For this Minute, I wanted to address some of the misconceptions that tend to crop up around the popularized understanding of mindfulness. And these misconceptions are what I’m referring to when I say: Mickey Mouse Mindfulness. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these three forms of Mickey Mouse Mindfulness come up again and again and could benefit from some airing.
1. All you need is mindfulness, baby. (In other words, Spiritual Bypassing.) This is what happens when we take one thing, like mindfulness, and apply it like a cure-all. Many years ago, while trying to mind my own business at a cafe, I remember overhearing a particularly earnest and sensitive looking man offer this profound advice to a woman he was having tea with: “Whenever I feel agitation, or stress, I just try to take a mindful breath… and then I know everything is going to be OK.” Well, aside from my need to wince in the face of this tired cliche, I’d like to point out that bringing one’s bare, nonjudgmental attention to something does not necessarily make it OK, per se. What mindfulness does do, it seems, is to create enough psychic space for other faculties of mind, such as investigation and wisdom, to mobilize and change how one is reacting to what is arising. But these other faculties are just as important. In Minutes 29-42, I’ve written about some of these other vital capacities. When we try to make an end-run with mindfulness, alone, we forget that it’s one tool of many.
2. When I’m mindful, EVERYTHING is sweeter, shinier and happier. Similar to the last one, this misconception makes the assumption that when mindfulness is present, everything should somehow be better. And while that can often be the case on the conventional level of things, it’s by no means the original intention of mindfulness. Cynthia Thatcher in her great essay, What’s So Great About Now, reminded me of this, “The Buddha clearly stated the reason for practicing mindfulness: to uncover and eliminate the cause of suffering.” And this is why my new favorite teaching line is this: The success of your meditation has nothing to do with the content of your meditation. The true success of your practice has to do with the precision with which you uncover and relinquish suffering.
3. Mindfulness implies a simplified experience. This misconception stems, I think, from the aspect of the practice that asks us to single-task, to do one thing at a time with our full attention. This single-tasking could be applied to watching the breath, doing dishes, or walking the dog. But within the relative simplicity of single-tasking, it’s often the case that the mind will also be more acutely aware of lots of other stuff going on. And this experience doesn’t necessarily feel simplified. Thanisarro Bhikkhu compared it to how the hand can hold a rock and still be aware of insects and other objects brushing against it. The hand doesn’t let go of the rock and yet still feels other stuff. The mind can single-task, such as watching the breath, and still be aware of other things moving through it.
Originally published on December 6, 2013