You’re Probably Doing Mindfulness Wrong

McKenna Princing Fact Checked
If you think this is how mindfulness should look, think again.
© Alexander Grabchilev / Stocksy United

You’ve probably heard by now that mindfulness is supposed to cure all your health woes. You’ve seen countless flawless Instagram images of celebrities and wellness coaches looking perfectly blissed-out as they meditate on white-sand beaches and atop mountains.

But when you sit down to meditate, you can’t stop thinking about your stressful day at work. Or that itch on your nose. Is it OK to scratch it? Or will that screw up your Zen? (And is this what Zen is supposed to feel like?!)

Since mindfulness entered the public consciousness and became trendy, we’ve been taught that it’s simple, easy even. All you have to do is find a quiet place, close your eyes, breathe a couple deep breaths and boom! You’ll be transported to those white-sand beaches (in your mind, anyway).

Except, not really. In real life, mindfulness looks a lot less like an Instagram post and more like just another (sometimes mundane) part of your day.

Misconceptions about mindfulness stop people from trying it and sticking with it, even when it could be beneficial for them. Mindfulness has been shown to have many health benefits, from reducing stress and anxiety to improving immune function and overall physical health, says Ty Lostutter, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who sees patients at University of Washington Medical Center and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

“Most people who quit do so because they think they aren’t doing it right. They hear in popular media that they’re supposed to be Zen, not have any thoughts. They have unrealistic expectations about transcending to nirvana,” he says.

Here are some common mindfulness myths, debunked — and tips for making mindfulness work for you.

Myth: Your mind needs to go blank.

Fact: You will have a monkey mind.

When you’re trying to be mindful, your thoughts will meander and race and probably become a messy jumble. That’s OK. That’s what your brain does normally, and trying to stop it is like trying to stop gravity: frustrating and nearly impossible.

Instead of trying not to think, let your brain do what it does best. Acknowledge when your thoughts wander, but try to bring your mind back to the present. Focus on your breath. When your thoughts sneak away from you again, gently pull them back.

“When our brains are on autopilot, people believe thoughts like they’re facts. Mindfulness is placing your attention where you want it to be, with intention,” Lostutter says.

It’s not about not having thoughts, but about letting them in and then letting them go.

Myth: You will feel ultra-relaxed.

Fact: You will probably get bored, at least at first.

Like most of us, if you’re used to multitasking and looking at your phone while doing pretty much everything, it might be hard to adjust to mindfulness, where the goal is to narrow your focus to the present moment.

“People get bored. ‘You really want me to sit around for 30 minutes a day and focus on my breath?’ When I’m on the elliptical I can watch TV, but mindfulness doesn’t work that way,” Lostutter says.

It’s easy to judge yourself if mindfulness doesn’t feel relaxing. You may think you’re not doing it right or are somehow failing. But a crucial part of mindfulness is being nonjudgmental (as hard as that may be).

If you think you should feel peaceful or happy or Zen, that adds pressure. Let yourself feel however you feel naturally and recognize that that’s OK. Accept your emotions for what they are and move on from them.

“Normally our brains are very critical. Nonjudgmentalness is recognizing that those are just thoughts and you don’t need to attend to them. It’s also about being nicer to yourself,” Lostutter says.

That being said, if you’re new to mindfulness, you might want to try it when you’re not feeling a particularly strong emotion, as that can make it harder to focus. Practicing mindfulness when you’re calm can help it become part of your routine, something you can rely on for stress reduction.

Myth: You can only be mindful while meditating.

Fact: You can be mindful in the shower, at dinner — even at work.

There’s an assumption that you can only be mindful if you’re alone, sitting in a quiet place, eyes closed. That’s not true, Lostutter stresses. There are two types of mindfulness: formal practice, like the kind of meditation you might learn in a meditation class or in therapy, and informal practice, which is about taking little moments at any time and place to focus on the present.

“Informal mindfulness is what most people experience at some point in their life. It’s stopping on a hike and saying, ‘This is so pretty,’ or eating a good meal at a restaurant. We all do it,” Lostutter says.

You can practice connecting with the present moment whenever you want. When you shower, try focusing on the feel of the warm water and the velvety smoothness of soap on your skin, instead of going through your to-do list for the day. Or take a moment to notice the delicious warmth and flavor of your morning coffee when you first get in to work.

Myth: If you can’t get it right from the beginning, you never will.

Fact: Mindfulness, like most things, requires practice.

“Just like you’d go to the gym to exercise your body, mindfulness exercises your brain,” Lostutter says.

Start off small — just a few minutes — and add more time as you get more comfortable. Lostutter recommends trying to get to 20 or 30 minutes a day, since research shows that this amount tends to be helpful. To make mindfulness a routine, set aside a specific time each day when you practice. Commit to it even when you don’t want to or feel like it’s not helping.

And, at the very least, even if being mindful didn’t exactly go as planned, you can give yourself credit for trying — and use that as motivation to try again.

Myth: It’s a miracle cure.

Fact: It’s helpful, but just one of many options.

We all know that person, be it a real-life friend or someone we follow on Instagram, who swears mindfulness has transformed his or her life. That’s great (if it’s true) but don’t expect that to happen to you.

“It won’t cure everything that ails you, but it’s a skill or a tool you should know about to help you when you need it,” Lostutter says.

For some people, mindfulness may be all or most of what they need to help manage stress. For others, especially people dealing with mental health issues like anxiety or depression, mindfulness may just be one of several helpful options, including therapy and medication.

Lostutter does mindfulness himself and also sees firsthand how helpful it can be for his patients, most of whom are going through major life events like a cancer diagnosis. He knows it can be tricky to stick with it, but emphasizes that it’s about the journey, not the destination.

“Mindfulness is the easiest thing I try to teach and the hardest thing I try to do,” he says.