Updated: Dec 7, 2022
Writer: Erin Lee
Many of us are hopeful about mindfulness and its potential for transforming our busy and stressful life. After all, experts and most research outcomes paint a pretty promising picture about what mindfulness could do for us. Stressed? Try mindfulness. Feeling anxious about the future? Mindfulness can help you. Overwhelmed by life? You need mindfulness.
If you're new to mindful living, you might be curious about how mindfulness could help you live better. As you ease yourself into learning more about it, you may be surprised at how the practice of mindfulness may not be what you think it is. While you might feel a little disappointed upon clarifying these misconceptions, I hope that the truth also inspires and motivates you to adopt it as a way of life.
1. It's Not About Leading a Relaxed Lifestyle
Many people decide to give mindfulness a try because of its widely-advertised promise to help us reduce stress. Consequently, we conclude mindfulness should help us relax, and that mindful living advocates a more relaxed, laid-back lifestyle. This may also lead to the assumption that mindfulness requires us to drop priorities and become less driven or goal-oriented in life.
While practicing mindfulness often brings relaxation of the body and mind, it is not usually the intention or objective of the practice. In other words, we do not practice mindfulness for relaxation. There are a myriad of activities we can engage in to feel relaxed - go to the spa, take a walk by the beach, play sports, window shopping, etc. We don't need to practice mindfulness to "take a break" from stress and busyness.
Relaxation is not the intention or objective of practicing mindfulness. We do not practice mindfulness to relax.
Although it is true that a mindful way of life invites us to slow down and take more pauses, this slowing down and pausing is intended for cultivating the skills necessary to navigate life. We practice paying attention and observing the mind and body, so that we gain insights into how we can thrive more healthily and wisely, and develop the capacity to do so.
This sounds like work rather than a way to relax, doesn't it? In fact, when we get down to the actual practice of mindfulness, we are often surprised by how much effort it takes just to pay attention to ourselves. While being mindful is not supposed to make us feel tensed or strained, it is definitely not all about relaxing ourselves or leading a laid-back lifestyle.
That said, people who practice mindfulness with the right understanding and approach usually find themselves living with greater calm and balance, in spite of the stress and struggles they meet with in day-to-day life.
2. It's Not About Indulging in Pleasures
Mindfulness is typically understood as a practice of being present. And what does "being present" truly mean?
We may not easily recognize that we are quick to associate being present with the enjoyment of sensual pleasures. Without a clear understanding of why we need to practice being mindful, we often mistake activities that offer temporary pleasure as "mindful experiences". Let me mindfully enjoy this glass of wine. I'm going to have some mindful me-time at the spa. We don't realize that indulging in pleasure of the senses is more often a way of diverting our attention from our stress and struggles.
There is of course nothing wrong with enjoying an activity (and we do need a healthy amount of enjoyment to lead a happy, fulfilled life), but this is not what being present is about. The practice of being present is actually a practice of deep wisdom.
Being present is not about losing ourselves in the pleasure of the senses, but a way of keeping ourselves in check so that we respond more skillfully to experiences.
When we are not in the present, the mind habitually travels to the past or the future, leading to negative thinking patterns like rumination or feelings of anxiety. Being present helps us stay with each moment as it arrives, so that we don't get lost in memories of the past or get taken over by worries about the future.
We practice being present to know what is happening in each moment, inside and outside of us. We understand the nature of the mind and the relationship it has with the body. When we are present, we can more readily keep a check on our internal states and regulate ourselves more effectively. People who practice being present with the right understanding and approach tend to respond less reactively and more skillfully towards difficult experiences.
3. It's Not a Quick Fix
We live in a world that is obsessed about problem-solving by way of quick fixes and fast solutions. Just like how we are inclined to pop a pill to feel physically better, we hope that a meditation session or two will help us feel emotionally and mentally well again. And when we don't quickly get the benefits we want, we grow impatient and begin to doubt the efficacy of mindfulness. We stop practicing and eventually give up.
As we embark on our journey in mindful living, we realize that our expectations of what mindfulness can do for us is mostly unrealistic. That is, if we expect change to happen just by downloading an app, practicing a few times, reading a book, or just from intellectually knowing what it is about.
There is no shortcut. We need to see mindfulness for what it is - a set of lifelong skills we can develop for resilience and growth. For this to happen, we need to practice, practice, practice.
Mindfulness is extremely helpful, but it requires hard work. We have to practice it to benefit from it, and there is no other way around this. There is no shortcut, either. We should stop regarding mindfulness as a tool that we can conveniently whip out of our toolbox in times of struggle, and start seeing it for what it is - a set of lifelong skills that we can develop for resilience and growth.
And to master the art of mindful living, we need to practice, practice, practice.
Mindfulness may be a popular subject in the fields of self-help and wellbeing, but it is also plagued with much misunderstanding and misinformation, mostly attributed to the various ways that it is counterintuitive to how the world today works. While modern life demands speed and stimulation, a mindful way of life asks for patience, intelligence, and wisdom.
Rather than discourage and deter, the three key points raised in this article are meant to shed light and motivate us to practice more effectively, so that we can truly benefit from living mindfully. If we approach mindfulness with a bit more curiosity, we can welcome greater magnitudes of change that a mindful life can bring.