A common, yet completely understandable, misconception about practicing mindfulness is that it helps you to clear your mind of thoughts. Having trained a large number of people in my own practice and with Mindfulness at Work, the leading UK-based mindfulness company training corporates, a lot of feedback from clients is that they want to practice mindfulness in order to clear their mind and to become more relaxed.
When you start to observe how the mind works, you will laugh at the impossibility of clearing your mind of thoughts. It just isn't going to happen! Having thoughts is part of being human. Some researchers say that we have around 50,000 thoughts a day (National Science Foundation) and that around 95 per cent of these thoughts are the same as you had the day before. Whether this number is completely accurate or not, if you even halved the figure you can begin to acknowledge that clearing your mind of thoughts is akin to stopping yourself breathing for ten minutes. It's a physical impossibility.
This is not to say that having an expectation of being able to clear the mind or of practicing mindfulness to become relaxed is wrong. What it does show us though is how engrained we've become to 'do' in order to 'get'. We make things conditional and are driven by expectations, goals and outcomes because that is how we believe we need to operate in the world.
With a formal mindfulness practice the only intention, or indeed, expectation is to simply 'be'. To be with whatever arises in each moment, regardless of whether that's facing a busy mind or looking agitation in the eye. And for most of us, simply being and turning towards that which is already there, is akin to getting nothing done, of not achieving.
When we want to change something, like clearing the mind, the mind will automatically want to take charge and figure out the problem. So your mind looks at where you are now (a busy mind filled with thoughts, perhaps anxious thoughts) and sees where you want to go (no thoughts, no anxiousness, relaxation) and it does its best to bridge the gap. There's nothing more the mind likes to do then solve a problem with rational, critical thinking. The trouble with this approach is that the mind begins to highlight the gap, which drives you deeper into your thoughts as the mind searches for evidence to support the busyness. This is called the 'doing' mode.
When however, you come to a mindfulness practice with the intention to simply be, with no other outcome than to just put your butt on the seat and your feet on the floor, you step into the unknown. You don't know what is going to happen because you're allowing what ever is going to arise to do so in that moment.
This is where typically a transformation can take place. Perhaps you will start to notice how your busy mind is creating stress or tension in your body. Perhaps you may receive insight into the motivation or indeed reality behind the busyness. Or maybe you will accept that this is just where you are right now, and that it's ok.
This approach isn't about fixing or doing anything. It's not even about having an outcome or expecting a change. It's simply about being with and turning towards whatever you are experiencing in that moment. Ultimately it's about being with yourself.
Think of a time when you have given to someone unconditionally without wanting anything in return. In a way with mindfulness you're doing this for yourself. Of course I am not discounting the many, many benefits of practicing mindfulness, but it's the intention that's key. You put your butt on a seat so you can be with yourself for a bit and that seems to be challenging for a lot of people - having no other motive or outcome than to just be with yourself.
Mindfulness isn't a technique you learn to clear your mind and become relaxed. It isn't a technique at all as it's a way of being. Mindfulness enables you to become the witness of your busy mind and there is utter freedom when you begin to see that you aren't your thoughts - they're separate from you. If you have any intention when practicing mindfulness, let that intention be to just 'be' - to be in the moment and to be with yourself - busy mind and all.
Anne Loyd is a professional life coach and mindfulness trainer. She is passionate about people being who they truly are, in and out of the workplace, and living happy, and fulfilling lives.