I keep using the word. But what does “mindfulness ” even mean?

Today, I am cheating. The structure and content of this post borrows heavily from an article — “Seven Myths about Mindfulness, and What You Need to Know,” written by Dr. Seth J. Gillihan for Psychology Today — which debunks common misconceptions surrounding the practice. You can read his article in its entirety at the bottom of this post.

As I read through Dr. Gillihan’s list of “myths,” my internal voice insisted upon personalizing them with my world view. This is most likely because I’ve fielded enough questions concerning the terminology of mindfulness to know that it’s time to do a little unpacking of the lingo for my friends and family… and just maybe for some of you I don’t yet know.

So, voila! A semi-bastardized post is born.

Let us start with the dictionary.com definition of the concept:

mind·ful·ness-ˈmīn(d)f(ə)lnəs/, n.
1. the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.
2. a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.

At its heart, mindfulness is a simple concept; however, the actual practice proves challenging. Our brains are just not that easy to control. In this country alone, billions are spent on the simple quest of focusing our minds: stimulants, sedatives, cognitive-enhancing meds, etc. And this does not even begin to tap into the costs of specialists, therapies, or the many distractions we purchase to keep us from our internal crazy.

Common sense might suggest that we we systematize a means of teaching the simple, low-overhead mindfulness strategies to our children, even from a very young age. I honestly believe the reason we do not has to do with Dr. Gillihan’s “myths” concerning the practice.

So here they are. These are the seven most common misconceptions/myths concerning the practice of mindfulness…

and my own delightful commentary on each.

Myth #1-Mindfulness is a fringe or cultish practice.

If fringe and cultish mean that few or people do it, or that only weird people do it, then that may have been more true a long time ago. Today you find it everywhere: in the medical profession, at business conventions and panel discussions, and even in some school districts under the umbrella of social/emotional skills. Check out the Compassionate Schools Project:

Note that the schools mentioned on this website and in its videos are not located where you may have guessed. The testimonies of these children and educators come from the South. Note the capital S, south. Virginia, Kentucky… I know that you thought I was going to post about a school in California or Colorado. Shame on you.

I mean there are plenty of schools in those states that are also prioritizing mindfulness, but the data concerning its success are too good to keep this practice relegated only to “the fringe.” It’s just smart living, and any teacher will tell you, we have to teach the whole child if we are going to teach him anything at all.

Myth #2-Mindfulness is a religious practice.

When I was younger I may have thought the same thing. I might have even labeled my current practice as new age or viewed it as possibly dangerous, introducing mixture into the rituals of my own faith.

The truth is that mindfulness, in and of itself, is religion-neutral. Consider this: we all have brains sometimes get in the way of our ability to be calm, rational, and healthy. Getting some control over our minds in these instances is the whole, underlying point of the practice.

You bring whomever you actually are into your practice. There isn’t an inherently mystical component, unless you value that and bring it to bear. You are still you. Mindfulness is sitting and breathing, in its most formal moments. At other times, it is simply stopping to gain an awareness of reality, so that our next steps are measured and kind.

Myth #3-Mindfulness means condoning things that are wrong.

I really like the way Dr. Gillihand addresses this myth in the article. But from my experience, acceptance of reality is a big part of mindfulness. But reality is only the starting point for next steps. Acceptance empowers us to recognize all of the extra stuff that we have attached to reality and gain the courage to strip those away, so that we can actually see.

Sometimes acceptance is the catalyst for change. -Dr. Gillihand

There are moments when reality doesn’t demand change and the whole point of acceptance is just to simplify our perspective. At other times, this clarity allows us to know better how to move forward: what has to go and what gets to stay.

Myth #4-Mindfulness is weak and wishy-washy.

I believe that this myth stems from western culture’s adoration for the John Wayne types. We tend to think of physical prowess and courage to take out oppressors as traits of true leadership, characteristics that command respect. It’s true that the practice of mindfulness does not lend itself towards these specific leadership traits; although I don’t see these strengths and those that mindfulness affords as mutually exclusive.

If you begin to practice any sort of formal mindfulness discipline, you will soon find out just how challenging it can be. Resulting skill sets, such as impulse control and rationality, are also markers of strength and do not have to accompany inaction or any other “wishy washy” state.

Again, you do bring YOU to the practice. It’s not going to make you someone you are not, but it can help you find out just who YOU are.

Myth #5-Mindfulness means never having goals or planning for the future.

This one was tough for me. I work in a very goal-oriented field and am responsible for helping others set and meet goals on a daily basis. If mindfulness leads to stagnation or a lack of concern about reaching goals, I would have to abandon it immediately… or quit my job as an assistant principal, which doesn’t lend itself to Hakuna Matata.

Goal setting, when done well, requires clarity. Clarity about what you want and/or need. Clarity about where you really are beginning your journey. Being present in the here and now does not mean you are not headed anywhere, but the journey towards meeting a goal gets rough. It can expose weaknesses and require humility. At these moments, mindfulness is exactly the skill set you want at the ready, so that you can discern your next step.

Myth #6-Mindfulness = meditation.

For me, this myth is directly tied to Myth #2 because I used to have a very exclusive, religious connotation to the word, meditation.

My own formal and daily mindfulness practice is like meditation, in that I am sitting on a cushion with my legs crossed, and I am usually listening to a vocal guide on my Calm app. This is largely because I am such a newbie and am still learning how to tame the brain, so a vocal lead-in helps tremendously. But for me, the morning ritual of mindfulness serves also as a precursor to my own faith practice. Any morning prayers/meditations or physical stretching become a nice follow up to the moments of stillness/awareness/clarity. But that’s a personal connection I make, not anything directly related to the practice itself.

Approaches to daily mindfulness vary greatly. Dr. Gillihand does a good job of explaining this with many examples of bringing awareness into the banalities of one’s day, increasing their richness just by paying attention and being aware.

Myth #7-Mindfulness is at odds with science.

Ooh! The science part. I love this one! The reasons that doctors, businesspersons, and educators are so excited about mindfulness is the brain-friendliness of it. From the FMRI scans that show marked differences in neural activity before and after mindfulness practice, to the understanding of just how much getting more oxygen into the blood/brain help retention, to the ability to rebuild missing neural-pathways, and bring calmness to anxious learners. I love that with the continual progress in neuro-scientific research, that we can see, more and more, the exact things our brains crave for their own health.

Yale Research on the Brain Effects of Mindfulness

Now the question has become, what do we do with what we know?

Thank you, Dr. Gillihan, for your simple and straightforward list. I hope I can lend my hand towards eliminating each misconception, at least in my own field, so that we can capitalize upon the power of our God-given gray matter.

My Year of Mindfulness in Education is a series of blog posts tracking my personal commitment to explore the practice of mindfulness over an extended period and faithfully record my journey along the way. My role as an instructional leader is the lens through which I examine the benefits of this discipline, but my larger hope is that this simple practice be adopted by educators on a larger scale and then incorporated into social/emotional lessons for use in the classroom.

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