Mindfulness teaches you to focus all of your attention on the present moment – your thoughts, emotions and environment, sights, sounds, feelings, and bodily sensations. It’s about being in the present, rather than the past or future, and using this sense of presence to be aware of and then have the opportunity to manage negative thought patterns that can consume your mind.
This can bring some much-needed calm to our hectic lives. As our psychological health expert, Eugene Farrell, says:
"In today's fast-paced world, it’s easy to ruminate (or dwell) on troubles from the past or worries about the future. For some people the stress this causes can make them feel physically ill. As people are becoming more aware of the importance of mental wellbeing, many are turning to mindfulness to help them find calm and to better manage these negative thoughts."
There’s no shortage of literature about mindfulness, and there are more than a few misconceptions about the practice. Here, Eugene Farrell clears up what mindfulness isn’t and sheds some light on 5 of the most common mindfulness myths.
Myth 1: 'Mindfulness is just meditation'
Mindfulness as a term is sometimes used in place of meditation, and vice versa. While the two are clearly linked – mindfulness is just one of many forms of meditation.
Mindfulness teaches you to focus your attention on the present and to direct thoughts away from negative memories and worries that can automatically come to mind.
Sometimes we need to sit and quietly meditate to really unravel these thoughts. By sitting, breathing deeply and focusing on when these feelings come about, we can allow them to come and go and accept them as what they are – without making any judgement, dwelling on them, or letting them impact how we are feeling. Silent meditation can also help us to become much more aware of our body's sensations and exploring these feelings and what they tell us.
Mindfulness can also be part of daily life, however – even just noticing things around us can interrupt the mind's tendency to dwell on the negative. This can take a variety of forms, such as being aware of your sensations and environment during daily activities like your walk to work, your evening meal or your time spent exercising. It can also include trying a new activity, such as walking a different route to work or visiting a new place and taking the time to absorb the new environment or sensations that come with being out of your comfort zone. These activities can help us experience new things in a fresh and non-judgemental way.
Being in the here and now helps us to enjoy and appreciate things more, whether that be our partner, family, holiday, art, food or drink. Guided meditation, such as the raisin meditation, is a great way to train to do this. This practice helps us experience an activity, such as eating,in a new way with an open mind.
MYTH 2: 'Mindfulness is only for Buddhists'
Mindfulness is often associated with Buddhism and has taken key components from this 2550 year old tradition, but it is not linked to any specific religion, moral code or lifestyle.
Mindfulness is a secular practice which focuses on breathing as way of paying attention. The aim is to appreciate the thoughts, feelings and sensations that happen around us, and use breathing as a way to notice them but let them pass by. With practice, mindfulness can help us to recognise our negative thought patterns and how they disturb our thinking, so that we can begin to deal with them in a more helpful way.
Buddhism is much broader, it deals with happiness, and sorrow, attachment and a simple spiritual life.
You could choose to embrace a Buddhist approach to your mindful practice, or remove the spiritual side completely. Either way, its benefits can be felt by people from all walks of life.
MYTH 3: 'You can only practise mindfulness in a quiet space'
Quiet spaces can definitely help in the practice of mindfulness, especially for the novice. Removing yourself from your busy life and sitting in a peaceful place can make it easier to notice your feelings and bodily sensations with more clarity than if you were in a busy environment.
But you can also practise mindfulness as you go about your day. You can be mindful whenever you feel any sensation. For example, when you’re doing the washing up, think about the temperature of the water, how the bubbles feel, whether they make noise, the sound of the dishes in the water. Or, when you walk through a doorway into a new space, take a moment to acknowledge you are leaving one space and entering a new one.
“Moments happen all the time and we pass through them without noticing, just noticing more allows us to appreciate more,” explains Eugene.
Find out more about everyday mindfulness – and how you can practise it.
MYTH 4: 'Mindfulness is only good for mental health'
It’s probably no surprise that mindfulness can benefit our mental wellbeing, but did you know that it might actually boost brain size and function? Research conducted by academics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School showed that after an eight-week programme, mindfulness training increased the amount of grey matter in subjects' brains. This type of brain tissue is associated with memory, learning, the regulation of emotions and the ability to see the world from multiple perspectives. A 2014 review study by researchers at the University of British Colombia showed that eight separate areas of the brain had the potential to be boosted by mindfulness.
But beyond our minds, mindfulness has also been shown to have a positive physical impact on conditions such as chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, heart disease and addiction. We explain more about the health benefits of mindfulness here.
MYTH 5: 'Mindfulness is a quick win'
One of the best things about mindfulness is that anyone can do it. But, like any technique, it’s not easy to master – practice makes perfect.
It's a bit like riding a bike – do it enough and you'll do it naturally, but if you don’t invest enough time, it will be tough to develop and maintain the skill.
Eugene explains how mindfulness can be calming:
“Our daily lives are like a stormy ocean with thoughts, feeling, emotions, and reactions. Mindful practice calms the mind like a still lake, a negative thought is like a stone being thrown in, but if we focus the water will calm again. A calm mind is something really good. It gives us clarity and detaches us from automatic emotional reactions that can fuel negativity.”
According to the mental health charity Mind, if you have deeper issues that are affecting your mental health, mindfulness might not be right for you. But if you are struggling with the practice, or finding it hard to set time aside, then a mindfulness course – either in a group or on a one-to-one basis – could be beneficial. This is typically an 8 week process, but if you're willing and able to put the time in, the benefits to your life will far outweigh the effort.
Do you think mindfulness might work for you? Check out our mindfulness #metime#TRYit campaign, or visit our mental health centre for more information.
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*Twitter Poll conducted in May 2017 with 673 respondents.