When introducing mindfulness to your team, you may need to tackle some of the myths around what might be seen as a seemingly ‘left-field’ approach to personal and organizational development. To help in that effort, this article tackles 9 common myths about mindfulness.
Myth One: Mindfulness is ‘religion by the back door’
Mindfulness is our inherent capacity to notice, in the present moment, all that we are experiencing with an open and allowing attitude. It is a basic human capability that can be developed with training, through practice and patience. Although it is not owned by any group, the cultivation of mindfulness can be found in many contemplative traditions, including Buddhism and all of the world’s major religions. However, in the context of the workplace, mindfulness practice is a form of mental training that is entirely secular and does not require commitment to any spiritual tradition.
Myth Two: Mindfulness and meditation are the same thing
If mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention that enables us to be present with our experience, just as it is, then meditation is one way of familiarizing ourselves with this type of awareness and then cultivating it further. There are different types of meditation that do different things, much like there are different exercise machines in a gym that develop different muscles. The guided ‘home practices’ that form part of a mindfulness course are essentially exercises that are designed to develop an attentive, open, curious and caring attitude in relation to our experience.
Myth Three: Mindfulness is about being able to empty your mind
Mindfulness practice is not about stopping thoughts or zoning out. This form of mental training is about becoming more aware of the unique patterns of your mind, and that includes the nature of your thoughts. With sustained and disciplined practice we can develop our ability to notice what draws our attention away from the task, whether that task is a mindfulness exercise or a workplace activity. By recognizing distraction and coming back to the desired object of our awareness, we both strengthen our ability to stay focused and learn about the nature of the thoughts that distract us. 25
Myth Four: The aim of mindfulness is to become relaxed and chilled out
One of the main intentions of mindfulness training is improving self-awareness, which increases your ability to manage yourself. This in turn helps us to improve our wellbeing so that we can live our lives better and do our jobs better, or perhaps make smarter career choices. Relaxation may be a welcome by-product, but it should not be considered the aim. In fact, mindfulness practice requires us to ‘turn towards’ experience as it is, even if that’s uncomfortable or unpleasant. By holding any difficulty with care and curiosity, we allow ourselves to learn from it and develop more skillful ways of responding.
Myth Five: Mindfulness is just about paying attention to the breath
It is a common misperception (probably evoked by sometimes woo-woo images of people with their eyes closed and sitting cross-legged in the lotus position) that mindfulness is about entering into a relaxed state by simply breathing more slowly and deeply. Whilst there are types of controlled breathing designed to soothe an agitated nervous system, in mindfulness practice the breath is most often just used as an anchor so we can notice when our mind has wandered, and practice kindly and gently bringing it back to where we want it to be. We can attend to other parts of the body in this way, and also to other senses such as vision or hearing.
Myth Six: Mindfulness training is good for everyone, and helps with everything
Although clinical applications of mindfulness training have indeed been shown to be effective across broad populations, particularly for anxiety and depression, it’s also clear from research that interventions work better for some groups than others and that there are some people for whom training is not appropriate. Further, the majority of research on mindfulness training outside of the clinical health context is still very much in its infancy.
Further, some critics have described workplace mindfulness courses as representing ‘McMindfulness’ because these interventions usually involve shorter practices and can tend towards shallow, short-term stress reduction rather than the deeply transformative potential of sustained practice. Mindfulness interventions at the lighter end of the spectrum may not deliver many of the benefits that are conferred by in-depth training.
Myth Seven: ‘Mindfulness is dangerous’
Mindfulness itself, as a natural human capacity, is not dangerous. Researchers associate our levels of ‘trait’ mindfulness with desirable characteristics like resilience to psychological distress and quality of decision-making, even if we’ve never heard the word before. However, some methods for cultivating greater levels of mindfulness might not be appropriate for some people or at some times and there is anecdotal evidence that in rare cases people can encounter significant difficulty. Most of these reports of negative experiences seem to be associated with extended silent practice on residential retreats, and a recent meta-analysis of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy trials did not find evidence of adverse events associated with this less intense form of training.
However, some individuals may find that ‘turning towards’ difficult experience even through brief mindfulness practice isn’t appropriate for them. Pre-assessment for mindfulness courses by qualified teachers should identify those individuals for whom training may not be suitable, such as those recently bereaved or likely to be experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (e.g., military professionals who have been in active combat might find focusing on deep breathing exercises to be triggering).
Myth Eight: Mindfulness breeds passive employees and doesn’t lead to change in toxic organizational cultures
One of the key criticisms of implementing workplace mindfulness courses is that it doesn’t change the poor practices of toxic leaders or organizational cultures, but can instead be applied like a ‘sticking plaster’. Whilst it is early days in terms of an evidence base, some research has shown that implementing mindfulness, along with coaching, makes a difference to leadership behaviors, helping managers to act with greater emotional intelligence, compassion and social responsibility. 70
When observing someone acting mindfully this may appear to be a less reactive state, but it is anything but passive. In developing our moment-to-moment awareness we are ‘waking up’ to our experience; noticing our reactions and using that awareness to develop wiser ways of responding. There are many anecdotal accounts of employees walking away from toxic working environments, or pursuing other goals or career aspirations, as a result of having received mindfulness training. This represents a risk for any organization that is interested in providing training to mitigate endemic stress that is otherwise unaddressed. Research shows that team members who, ‘are in jobs they want to be in, and likely to be more engaged’. 71
Myth Nine: Mindfulness is purely being exploited by businesses for capitalist ends
One of the central concerns as mindfulness transitions into the workplace is that training programs are being implemented in order to ‘squeeze more out of already stressed workers.’ Such criticisms are rarely informed by what is happening in organizations or by talking to those who organize or participate in mindfulness programs. It would be naïve to ignore the fact that employers want to run successful businesses, but evidence shows that it is not an either/or situation; complementing good business practice and combining that with effective wellbeing programs that support good health is ethically sound and makes good business sense.
In closing, creating a mindful team starts with you. The more you are able to role model the practices you are looking for on our team, the more likely that others will mirror that behavior. Along the way, don’t let myths throw off the kind of culture you are working to create.
About the Author: This excerpt was edited and reprinted with the permission of our friends at The Mindfulness Initiative. To learn more about their work, please visit www.themindfulnessinitiative.org. View original article.
25 Brown KW, Ryan RM, Creswell JD. Mindfulness: Theoretical foundations and evidence for its salutary effects. Psychological Inquiry. 2007;18(4):211-237.
70 Zollo et al. (2008) Understanding and Responding to Societal Demands on Corporate Responsibility (RESPONSE): Final Report, INSEAD, Copenhagen Business School, Bocconi, Impact and the Leon Kozminski Academy of Entrepreneurship and Management, view report PDF.
71 Roz Kings and Emma Wardropper, Case Study: Creating a mindful culture within financial services, in Mindfulness in the Workplace: An evidence-based approach to improving wellbeing and raising performance, London: Kogan Page (2016)