for us.
So if you sit down to meditate and you notice you’re thinking…. THAT DOESN’T MEAN YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG. It means you’re thinking…. and you’re AWARE of your thinking…. SO YOU’RE BEING MINDFUL!
2. Mindfulness is about self-improvement. I want to be a better person.
Mindfulness is about accepting WHO YOU ARE IN THIS MOMENT. You are beautiful and amazing and flawed and human.
Are there things you want to change? Absolutely. But mindfulness is not about “fixing” ourselves. Mindfulness means we turn towards the difficult and uncomfortable parts of who we are. We bring loving attention and kindness to the hurt places within us.
As we bring attention to our suffering, we will gain insight into the cause of that suffering, which is usually the gap between how things are and how we wish things were. When we practice mindfulness, we “mind the gap,” noticing if there is any part of our experience that is wishing things were different, or wishing WE were different.
We can use that insight to make skillful changes, if changes are possible, or we can find ways to make peace with what is. We hold our desire for change lightly — we can set goals and aspirations, but not cling too tightly to an expected outcome.
We can realize that wanting some changes in our life — being calmer, less reactive, more present — does not mean we cannot also accept who we are in this moment.
Mindfulness is about striking a delicate balance between planning for the future and desiring to act more skillfully, without losing sight of the NOW, and our need for self-compassion.
3. Meditation is always relaxing and calming.
Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn’t.
When we meditate, we simply sit and notice our experience. If it’s calming and soothing, we notice that, and savor the pleasant experience. If it’s irritating and we’re restless, we simply note that we are irritated and restless. And then we watch what happens.
Usually, the irritation and restlessness will go away pretty quickly, just like our pleasant experiences tend to do. You probably know this already on a cognitive level (“Yes, things change…”), but we arrive at an entirely different level of understanding when we actually watch this process unfold in our own experience.
As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, EVERYTHING is part of the curriculum. We can learn from any part of our experience we can notice.
4. The results will happen quickly.
The research tells us that a consistent meditation practice can improve our well-being: lowering rates of depression and anxiety, improving our immune response, increasing our empathy and self-compassion, improving our sleep, and generally promoting greater levels of happiness.
The research ALSO tells us that these results typically occur after about 8 weeks of continued practice (usually 10-12 minutes of practice a day). It’s easy to get discouraged with any new habit, and as with things like exercise or dieting, it typically takes some time to see the benefits of the practice.
So hang in there. And when you DO notice even a small change — you didn’t flip out when you normally would, or you noticed you had kinder thoughts toward a difficult colleague — REALLY NOTICE IT! Write it down in your journal, or take a minute (a full 60 seconds) to savor what it felt like. These little experiences of the benefits of meditation will sustain your conviction to practice.
5. It will be an extraordinary experience.
I once had a friend start meditating, and after a few days she told me, “Nothing’s happening.”
It’s kind of like a funny Zen riddle…. Nothing happens when I meditate!
But that’s kind of the point. Sometimes people DO have profound epiphanies and deep insights in their practice. But sometimes meditation is boring and ordinary and simple…. and that’s what actually makes it amazing. To be present with an experience makes the experience special. Whatever experience you have when you practice is enough.
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