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  • Writer's pictureThe Mind Faculty

Mindfulness: What It Is and What It Isn't

by Mr Ko Teik Yen, Mindfulness-based Psychotherapist

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness, as defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn who introduced Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) 30 years ago, is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”  Mindfulness is a learnable skill that enables us to pay attention to what is happening in the present moment with increased awareness of our thoughts, feelings and body sensations with open curiosity.

Thousands of peer-reviewed scientific journals prove that mindfulness reduces pain, anxiety, enhances mental and physical wellbeing and helps people deal with the stresses and strains of daily life. Many healthcare centres in US and Europe now prescribe mindfulness meditation to help patients cope with the suffering arising from a wide range of diseases such as cancer pain, heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. It is also commonly used for back problems, migraine, fibromyalgia and a range of auto-immune diseases such as lupus and multiple sclerosis, as well as being effective for long-term conditions as chronic fatigue syndrome and Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Clinical trials also demonstrated that mindfulness significantly reduces the anxiety, stress, symptoms of depression, irritability and insomnia that can arise from chronic pain and illness. 

Hence, more and more people worldwide are attracted to learning how to relate to their experience with mindfulness.

Due to my own personal experience as well as my work with over 500 students and clients, I have encountered some common misconceptions surrounding what Mindfulness is. I will clarify this in hopes that it will help you to stay at ease and be clear when you practice.

Mindfulness is not about being calm or attaining any special state of mind.

We often expect mindfulness will bring us peace or calm and relaxation.  This highlights our human tendency to want pleasant experiences and to push away what as unpleasant or average. We want something, we don't get it and then we're unhappy. We think it’s not working or we’re doing it wrong.  

We start to judge our experience and ourselves.

Although it’s true that you can experience a sense of peace, calm, or relaxation while practicing mindfulness, these are not guaranteed outcomes. Mindfulness is simply about noticing whatever experience we're having now, including all the thoughts, feelings or physical sensations that are a part of it.

Mindfulness can significantly reduce stress but it’s not about stress removal

Rather than remove stress, mindfulness helps us to learn to relate to stress differently. It may seem implausible that something as simple as listening to sounds or paying attention to our breathingcan help us learn to respond to experiences in a healthy way, but it’s what science is showing and what people are saying (and it’s certainly my experience and many others).

There is now over 30 years of research with adults showing that mindfulness helps with stress by changing our relationship to it.

Mindfulness is not the absence of thought

Instead of aiming for an empty or blank mind where no thoughts exist, we learn the skill of becoming aware of our thoughts, without necessarily doing anything with them. By just noticing thoughts, we learn how to unhook ourselves from our identification with them. This is different from pushing thoughts away. It’s how we related to our thoughts, not the absence of them.

Mindfulness is not about being complacent

Acceptance does not mean agreement or complacency. It means acknowledging whatever’s going on, which is a good idea because it’s already happening. We take action to change situations when appropriate – for our well-being and the well-being of others – but we do so out of compassion and understanding versus reaction and frustration.

Mindfulness is not just about the mind

Although mindfulness has the word ‘mind’ in it; it is not only about the mind and thoughts. It is about being aware of our emotions, feelings and bodily sensations and ability to remain open to it (emotionally, mentally and physically) even in difficult moments. Hence, mindfulness includes also open-heartedness or some described as, ‘heartfulness’.

Mindfulness is not a form of spiritual escapism

The practice of mindfulness enables us to stay fully present in the moment, right here right now; be it during pleasant and unpleasant moments. Mindfulness is the exact opposite of spiritual escapism. It is through the practice of mindfulness that we learn to trust ourselves, our body and our life to unfold itself in situations that are beyond our control.

Mindfulness is not the same as meditation

Mindfulness is a state of being in the present moment with open curiosity and kindness. Meditation is the practice that enables us to be more mindful in the present moment.

Hence, mindfulness meditation is a formal practice to be mindful especially when we are busy in our daily routine. It is about bringing mindfulness to our daily life and not the end in itself. As such, mindfulness meditation is the vehicle not the destination. There are also other informal mindfulness practice e.g. mindful walking, mindful eating, and mindful drinking.

Mindfulness is not religious

Mindfulness practices are useful for all people, regardless of their spiritual or religious backgrounds or beliefs. It’s a human experience that utilizes awareness, kindness and compassion that is within us all.

Mindfulness is not a silver bullet

When we’re under stress or going through a difficult time we might look for ‘techniques’ to help us cope better. Mindfulness works, but it is important to approach it with the right attitude. Based on many years of research, it is well established that in order to fully benefit from mindfulness training, the best approach is to practice consistently.  

What are the differences and similarity between the modern, secular mindfulness training compare to traditional meditation?

In general, the principles are similar; keeping in mind that the modern, secular mindfulness training has its roots from the traditional meditation practice with thousands of years of wisdom. The major differences perhaps are the approaches that the modern, secular mindfulness training adopted; flexible, non-hierarchical, less ritualistic, encourages self-exploration, linking the practices to brain science as well as human psychology and physiology; making it so much approachable and accessible to the general public. 

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