Mindfulness short: myth – in mindfulness meditation we are trying to empty our mind

One of the biggest myths about mindfulness is that in mindfulness meditation you are trying to empty your mind. Ruby Wax who is good at answering questions people are asking answers the question this way in her book Sane New World, ‘With mindfulness the rumour is wrong that the point is to empty your mind; you need your mind to analyse, memorize, create and most importantly exist. It can never be empty while you’re alive, even in a coma your mind is still chattering away.’[1]

Why can she say this so categorically? It is all to do with what we think the mind is and how we define it. Interpersonal neurobiologist Daniel J. Siegel points out there is a lack of awareness and understanding of the mind. He defines the mind to be ‘a process that regulates the flow of energy and information.’[2] The mind is always receiving information from a great many sources. This includes sources outside of our own self and body. So it isn’t possible to empty it.

Whilst not directly addressing the question of ‘am I trying to empty my mind in mindfulness meditation?’, Mark Williams looks at mindfulness and psychological processes. He says there are two modes in which the mind operates (sometimes called being and doing), but more technically ‘conceptual (language-based) processing versus sensory-perceptual processing.’[3] Again, that’s a lot of information coming into your mind from different sources.

He goes on to say ‘In every waking moment we are receiving sights, sounds, tastes, smells, touch: stimuli from the external and internal world, but these are generally ignored in favour of spending most of our attention in conceptual mode: thinking, planning, daydreaming, analysing, remembering, comparing, judging, analysing, and so forth.’[4]

Our minds are very busy! Now in a very important and technical phrase Williams then defines what attentional training (mindfulness meditations or mindful awareness practices) is doing, ‘Attentional training in mindfulness programs cultivate the ability to shift modes as an essential first step to being able to hold all experience (sensory and conceptual) in a wider awareness that is itself neither merely sensory nor conceptual.’[5]

This is a shift from doing to being, from the narrative self (conceptual mode) to the experiential self (sensory-perceptual mode), followed by an ability to hold both in an open wider awareness. Far from trying to empty our mind we are learning how ‘to pay open-hearted attention to objects in the exterior and interior world as they unfold, moment by moment. Attention is paid not only to the objects themselves but to our reactions to them…’[6]

Why this is important is another question. But staying with the rumour or myth that in mindfulness meditation I am trying to empty my mind, it can also be addressed by approaching it from the angle of feelings and emotion.

Rimma Teper in an important article does address this question directly, ‘A common misconception about mindfulness, and meditation in general, is that it involves emptying the mind of thoughts and emotions.’[7] Mindfulness benefits executive function and emotion regulation and she asks, ‘Does mindfulness foster better executive control and emotion regulation because it eliminates emotional responding? We think not. Instead, we suggest that these effects accrue because mindfulness promotes an openness and sensitivity to subtle changes in affective states, which are essential in signalling the need for control and energizing its execution.’[8] In mindfulness your mind doesn’t work against your embodied mindful brain, but with it!

Mark Williams makes a similar point, ‘Mindfulness is not about “not feeling” or becoming detached from affect.’[9] What mindfulness enables is to see ‘something as it is, without further elaboration: for example, seeing thoughts as mental events, or seeing physical sensations as physical sensations…’[10]

So are we trying to empty our minds in mindfulness meditation? No, we are not! It may be that in switching to awareness, our minds suddenly may feel more spacious, but we are not emptying our minds – we are looking clearly at what our minds are processing. Mindfulness is seeing clearly and feeling clearly. It is an embodied, relational awareness that faces reality, not avoiding  it.

[1] Ruby Wax, Sane New World (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2013), 136.

[2] Daniel J. Siegel, The Mindful Brain New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), 5.

[3] J. Mark G. Williams, “Mindfulness and Psychological Process,” Emotion 10, no.1 (2010): 2, accessed April 4 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0018360.

[4] Williams,2.

[5] Williams, 2.

[6] Williams, 2.

[7] Rimmer Teper, Zindel V. Segal, and Michael Inzlicht, “ Inside the Mindul Mind: How Mindfulness Enhances Emotion Regulation Through Improvements in Executive Control,” Current Directions in Psychological Science XX, no. X (2013): 1, accessed April 5 2015,  http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0963721413495869.

[8] Teper, 1.

[9] Williams, 4.

[10] Williams, 4.

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