It seems like everybody is practicing mindfulness these days. Mindfulness is taking off! It’s showing up in corporate boardrooms, college classrooms, hospice care, and locker rooms. This is a wonderful development because, practiced correctly, mindfulness holds tremendous benefits for us as individuals, for our family and co-workers, and for our communities.
There is some confusion, though, as to what exactly constitutes mindfulness practice. I have heard people describe it as everything from a quick way to get rid of your stress at work to a method for getting to sleep at night, to attaining enlightenment.
I have also met many people who began a mindfulness practice to alleviate their anxiety in meetings or when taking tests, but then quickly gave up because they felt their mindfulness was actually making their mind more wild and stressed out, instead of calmer.
Those beginning mindfulness practice instructions were so simple – just pay attention to your breath or to your sensory experience in the moment. So what happened? These practitioners of mindfulness didn’t realize that they were holding certain wrong ideas about the practice. These wrong ideas can completely defeat the purpose of your mindfulness practice.
What Not to Think When You Practice Mindfulness
1. “This isn’t calming me down! My mind is getting even wilder!” When you begin practicing mindfulness, you start to see what’s going on in your mind. So you become aware of just how wild your habitual thought patterns really are. Don’t stop at this point! Don’t be tricked and think, “I don’t know how to control this wildness, this is terrible!” Instead, just keep putting your energy into being aware of the mental activity. The more energy you put into watching your mind, the less energy is available for your mind to go wild. As you just watch your mind’s activity moment by moment, it will begin to get quieter.
2. “Mindfulness is an emergency relaxation technique for when I feel like I’m losing it.”
It’s certainly true that mindfulness is a useful technique for calming yourself down and decompressing. But that’s not all it is. Mindfulness may give you the relief you seek, but if you practice it only when you have an acute need, like when your heart is pounding after your boss has just yelled at you, the benefits of your mindfulness practice will be very short-term.
To get the most from your mindfulness practice, think of it as a demonstration of your interest in getting to know yourself deeply and thoroughly, not as a quick fix.
3. “Mindfulness practice requires time I just don’t have.”
You could be thinking, “If I have to spend a lot of time doing mindfulness practice, it’s not for me.” But consider this: If you fairly often find yourself in intolerable circumstances or relationships, maybe it would be useful to come to know more about the way your mind works. Wouldn’t it be helpful to know exactly how you end up making the choices you make, that tend to create stress and suffering? That’s what mindfulness is, and it really just means getting to know yourself better. And, like getting to know anyone or anything, it requires paying attention little by little, over time. Only then can you gain insight and understanding from your self-observations.
4. “This is boring. I need something with more juice!”
Committing to practice mindfulness, for even a few minutes each day, demonstrates your desire to know yourself better and understand your choices more completely. If you remind yourself, “This is my time, to spend with myself,” it will make you daily mindfulness practice easy and enjoyable. Instead of dreading another “boring practice session,” you can feel a joyful anticipation to spend time with your best friend.
With daily mindfulness practice, you will quite naturally develop kindness, appreciation, patience, and self-encouragement as you see more and more clearly what your habitual thought patterns are, and how they have been causing you problems. As you see and release these habitual patterns over time, all sense of boredom or ingratitude will leave you. What could be more interesting than watching that happen in yourself?!
Once we have decided to practice mindfulness we may rely on our typical way of thinking, which means focusing on this new skill until we become “good” at it. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing, if you’re learning to drive, or to cook spaghetti. But mindfulness practice is a little different – in it, we let go of expecting a certain outcome.
Most of us have a habit of looking for a quick payoff from what we do. The faster we can get our to-do list done, the better. We push. We hurry. It seems to make perfect sense that the faster we go, the quicker we will get there. We want results, fast! But becoming mindful — gaining self-knowledge — is not accomplished by following this logic. To gain self-knowledge, the opposite is true: the slower you go, the faster you will get there.
6. “I’m going to focus on mindfulness 110%!”
As the story goes (and I’m paraphrasing here) a musician once asked the Buddha how to practice mindfulness. The Buddha asked the musician, “When you prepare to play your lyre, do you tighten the strings to the point of breaking, or do you let them sag loosely?” The musician said, “Neither, Sir. I make sure they are not too tight or too loose.” The Buddha said, “In the same way, when you practice mindfulness, do not be too tight or too loose in your effort. Find the balance that keeps your mind fresh and alert.”
It’s great to have an attitude of resolve when you begin your mindfulness practice, but don’t overdo your effort. Overdoing it creates more agitated activity in your mind, which makes it harder for you to simply observe your mind’s natural state.
We feel unworthy when we’re out of touch with ourselves. Almost everyone has an intuitive sense, a “gut feeling” that can always be trusted. If we lose trust in our own natural intuitive sense, we reject this guidance by fearful second-guessing. We place more importance on what others may think of our choices, than on our own intuitive sense of what’s right. Decisions become difficult to make, and we eventually lose our sensitivity to our intuitive sense of the right thing to do. By practicing mindfulness, we regain this essential connection to our intuition. We recognize that we don’t become worthy by practicing mindfulness. We discover that our self-worth was, is, and always will be indisputable. Mindfulness gives us the clarity to see this.
We may think we have to go off to some quiet, solitary place in order to do mindfulness practice. The fact is, mindfulness can be practiced anytime, on the spot. You can watch your mind, your choices, and your actions at any point during your day, and learn something about yourself.
Practicing mindfulness gradually frees you from habitual thoughts of hope and fear, success and failure. Once we are no longer driven to succeed or fearful of failure, we can be quite content practicing mindfulness moment by moment, anywhere at all. We develop an attitude of equanimity. My wife’s dear great aunt had such equanimity. When something painful or challenging happened, she would say, quite cheerfully, “That’s all just part of it!”
9. “If I just pay really close attention to chopping these vegetables, I’m practicing mindfulness.”
There isn’t anything wrong with focusing on the present moment, appreciating the color of the veggies you’re chopping, and taking great care with the chef’s knife you’re using to do it. This brings you pleasure as you work in the kitchen, and greatly decreases your odds of cutting yourself. But it’s important to be aware of what’s going on all around you as well. My teacher Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche calls this “360-degree mindfulness.” If a fire breaks out in the living room, and we remain completely focused on cutting the brilliant green zucchini into beautiful, uniform slices, how far does that kind of mindfulness take us? Our mindfulness can begin with a focus on our breath and our sensory perceptions, as well as awareness of our inner world of thoughts and feelings, but it also needs to include our surroundings — above, below, and on all sides.
Even if you get off on the right foot and practice mindfulness very diligently, it is important to be alert to the tendency to judge and compare. Watch to see if you are keeping track of your progress in relation to how you think others are doing, assigning gold stars and black marks in a little black book in your mind.
In mindfulness practice, you are practicing developing sensitivity to your natural intelligent awareness. This awareness cannot be improved upon. It is complete as it is, and so cannot be rightly judged. Experiencing this completeness, you recognize your natural state of worthiness. When you have this experience, you discover an effortless capacity to care about others. Comparing yourself to them no longer crosses your mind.
As you discard these wrong ideas, your mindfulness practice will become one of the great, joyful activities of your life.
Interested in more? We offer effective exercises to help you develop mindfulness and awareness.