Like anything that gains popularity and is consumed solely through the (often) superficial lens of the mass media, mindfulness has been mischaracterized and misunderstood. In this series, I will attempt to address some of the most common myths that I encounter around the practices.
Myth #1: The purpose of mindfulness is to relax & stop thinking.
Many new practitioners feel concern or frustration when they do not achieve relaxation, a sense of peacefulness, or a mind free of thoughts when they meditate or try any of the other mindfulness practices. In fact, there are some that are so attached to experiencing “bliss” that they quickly become discouraged and give up.
The real goal of mindfulness is liberation. By consistently directing bare attention to phenomena we gain insight into reality and free ourselves from the conditioning and habits that color our experiences.
Many times we do indeed feel relaxed during practice and our minds become relatively still. At other times the mind is full of incessant chatter. Striving to “empty” it gets us nowhere. In addition, some of what we encounter in practice can be uncomfortable, unpleasant or unwanted. We may experience boredom, anxiety, restlessness, or sensations of pain in the body. Not all phenomena are peace inducing and insisting on bliss will only add to our suffering.
Instead, we set an intention to be open to and present with what is, whether pleasant or unpleasant, wanted or unwanted. We develop insight into and a new relationship with our thoughts, feelings, and urges to action. Over time we are freed from the grasping and aversion that initially drove our behavior and caused much of our suffering.
The take away: Don’t be discouraged when you encounter difficulty in your mindfulness practice. When it happens, it doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong. Instead, try to cultivate patience, beginner’s mind and a spirit of friendly curiosity so that you can see it more clearly and relate to it with greater wisdom.