For those new to mindfulness and when introducing mindfulness to the workplace, it's important to dispel certain myths and misconceptions around what may be viewed as a somewhat 'left field' approach to personal or organizational development.
Myth one: Mindfulness is a “religion (specifically "Buddhism by the back door”)
It is true that mindfulness is most effective when practice is grounded in certain eastern contemplative principles and attitudes, however, mindfulness in of itself is a purely secular practice which cultivates the inherent human capacity to pay attention to the present moment with an open-minded, non- judgmental curiosity. Mindfulness practice in the workplace, therefore, is a form of mind training that is entirely secular and does not require commitment to a spiritual tradition.
Myth Two: Mindfulness and meditation are the same thing
There are different types and variants of meditation which exercise different, so-called 'mind muscles', analogous to different exercise machines in the gym exercising and toning different muscles. Mindfulness as a non-preferential practice, is a particular way of paying attention and relating to our experiences to develop an open – minded curiosity to the dynamic flow of ALL our experiences as we experience them.
Myth three: Mindfulness is about being able to empty your mind
Mindfulness practice is not about either stopping / resisting or avoiding thoughts, but about becoming more aware of your 'mindscape' - the nature and pattern of thoughts, feelings and sensations. With continued and regular practice you begin to develop an awareness of what distracts you from the task at hand, regardless of whether the task is mindfulness, work, experiences etc...by noticing when your mind wanders and gently coming back to the chosen object of awareness, we both strengthen the ability to stay focused and in the zone alongside learning about the nature and content of the thoughts and emotions which distract us.
Myth four: The aim of mindfulness is to become relaxed and chilled out
Feeling more relaxed and at ease can be a welcome secondary effect, however, in the workplace the primary aim of mindfulness training is to increase the ability to self-manage. This means turning towards ALL experience as it is, even if at times it is unpleasant or uncomfortable. It is only by noticing and being with and gently curious about these experiences that we create a space from which we can skillfully respond.
Myth five: Mindfulness is just about paying attention to the breath
The image of people sitting cross-legged in the lotus position, eyes closed, breathing slowly and deeply creates the misperception that mindfulness is simply about entering a relaxed state. While there are controlled breathing techniques that will help calm an agitated nervous system, in mindfulness practice the breath is most often used as an anchor / focal point to both notice when the mind has wandered alongside routinely gently practice bringing it back to full here and now awareness, other sensory stimuli, sights, sounds, sensations can perform the same function.
Myth six: Mindfulness training is a magic bullet, good for everyone and helps with everything
There is an ever-growing and well established body of robust scientific evidence indicating that mindfulness is an effective clinical intervention for anxiety and depression in particular. It is also clear that mindfulness works better for some groups than others, and there are some people for whom training is inappropriate. Furthermore, it is somewhat unclear if or to what extent the significant positive effects from controlled clinical settings can generalize to wider broader population and workplace settings. There is also ongoing debate questioning the quality and effectiveness of so-called 'McMindfulness' interventions which typically involve a more watered down, superficial practice focusing on short-term stress reduction rather than transformative potential of sustained practice. In other words, mindfulness interventions at the lighter end of the spectrum may not confer the same benefits as more in depth training.
Myth seven: Mindfulness is dangerous
Mindfulness is an inherent, natural human trait promoting resilience to psychological distress, clarity of mind and improved decision making. Mindfulness therefore, is not dangerous per se, however, caution is warranted when cultivating mindfulness with certain populations and in certain contexts. Albeit rare, the majority of negative experiences seem to be associated with extended silent practice as encountered on residential retreats. Likewise, while a recent meta-analysis of mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT; the treatment of choice for recurrent depression) found no evidence of any adverse effects, some individuals may find that “turning towards” difficult or trauma based experiences through even brief mindfulness practice is overwhelming. Indeed, a variant of mindfulness - trauma sensitive mindfulness - has been adapted for individuals experiencing Post-traumatic stress disorder (Treleaven). From this perspective it is essential, therefore, that mindfulness trainers have the prerequisite skills, knowledge and experience to identify individuals for whom the training may not be suitable at a particular time point.
Myth eight: Mindfulness breeds passive employees and doesn’t lead to change in toxic organizational cultures.
One of the major criticisms of implementing workplace mindfulness programmes is the perceived failure to either directly address or change toxic leadership or organizational cultures. However, there is emerging evidence indicating that mindfulness alongside coaching changes leadership behaviours by increasing emotional intelligence, compassion and social responsibility (70). Equally it is important to distinguish between employee passivity and being less reactive enabling a considered response which leads to a course of action and behavior which is good for the employee and organisation alike. Undoubtedly there is the risk that mindfulness training heightens awareness of endemic organisational stress, motivating some employees to leave. However, this risk holds true for any organisation that is interested in implementing training to mitigate stress which goes otherwise unaddressed, while identifying employees who are committed and want to be there, altogether increasing engagement (71).
Myth nine: Mindfulness is purely being exploited by business for capitalist greed / gain
It is naïve to ignore the fact that employers must run efficient, financially viable, successful businesses. However, complementing good business practice, combined with wellbeing programmes which support good health is ethically and morally the right thing to do and also makes good business sense. However, to counter the claim that mindfulness training is merely a clandestine, exploitative way of squeezing more out of an already stressed and maxed out workforce, it is essential that mindfulness programmes are delivered by competent, appropriately qualified and ethical trainers to cultivate working environments “fit to house the human spirit” (72).