The Honest Truth About Mindfulness: Setting yourself up for success
Mindfulness has gained enormously in popularity over the last few decades thanks to the thousands of studies that have shown it has significant psychological, cognitive and physical health benefits. Last year alone a staggering 1449 studies on mindfulness were published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. We know that mindfulness increases happiness1 and compassion2; improves attention3 and memory4; increases innovation5 and creativity6; improves immune function7 and leads to growth in areas of the brain related to wellbeing8. In short, mindfulness can have a profound impact on your life.
So, while we absolutely want you to embark on mindfulness feeling inspired and motivated, we also want you to do so with realistic expectations. This will increase the likelihood that you’ll stick with your practice, get back on track as needed without beating yourself up, and most importantly enjoy the journey. We want to set you up for short and long term success. Below is what we consider to be the honest truth about mindfulness; the things we think you need to know right from the outset.
Mindfulness can be uncomfortable.
Just as embarking on a new exercise regime can be uncomfortable at first, it’s the same with mindfulness. It can be confronting and uncomfortable to observe the nature of your mind, perhaps for the first time in your life. To see clearly just how busy it is; how judgemental and negative it can be; how easily distracted. You may also feel restless, bored or sleepy as you practise. You might notice the urge to get up, do something else, make plans, think about work. There will be moments when you’ll wonder why on earth anyone suggested that this was a good idea. These are all normal and common experiences. We tell you this not to put you off but to reassure you that these experiences are part of the process. As with exercise, the more you engage with mindfulness the more enjoyable it becomes; the more you’ll notice the benefits and the less bothered you’ll be by any uncomfortable bits.
Mindfulness isn’t about ‘turning off’ thoughts.
It’s common to think that mindfulness involves somehow being able to ‘switch off’ or ‘stop’ our thoughts. This is a particularly pervasive and unhelpful misconception that can really get in the way of establishing a regular practice. Despite what many people think it’s actually not possible to stop thoughts. Thinking is what our minds do. Being distracted by thoughts during mindfulness practice is all part of the process. Each time you notice you’ve become distracted that’s a moment of mindfulness right there. These are jewels in your practice, not failings. It’s in these moments that you can choose where to place your attention; to come back to the present, to your breath, your body, the sounds around you. Doing this over and over - focusing, losing focus, re-focusing - is what builds your mindfulness muscle.
Mindfulness requires patience and persistence but not perfection.
When learning to meditate people often worry that they’re not meditating ‘properly’ and are often very hard on themselves when their experience doesn’t match their expectations. As renowned mindfulness teacher Pema Chodron says ‘In practising meditation we’re not trying to live up to some kind of ideal - quite the opposite. We’re just being with our experience whatever it is’.
Mindfulness is about kindness and curiosity.
Mindfulness isn’t just about paying attention it’s also about how we pay attention. True mindfulness involves an attitude of kindness and curiosity. This is an essential aspect of mindfulness that is often overlooked. It’s so easy to get caught up in self-criticism when we practise, quickly concluding that “my mind is too busy” or “I’m no good at this”. Neuroscience tells us that whatever we practise moment to moment physically alters our brain9. As Shauna Shapiro, another renowned mindfulness teacher and researcher, says what you practice grows stronger. If you practise mindfulness with self-judgement you are growing self-judgement. If you practise mindfulness with frustration you are growing frustration. If you practice mindfulness with kindness and curiosity you are growing these helpful and beneficial qualities.
Enjoying your mindfulness practice.
We encourage you to use Smiling Mind as an opportunity to explore and experiment with your mindfulness practice. Try the different practises and see which ones resonate most. Try to stay open and curious. If you enjoy your mindfulness practise, as opposed to it being something you think you ‘should’ do, you’re much more likely to stick with it and enjoy its many benefits.