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The Confusion Behind Mindfulness Meditation

· Mindfulness

What does mindfulness meditation actually mean? It depends on who you ask. It depends on the teacher. It depends on who is defining it. It depends on your religious or spiritual affiliation. It depends on the program. It depends on the app you downloaded. It depends on the researcher or research study. It depends on the country you live in. It depends on the reason it is being touted as the panacea for everything. This has caused confusion because we are not all talking about the same thing.

It is important to understand what is meant by terms such as mindful, mindfulness, meditation, mindfulness training, and mindfulness meditation. What do you want to achieve? Why are you interested in this practice? Is it to help you relax? Spiritual enlightenment? Help you cope with a stressful home and work life? Lower your blood pressure? Depression? Manage chronic pain? Heal? Become more focused? To develop awareness? Not all mindfulness meditation training programs are designed the same.

Typically, mindful means to keep or bear in mind. It is to be aware of something. Awareness is feeling, experiencing, or taking notice. The degree to which we are aware depends on our capacity and willingness to learn. Where we direct our awareness is key in our ability to heal.

We are all naturally mindful, although we also may be inclined to zone-out, forget, or become distracted. This doesn't mean that distraction is abnormal. Distraction serves a purpose in our lives and in our ability to heal. Mind-wandering has benefits. Most notably, it helps us to plan, and to apply our creativity when solving problems. In fact, because we are right and left brain, we have the ability to nurture and utilize our whole brain. Healing depends on the mind-body connection. It is essential to learn how to bridge the gap between the mind and the body. It is also essential to give ourselves time to engage in mindless activities that promote rest and relaxation.

Mindfulness, as defined by Merriam Webster is "the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis." In the modern world, to live in complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, and experiences without judgment seems unattainable and lofty and there is good reason for that. Some believe that freedom and liberation are achievable in this life, but it requires a disciplined spiritual practice.


The origin of mindfulness meditation has its roots in eastern philosophy. It is typically done in the context of a complete spiritual doctrine and/or philosophy. Meditation is but one path to spiritual realization and complete awareness and is typically done under the guidance of a revered teacher or Guru. The earliest record of meditation comes from the Hindu philosophy Advaita Vedanta.

In the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness is learned and utilized through the practice of sitting meditation. In order to develop the ability to sit in meditation, one has to learn how to be in the body. For this reason, many eastern traditions teach yoga as a part of this practice. Mindfulness or sati is but one part of the Buddhist practice, doctrine and philosophy on the path to spiritual enlightenment. It is meant to help develop self-knowledge. The whole goal of meditation in the traditional eastern sense is to attain a state of consciousness that is totally different from our normal waking state – peace and bliss. The formal practice of meditation is to observe your thoughts when they arise. Over time, you will learn how not to react to your thoughts. You learn to observe without judgment. For most, this takes a lifetime of practice.

In the 1970s, a secular mindfulness meditation program was introduced in the West by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. He developed the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program which uses a combination of mindfulness meditation, body awareness, and even yoga. His program acknowledges the importance of formal training with a teacher present, and the importance of the mind-body connection. Mindfulness meditation is not body awareness, although it can be incorporated as this program has done. The combination of mindfulness meditation with body awareness is key to healing the mind-body.

Mindfulness meditation has become a highly researched subject and has grown into a billion dollar industry. Interestingly, only 8% of U.S. adults actually practice meditation. In a meta-analysis of 18,753 meditation studies published in 2014, mindfulness meditation programs showed small improvements for anxiety, depression, and pain, and there was little evidence of any effect on other stress-related outcomes. They analyzed a wide variety of meditative techniques including transcendental meditation that utilizes mantra repetition without focused attention, and mindfulness-based stress reduction that utilizes focused attention on the present.

In the last few years, we have seen a dramatic increase in mindfulness meditation apps on the market. These apps make this practice look deceptively easy. Given that mindfulness meditation is only one part of a larger spiritual practice, it has to be understood in this way. It has benefits and it has limitations depending on its application in today's world. Some mindfulness meditations are designed to simply help you relax. Even though they are called "mindfulness meditations" they do not necessarily help you to develop awareness. In the traditional sense, they are not all mindfulness meditations. They simply incorporate relaxation and stress management techniques such as breathing, visualizations, or imagery, and may lull you with relaxing music or nature sounds in the background. They guide you in order to make it easier for you to relax. They don't require you to sit cross-legged, with eyes closed, and in a quiet setting under the care and tutelage of a knowledgeable teacher over the course of your lifetime.

Can you realistically and safely achieve the same results from practicing 10 minutes of guided mindfulness meditation using an app whilst living in the modern world full of stressors as you would if you lived a monastic life, secluded, free from all the stress, worries, noise, and busyness, where many hours a day are spent in meditation under the care of a supportive teacher? Can you realistically and safely compare monastic life and spiritual practices with modern life and secular practices that take shortcuts and hacks at every turn?

Despite the fact that there are benefits from practicing mindfulness meditation, there are also unintended negative side-effects. Our stressful way of life encourages shortcuts. The negative side-effects are partly the result of the way that we have fragmented age-old practices into quick fixes to suit our busy and stressful lifestyles in the 21st century. What happens when you tell someone to observe their thoughts in a detached way? Out of context and without guidance, this can result in detaching feeling from thought and creating the idea that we have to control our emotions. It instills the unrealistic idea that one who meditates must be able to always show restraint. Over the course of a lifetime, it is possible to learn how to process feelings and sensations as they arise when you sit in meditation. In the short term, one might have a negative experience from meditating because of overwhelming feelings and sensations that arise, and therefore may stop altogether; or, will set up a pattern of detaching from their experiences that will eventually lead to suffering somewhere down the road.

The traditional sitting practice of mindfulness meditation allows us to become more present with ourselves just as we are. If that were an easy thing to do for the average person without health problems, or for a monk in a monastery, imagine how difficult it could be for someone who has suffered, is suffering from a health condition, or has endured trauma? The inaccurate use of the term mindfulness in the West is misleading. This can cause confusion, unintended suffering, misinformation, and an overly exaggerated hype of the benefits of practicing 10 minutes a day using an app. This is the unintended consequence of taking apart an entire philosophy and reducing it to one practice that has now become known as the panacea for everything that ails us in the Western world.

When you see the word mindfulness, be mindful that it may not be all that you think it to be.

Copyright © 2017. Sylvia Carlson. All Rights Reserved.

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