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10 Misconceptions On Mindfulness For Mental Health - Part 2

Updated: Nov 28, 2021

By Dr. Phang Cheng Kar (M.D.) & Dr. Song Beng Kah (Ph.D.).

4. Mindfulness is blindly focusing on everything in the here-and-now.

No, it is not blindly focusing on everything in the here-and-now; it must be supported by an understanding of how the mind works.

For people with anxiety disorders (e.g. illness anxiety disorder), the mind easily focuses on unpleasant bodily sensations (e.g. chest tightness, breathlessness, rapid beating of the heart). And they often mistook them to mean that they are suffering from a serious sickness (e.g. heart attack). To avoid the sickness, they automatically pay more attention to detect any alarming sensations. Naturally, they become aware of more sensations and worry more. Mindful attention training must be supported by understanding. It is not just “noting, noting, noting” the sensations blindly. To emphasize that, in the MINDFULGym program, mindfulness is defined as, “….attention to the present moment with kindness, beginner’s mind, and wisdom.” We need understanding or wisdom to guide us on where and how to pay attention; purposeful attention, as Kabat-Zinn defines it. In the context of anxiety disorders, we need to understand that the brain is abnormal and tends to find faults and catastrophize whatever we pay attention to. In mindfulness training for coping with anxiety, we learn to calm the mind (e.g. using mindful breathing) so that we react less negatively to stimulus. We also learn to pay attention to the positive aspects of life, e.g. our strength, blessings, good deeds, and success.

5. Mindfulness is simply bare awareness; you are not supposed to think or do anything.

No, it is not simply bare awareness of the present moment; it is also remembering the good advice related to mindfulness for good mental health.

In the contemporary world, mindfulness is usually conceptualized as a form of awareness or attention training. However, in the traditional Pāli (a classical and literary Indian language), the word associated with mindfulness is “Sati.” Besides awareness of the present moment, “Sati” also carries the meaning of recollection or memory of advice given by the instructor in mindfulness training. In the context of mental health, it is remembering (thinking) and practicing (doing) all the mindfulness related principles that are conducive to psychological wellbeing, e.g. minimize multitasking, let go of the past, focus on what you can do now, do not always take thoughts too seriously as they may not be facts, embrace impermanence, accept imperfection, and pay attention to the good things in life. Just like a newbie in sports remembers advice from the coach in training, a mindful student remembers advice from the teacher in mindfulness training. In the MINDFULGym program, gentle reminders on mindfulness practice are periodically sent through the WhatsApp group to consolidate the understanding and practice of mindfulness.

6. Mindfulness is making the mind blank.

No, it is not making the mind blank; it is learning how to relate to unhelpful thoughts, understand our thoughts and not to be carried away by them.

Mindfulness is not going into a trance, half-conscious, or passive state. On the contrary, mindfulness training helps us to be more conscious of our experience. For people with mental health problems, having a method to free the mind from negative thoughts and feelings seem great. Yes, mindfulness training may help with that. But it is not done by forcefully purge or cleanse the unwanted thoughts. In fact, studies have shown that when we desperately try to suppress unwanted inner experience, they grow. When people tell us not to think too much, we often think more. “Whatever we resist, persists,’ says Carl Jung. In mindfulness training, instead of battling thoughts directly, we learn to calm the mind by shifting its attention from thoughts to body sensation (e.g. through the body scan practice). When the mind is calm, then we can investigate our thoughts (e.g. I’m useless) with understanding and guidance from a therapist. Once there was a patient with Generalized Anxiety Disorder who came to the clinic for mindfulness-based therapy after failing to gain benefits from cognitive therapy. He shared with the therapist something insightful, “When I do mindful breathing, I’m calm. I don’t have to challenge my thoughts. With a calm mind, thoughts just disappear or don’t have the power to influence me. Once mindful, I can also pray more wholeheartedly and that’s very important to me.” 

7. Mindfulness means “non-judgmental” – do not judge!

No, it is not “non-judgmental” (avoid making judgments); it is having an open mind and making wise judgments.

When Kabat-Zinn says, ‘…paying attention in a particular way on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally,”  he does not mean that we should avoid making judgments in life.

He means we should try to be patient, gentle, accepting, and not beat ourselves up when facing challenges in mindfulness practice and life. Related to that, it also means we should be aware of fixated judgments or assumptions that stress us out, e.g. “People cannot be trusted,” “I’m useless,” “I’m a troublemaker,” “Nobody likes me,” “Everything has to be perfect.” People go to counselors to have a better understanding of their problems. Counselors need to make professional judgments to support clients, and clients need to make discerning judgments on how to solve their problems. In mindfulness training, we do not avoid making judgments. We learn to cultivate curiosity, open-mindedness, or beginner’s mind in approaching problems in life. Then we can make wise decisions and generate creative solutions for the challenges in life. Interestingly, in 2010, there was a Mindful Lawyer Conference at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law. Mindfulness practice involves non-judgmental awareness. But at the heart of judicial decision-making is judgment. Here is another question to test your understanding. How can a mindful judge make judgments “non-judgmentally”?

To be continued - Part 3.

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