Mythbuster: What Mindfulness is Not

We’re introducing a new series – Mindfulness Mythbusters – to go along with Tangled Thoughts and Frazzled Feelings.  Newcomers to the practice of mindfulness have many terrific questions about what is supposed to happen in practice and, in this series, we will try to address some of them – without giving away any secrets of the Universe of Mindfulness!

The most common question asked after a week of practice (or earlier) is whether our minds are supposed to go blank.  In fact, many people come into a mindfulness course hoping that they will be free of all this thinking, thinking, thinking.  It makes sense, doesn’t it?  Our heads are filled up with an incessant buzz of narratives, stories, conversations, and sometimes lyrics of songs we’d rather not hear!  It’s exhausting.

In one of our classes, co-teacher Brittany Glynn said,

“Mindfulness is not about being thoughtless.”

This statement works at so many levels.  The prevalent myth about mindfulness is that we will have a thought-free mind.  And, there’s a second myth that Brittany is pointing to: being mindful is not about being self-absorbed.

Empty Mind

Let’s tackle that first level.  Mindfulness is not about being thoughtless or thought-free. 

When we practice, we bring our attention to the breath first so that we can strengthen and stabilize our attentional skills.  Trying to blank out our mind messes up that practice.   Bringing our attention back over and over again requires thought.  We need to notice we have wandered off, then we need to encourage ourselves to return.  Just as in physical life, we set about a task like lifting a box by creating a thought stream of intention, attention, and approach, our mental life requires the same strategy.

Paying attention to the breath at my nostrils… oh… gone away… OK… come back to the nostrils… I’m never going to get this… Oh a judgmental thought… OK… come back….

Thoughts in this case are the tools we use to strengthen the “pay-attention” muscle. And, we’re staying lightly vigilant for those thoughts that can derail our practice by creating trains (of thoughts) that take us away into dark neighborhoods.  You might consider this a type of fighting fire with fire; a skillful thought is used to stop the spread of unskillful ones.

When we hear the term “empty mind,” it helps to understand that what is empty is not the mind itself.  What we empty the mind of are the restrictions we place on ourselves.  A different way of saying this is that the mind is boundless.  It can hold everything and our work is in being steady in the face of all it holds.

You may remember the Rumi poem, The Guesthouse.  Rumi invites us to welcome “the dark thought, the shame, the malice.”  In a vast boundless space like the mind, all these can simply be there without disturbing our self-concept if we cultivate that steadiness of returning over and over to the focus of our attention (the breath).

Another image that helps is to see the mind as the vast boundless sky which remains undisturbed despite the many types of clouds that pass by.  Clouds, like our thoughts, have an important role to play in our environment.  So, don’t wish them away.  Practice so that they are free to come and go.

Compassionate Action

Mindfulness is not about being thoughtless.  The second myth we want to bust is that practicing mindfulness means we are selfish or that it makes us self-centered.

It can look that way.  After all, we take time away from other things to sit around staring at our navel (or nostrils)!  Our family and friends probably feel neglected or upset that we don’t seem to be as available or willing to put our life aside for their needs.  We may feel that we are taking too much away from those we care about; 30-45 minutes a day to sit in meditation is a lot of time!

Before we start a program of practice, it’s important to check in with our life. 

What’s really important?  What’s negotiable? 

Are we being fair to ourselves and others in what we take on? 

Are we truly present for our loved ones, our colleagues, or are we simply hurtling forward on energy fumes and momentum?

Mindfulness practice opens the doors of insight to these questions.  However, it is important that we open those doors ourselves so we’re not caught off guard.

Now here’s the trick.  When we practice we are not setting rigid barriers and boundaries against the invasion of everyone’s agenda.  The practice of paying attention to our inner experience allows us to discern more accurately what is needed in each moment.

We call this developing a dose-related response. 

When we’re tired, we tend to over-respond.  When we’re steady, we can assess the amount of response needed.  Think of it as a kindness, a compassionate action we take to meet someone’s need and to have something left over for the next person – who may be us.

In a time of limited resources, giving just what is necessary is important.  Ironically, it leaves us free to give more and suffer less.

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