How to Practice Mindfulness the Right Way

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Key Takeaways

  • Researchers find that people confuse the practice of mindfulness with passive acceptance.
  • Mindfulness encourages awareness of the present, but also action and engagement through acceptance and curiosity.
  • The practice, when fully understood, can help societies become more socially conscious and motivated.

Mindfulness has become a buzzword and a trending concept for mental health all over the world. But the ancient practice rooted in Buddhism, may not actually be fully understood by those attempting to practice it.

A survey conducted by researchers in Canada and published in Clinical Psychology Review in early November has shown that people do not fully understand the tenets behind mindfulness.

Researchers found that there are some big gaps in how people understand the practice and apply it in their lives.

Do We Understand Mindfulness?

In a press release, Igor Grossmann, PhD, study author and professor of social psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, said that "mindfulness includes two main dimensions: awareness and acceptance." However, Grossmann and colleagues found that most people only understand half the story.

Namely, people tend to understand the awareness part—that tuning into emotions and sensations, and living in the moment can relieve stress. It's the acceptance piece that many confuse with passivity and avoidance.

Mindfulness is commonly defined as "awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally." That moment can exist when we engage in everyday tasks—from talking to someone to doing the dishes.

In the press release, Grossmann said that the "scientific understanding of mindfulness goes beyond mere stress-relief and requires a willingness to engage with stressors." While people seem to acknowledge the stress-relieving effects, the action piece is what's missing.

What Does Mindfulness Mean?

Ellen Choi, PhD, one of the study authors and an organizational psychologist, and professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, told Verywell that gaps in public understanding might have arisen because there is a disconnect between original philosophy and modern practice.

Mindfulness has been encouraging people to live in the present for at least 2,500 years. According to Buddhist thought, thinking too much about the past or future can lead us to dwell or become anxious, distorting our reality and separating us from what the world actually is.

Cognitive distortions appear in thinking patterns that are characteristic of mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.

"Mindfulness has become so popular so quickly," Choi said, adding that it's mostly used as a stress-reduction tool rather than an ongoing practice. The emphasis on marketability and utility has led some to critique the trend in the West as "McMindfulness"—fueling a "capitalist spirituality" that simulates rather than produces real social and political change.

It's one of the fastest-growing areas in psychological research. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress and improve overall functioning. The practices have also been shown to improve self-regulation in various brain areas—a lack of which may contribute to mental health conditions like depression.

"If we're moving through our whole life just to get the dishes done, then we miss out on the sensory experience—that connection and gratitude that appear in any moment when you're just entirely in it," Choi said.

Acceptance Encourages Action

In addition to encouraging us to stay in the present, Choi said that mindfulness has a second part: acceptance, which can be understood as non-judgment, openness, or curiosity. This is the piece that can encourage action.

Let's say that while washing the dishes, you get your finger stuck in a trace of runny egg yolk clinging to a plate. Choi says that you could react by thinking, "Look at this egg yolk, stuck on my gross dish," By allowing your awareness to get consumed by that, your disgust can then color your mood or the way in which you interact with others for the rest of the day.

However, when you apply acceptance or curiosity—say by focusing on the texture of the egg yolk—Choi said that "there's something that happens to that experience in the moment [that is] very special, yet difficult to pinpoint."

Spotting the Disconnect

However, mindfulness' increased popularity has garnered criticism because of the way it is employed, Choi said.

For example, the "McMindfulness" critique claims that corporations, schools, and industries have employed the practice of mindfulness as just another way of triumphing individualism while exacerbating disconnection and inequality between individuals.

Choi said that such "McMindfulness" highlights the harmful ways in which the practice can be applied—but that does not mean that it's only harmful or that it cannot be anything but a marketable self-help tool. It may just need to be more fully understood.

To spot the disconnect, Choi, Grossman, and colleagues analyzed various formal and informal definitions of mindfulness in English, as well as many studies on its application. They also looked at how people in real life actually understood the term and how they applied it in their day-to-day lives.

They found that while most people seem to understand the general concept of mindfulness, they do not apply it fully. The public tends to associate “mindfulness” with passivity, when, in reality, it is a practice that involves engagement (rather than avoidance) with challenges or problems.

"One of the things that we're trying to say in this paper is that awareness and acceptance are supposed to work together," Choi said.

What This Means For You

If you're interested in trying to put mindfulness into practice in your life, talk to your doctor, a mental health expert, and/or a mindfulness expert. For a quick introduction, Choi goes more in-depth about mindfulness on their website and offers free guided meditations for people learning the practice. You can also look for tips on how to incorporate mindfulness into your daily life.

How to Practice Mindfulness

There are three parts to practicing mindfulness: awareness, acceptance, and action.

Choi said that awareness allows you to "see what it actually is without bias, clouded perceptions, or [your] ego, to see it all clearly."

Next, there's the acceptance part of mindfulness practice. You have to accept your gut reaction to experiences but then take action. According to Choi, the question becomes: "What am I going to do about that?"

You've practiced being in the moment to understand your perceptions. Then, you've accepted them, rather than ignored or suppressed them. Only then can you honestly ask yourself why it's there and what to do about it—to avoid clouding your judgment in the future.

"As we've cherry-picked the idea [of mindfulness] in the West," Choi said. "I feel like we have a responsibility to be honest, and ask ourselves, 'Do I truly understand it?'"

Choi added that a fuller understanding and practice of mindfulness could help us ask larger questions about why mindfulness tends to be only half-understood. "When we say mindfulness, are we all talking about the same thing?" Choi asked.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sarah Simon
Sarah Simon is a bilingual multimedia journalist with a degree in psychology. She has previously written for publications including The Daily Beast and Rantt Media.