Twelve Things Mindfulness Is Not

by Mary Ann Christie Burnside, EdD

1. Mindfulness is not what you think.

It’s a way of learning about how our minds work and coming to understand that we can’t control our minds any more than we can control other people. Our minds are always thinking. That’s the nature of the mind. Automatic mental activity: Thinking, thinking, judging, judging, thinking, judging, thinking and so on. Most of the time, we act on these thoughts (automatically), many of which are inaccurate or simply untrue.

Once we start observing our mind – paying attention to it with present moment awareness – we notice how quickly thoughts come and go. We stop relying on our thoughts as truth. We also begin to develop an open spaciousness around whatever’s happening. This spaciousness helps us lessen the resistance we naturally have toward unpleasant events and helps us slow down or stop our natural urge to seek or to cling to pleasant events.

2. Mindfulness is not about spacing out or escaping. 

It’s about tuning in and connecting. It’s about being where we are right now, and balancing what’s going on inside of us with what’s going on around us.

And we do not need to do anything special to be mindful. In fact, it’s not about doing at all. It’s about being, which is a kind of non-doing. It’s the opposite of doing, which is something we are most unused to in our achievement culture.

3. Mindfulness is not simply about attention. 

Although mindfulness is often thought of as a kind of attention that focuses the mind, this is only part of the story. As a teacher once told me, “A sniper is very skilled at focusing the mind.” Mindfulness is about paying attention in a particular way – to your present moment experience with curiosity and kindness, rather than with judgment (the way our minds usually work). It’s about cultivating awareness and compassion of and for self and others, at every possible opportunity.

4. Mindfulness is not about having a particular kind of experience.

Sometimes people can get frustrated or disappointed with their mindfulness practice because they don’t always have the kind of experience they are expecting. We often expect that mindfulness will bring us peace or calm and relaxation. These expectations are just our thoughts getting in the way again. We want something and we don’t get it, so we’re unhappy. We think it’s not working or we’re doing it wrong. We start to judge our experience and ourselves. More thought in the way.

Although it’s true that you can experience a sense of peace, calm, or relaxation while practicing mindfulness, these are not guaranteed outcomes. Sometimes things come up that are difficult or painful, yet equally true. So when cultivating mindfulness, which we can do formally or informally, our best practice is to simply let ourselves have whatever experience we’re having, including all the thoughts, feelings or physical sensations that are a part of it.

5. Mindfulness is not about becoming someone else.

One of the most elegant definitions I have ever heard is something Jon Kabat-Zinn said: “Mindfulness is about spending time with yourself and knowing a little something about who that is.” When we practice mindfulness and deepen our capacities for awareness and compassion, we more fully become who we already are. We get to know more about ourselves as we become aware of our relationship to our thoughts and feelings and our habitual reactions to the people, experiences and events in our lives.

6. Mindfulness is not about perfection.

No one is perfect. And there is no perfect anything. No perfect job, house, relationship, town, school or life. Perfection is an ideal, not a reality. Our actual lives as they are right now is the reality that mindfulness helps us learn to live with.

7. Mindfulness is not about changing difficult thoughts or getting rid of difficult feelings. 

The point is not to change things but to learn to peacefully co-exist with what is through practice. It’s about noticing and our thoughts, feelings and sensations again and again and about accepting these – all of them – with compassion.

8. Mindfulness is not religious. 

Although it can feed us on a spiritual level, it’s a human experience that utilizes awareness and compassion. These human capacities are innate, deep and, without intentional action on our part, often untapped.

9. Mindful awareness practices are not difficult.

Becoming aware and cultivating curiosity, acceptance and kindness in our every-day lives is not difficult to do. We are born with these capacities. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen over time with continued practice.

What’s difficult is our own resistance to really look at what’s going on or to change what we can.

10. Mindfulness is not just about meditation.

Meditation is an exercise that helps us strengthen our mindfulness practice the way physical exercise strengthens our muscles. The more we practice meditation, the more we deepen our capacities to be aware and compassionate, in other words, our mindfulness practice.

Our brains are always learning and they get better at doing whatever we’re doing. So the more we practice being aware and compassionate, the better we get at it. Yet in our daily lives, we are not likely to sit on the cushion for more than an hour a day, if that. What we do the rest of the day is also training our brain. So if we spend time stuck in regret about the past, or worry about the future (which all human brains do), our brains will get better at that. If we spend time learning to connect with what’s going on now and really show up for our lives, our brains will get better at that.

11. Mindfulness is not about stress reduction, although it can significantly reduce stress.

Mindfulness is about our whole lives, of which stress will always be a part. Rather than remove stress, mindfulness teaches us to change our relationship to everyone and everything in our lives, including the stressors. People who practice mindfulness cultivate awareness, curiosity, acceptance, kindness and compassion. They build stress resiliency by literally training their brains to respond to all experiences in a healthy way, instead of reacting in ways that cause suffering and additional stress.

Evidence that mindfulness helps with stress by changing our relationship to it has accumulated over decades of research with adults. The research with children and teens is nascent but there is every reason to believe that it will track the adult research with similarly positive benefits. Mindfulness will not cure us or remove all our problems, but it can heal us as we live through the whole of our experiences, whatever they are.

12. Mindfulness is not a waste of time. 

Those of us who think we have no time to put into learning new skills and practices that can improve our well-being and the quality of our lives are the people who would benefit most from a mindfulness practice. That’s like saying we’re too busy to be happy and healthy (mindfulness is a core practice in the positive psychology research on happiness).

And consider this. Research suggests that we spend a significant amount of time ruminating about or replaying the past and another chunk of time planning or worrying about the future, which hasn’t happened yet. Given that the only moment we can do anything about is this one, much of that past and future thinking can be an ineffective use of precious time. Mindfulness teaches us how to be and stay in the present moment and how to act wisely. This kind of work frees up our thoughts and the time we used to use being hooked by them.

As we continue to practice observing our thoughts, emotions and our habitual responses to events and experiences, we get clarity on what’s really under our control and what isn’t. For people like me, this is a real time saver. When I finally learned that the only things I can control in my life – ever – are my own words and actions, I ended up with a lot of time on my hands. I now use this time to study, practice and teach about mindfulness.