21 Jun Common Misconceptions about Mindfulness by Greg Binns, LMFT
“Mindfulness” is a word that’s showing up a lot in the public discourse these days. Books, magazines, talk show hosts, blogs are all encouraging us to be more mindful. What does that mean and why are folks recommending it? And what does it have to do with recovery in particular, or with the Good Life in general? I’ll say a little bit about what mindfulness is and is not, give an indication of it’s contribution to recovery, and then give you a resource for further investigation.
If I were to limit myself to a sentence or two, i.e. instead of making you read my book (I don’t actually have a book), I would describe mindfulness as a way of attending to the process of being alive. In day-to-day speech, we’re more likely to use a phrase like “paying attention” instead of “attending to,” but no one likes to pay for things, and so I don’t want to put you off right from the outset. “Attending to” has more the connotation of watching, being with, and caring for, and that better captures the feel of mindfulness. It’s a way of being with and caring for our experience of being alive. Since living is always happening in the present, mindfulness ends up being about our experience of being alive right now. So mindfulness is about being attentive to my preset moment experience of being alive, in all of it’s varied and ever-changing detail. It also means being aware that sensations are sensations, that feelings are feelings, and that thoughts are thoughts – no more, and no less. Some writers describe it as “making friends with your experience,” and I think this is an apt metaphor.
There seems to be a common misconception that mindfulness is about getting rid of thinking. Mindfulness doesn’t concern itself with trying to get rid of anything. Thinking is a part of what our minds do, and it seems to be useful capacity, at least some of the time. It’s good for doing arithmetic and planning birthday parties, for example, or for deciding whether to rent or buy. So thinking itself isn’t the enemy. But being lost in thought has unwanted consequences at times, and mindfulness does concern itself very much with getting un-lost.
How might developing mindfulness enhance your recovery? Well, think about how we relate to good and bad feelings in addiction. We try to get a stranglehold on good feelings, and we try to obliterate bad feelings completely – no matter what the cost. Emotional life becomes a war. We would never treat our friends that way – either taking them hostage or shutting them out completely. And just as your friends wouldn’t tolerate too much of this kind of disrespect, I’ll assert that your own mind doesn’t respond well to it either. Mindfulness helps you to stop fighting with your experience, and to learn to recognize when you are fighting with your experience. For any of you who find value in 12 Step principles, think of the acceptance and wisdom described in the Serenity Prayer.
There is a bewildering array of resources available for learning more about mindfulness. One place to start is UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. Check out the links below for a collection of guided meditations of varying lengths.