Do you have to meditate or become a Buddhist to live a mindful life? Will all of your stress go away if you practice mindfulness? Isn’t mindfulness just the next new fad? Should you try to “clear your mind of thoughts?” The answer to all of those questions is “no.” Awhile ago I wrote a blog post explaining what mindfulness is. However, there are many misconceptions about mindfulness, so it seems like a good time to address some of the things that mindfulness is not.
1. Mindfulness is not about being blissed-out and peaceful all the time. Once I had to give an important presentation to a group. It was a really big deal at the time. I had invested months of preparation in the project, and had a lot riding on the outcome. I was nervous—sweating bullets, actually. Among my peers, I was known as “the person who was into yoga and meditation,” so one of my colleagues was surprised that I was nervous. She remarked that I should use some of that “mindfulness stuff” and sail through the presentation without stress– as if being mindful was fairy dust that could be sprinkled on difficult situations as needed.
Rather than making everything perfect, “that mindfulness stuff” was what got me to a point where I could feel all of my feelings, respond compassionately to myself, and do what needed to be done in the moment. In fact, the presentation went very well. I was simultaneously nervous, elated, enthusiastic, and confident (and glad when it was over). I felt whatever feelings arose, including the natural reaction of stress, but was not controlled by it. That is a realistic mindfulness practice. I’m sure that my years of practice made my stress level far lower on the stress scale than had I not practiced. But normal emotions are not replaced with a permanent peace. They are just normal emotions that are handled in stride. And in the case of emotional eating, they are not handled with food.
2. Mindfulness is not a fad. While it is true that mindfulness is all over these days, the practice of mindfulness dates back thousands of years. In one form or another it appears in every major spiritual tradition and profound philosophy, both in the East and the West. For better or for worse, it has made its way onto the radar of popular culture. The good news is that it has been widely studied in the scientific community, and is helping to alleviate a variety of problems including addiction, weight loss, depression, stress, anxiety, and other disorders. It is thus widely available as a cost-effective and practical tool in the toolkit. Meditation classes tend to be either low-cost or free. The bad news is that mindfulness has been diluted and re-branded as a “cure-all.” It is fast-becoming a label that gives a veneer of depth without acknowledging its profound roots. The media loves to latch onto the next new thing, and mindfulness seems to have found its “15 minutes of fame.” But it was around for thousands of years before these 15 minutes, and will continue after it has become yesterday’s news.
3. Mindfulness is not a religion. While many who practice mindfulness are Buddhist, it is not necessary to adopt any religion at all to start a mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is actually both a skill and a mindset that can be integrated with whatever religion or philosophy (or lack of) that a person chooses. It is the skill of consciously attending to the needs of the present moment with compassionate awareness. This happens by adopting a regular practice whereby you can improve upon this skill. There are many practices to accomplish this goal, and a person can choose one that is right for them. I personally have a walking meditation practice, do Aikido and yoga. At another time in my life, I used to have a formal sitting meditation practice at a Zen center. Everyone is different, and different practices work for different life stages. The mindset of mindfulness is an outgrowth–a ripple effect–of the practice. A person becomes calmer, more centered, compassionate, and intentional about their daily life within the context of their existing religion or philosophy.
4. Mindfulness is not a blank mind. Try to “clear your mind.” Sit down and try to “think of nothing.” It won’t take long to discover that this is an unrealistic goal. Not because you are bad at meditating, but because it is the nature of the mind to think thoughts. As my first Zen teacher used to say “the brain secretes thoughts.” When you adopt a mindfulness practice, you begin to change your relationship to those thoughts. Rather than identifying with them, you observe them. You put some spaciousness between yourself and the thought. When it comes to our struggles with weight, this can be especially helpful. Thoughts such as “I have so much weight to lose, so why bother at all,” or “I’m ugly,” or “My last diet didn’t work, so why will this one…” may be recurring obstacles. With practice, we can become the observer of these thoughts, without reacting to them. And when we don’t react to them, we don’t give them any additional power over us.
5. Mindfulness is not just for people who meditate all day and eat kale. Essentially, mindfulness is a skill that can be learned by anyone. It does not require a specific lifestyle, political orientation, or income level. You don’t have drink green smoothies or do yoga. You just need to have a desire to slow down a bit, breathe, and become aware of what is happening in your body and mind so you can have better control over your life and your weight. It is tuning in when everything in our modern culture wants us to tune out. It is about tuning in to our relationship with our bodies and food. If meditation isn’t your thing, there are other ways of practicing mindfulness such as mindful walking, mindful eating, or other informal daily practices. Even beginning a conversation about weight loss and lifestyle habits is a form of mindfulness.
I hope this post is helpful in clearing up what mindfulness is and is not. As always, if anyone has any questions, feel free to leave a comment or drop me an email. I am always happy to answer. Best wishes on your weight loss journey!