“With the past, I have nothing to do; nor with the future. I live now.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Like me, you have probably heard a fair bit about “mindfulness” over the past few years. And, like me, you have probably noticed that it seems to be being used to mean different things in different places. In this first post, I’ll give a simple and clear definition before diving in to bust one of the the biggest mindfulness myths, with your help. That is, that mindfulness is a way to stop thoughts. Onto the definition.
When I say “mindfulness” I mean it to refer to our very human ability to pay close attention to our experience. That’s it! The thing is, we have minds, and these minds often pull us out of paying attention to the moment we are in, getting us caught up in little “mind-movies”: thoughts and daydreams about anything and everything. For example, a mind-movie that’s pretty much guaranteed to be running in my head about an hour or two before I eat is a movie about what I am going to eat and how great it’s going to be once I eat it. The irony is that often when I finally sit down to eat, I’m not paying close attention to the flavors, textures, and feelings of eating at all: I’m off in another mind-movie! That’s why you have also likely heard of “mindful eating” practices.
So, mindfulness is about practicing our ability to step out of the mind-movies and step into what’s happening right now, in this very moment. That’s why I often refer to it as “present-moment awareness training”. And, just like training our muscles when we run/push weights/play sports, we can train our minds to come back to the present moment, to what’s happening in the world around us, and the world within us, right now, rather than getting lost in our mind-movies.
Mindfulness Myth #1
I’ve been doing this present-moment awareness training with people for the last two and a bit years, and this myth comes up pretty often. That is, that
“Mindfulness is a way to stop thoughts”
Ah, if only! How many thoughts do you suppose you have per day? 1,000? 5,000? 10,000? Whatever the number, you will likely agree that we don’t act on every thought that floats through our mind. Our minds are constantly producing thought, just like our ears hear, our eyes see, and our mouths taste and swallow. Let’s look at what happens when we try to control the world of thoughts. In a moment I’m going to ask you to do something. You will have to stop reading at the end of the following sentence to try it out, for at least five seconds.
Here’s the sentence: don’t think of your right big toe.
What happened? Did you notice it? To not think of your right toe, you have to have the thought “I better not think of my right toe”, but this thought is about the right toe! And now you’ve set up a loop where you have to check whether or not you’re thinking about the right toe, which means your right-toe related thoughts have just gone from zero before reading this blog post, to much more than zero! Ok so it really doesn’t matter much if you have thoughts about your right big toe or not. But what about…
If you are like me (and pretty much every other human), at some point you will experience, or have already experienced, thoughts and feelings that we label as “anxiety”. This can be increased heart rate, sweaty palms, stomach churning, and chest tightening.
In response, you may have a thought that goes like this: “oh no I hate anxiety, I’ve gotta get rid of it. I just have to stop worrying and thinking about this exam/job interview/date and that will make it go away.” Now you’ve just set up the same loop as we set up with the right toe! And as we saw above, this loop actually amplifies the experience! Russ Harris has a brilliant three minute animation highlighting this point on YouTube here.
So, present-moment awareness training is not about stopping thoughts. Number one, it’s probably impossible to do. And number two, thoughts are just what a mind does. Present-moment awareness training helps us to notice thoughts as thoughts, as mind-stuff. And this mind stuff is sometimes helpful, sometimes nonsensical, and sometimes unhelpful!
Mindfulness as a superpower
Present-moment awareness training helps us develop a superpower. This superpower is the ability to step back from our mind-movies, and ask these questions, “is following this thought going to lead me to be the person I want to be, deep down inside? Is it going to take me towards the life I want to live? Or will it take me in the opposite direction?”
This superpower helps us to develop something called “psychological flexibility”, which is a fancy term that simply means an ability to respond to life and the challenges it throws up, in ways that are life enhancing, rather than life-deflating. (Training individuals in this ability is what I do here at The ACT of Living: visit my page here).
Stay tuned for the next post next week, where we will bust the second biggest mindfulness myth: that mindfulness is: