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Monday, February 19, 2018

10 Misconceptions on Mindfulness for Mental Health - Part 1

By Dr. Phang Cheng Kar (M.D.) & Dr. Song Beng Kah (Ph.D.)

In the past few years, we have seen a big leap in popularity of mindfulness practice in Malaysia. We appreciate the effort made by various organizations in promoting mental health through mindfulness training workshops or classes. In the midst of mindfulness popularity, there are however some mindfulness related misconceptions, which need to be clarified for the benefits of people who are interested in this method. With a threefold increase in the prevalence of mental health problem among Malaysian adults (from 10.7% in 1996 to 29.2% in 2015), it is timely for the public to have a better understanding of mindfulness. We hope this article can help to curb the problem of “McMindfulness”, a term borrowed from the popular fast food chain and coined for referring to the easily available but diluted and distorted form of mindfulness.

With a threefold increase in the prevalence of mental health problem among Malaysian adults (from 10.7% in 1996 to 29.2% in 2015), it is timely for the public to have a better understanding of mindfulness.

Definition of mindfulness by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn.

What is the most popular secular definition of mindfulness? According to Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the famous American mindfulness teacher who created the popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), “mindfulness” refers to the awareness that emerges through paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. Being mindful also means the process of paying attention to the unfolding of the inner (e.g. thought and feeling) and outer (e.g. sound and sight) experiences from moment to moment, in the “particular ways” defined by Kabat-Zinn. If understood and practiced correctly, the definition is useful for reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and increasing well-being. Otherwise, it is not helpful and can even be harmful. We will now share with you some of the common misconceptions of mindfulness.   

1. Mindfulness is religious.

No, it is not religious; it is secular and scientific. Are you sure? Yes, mindfulness is not always religious. The concept of mindfulness originates from various spiritual traditions in particular Buddhism. But, modern mindfulness-based therapy is delivered in a secular way without religious doctrines, rites, or rituals. The Malaysian mindfulness-based program MINDFULGym, with grants and support from the Ministry of Health and Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), has successfully been introduced to hundreds of people from the multi-ethnic background, regardless of their religion or belief. Whether associated with a secular or religious context, mindfulness practice does not necessarily involve “meditation” or meditate with the legs crossed and eyes closed. More importantly, mindfulness is merely a training of mind based on sound science and credible clinical studies around the world. In 2013, in a review of 209 scientific studies by Khoury and colleagues in the journal Clinical Psychology Review, it was concluded that mindfulness-based therapy is an effective treatment for reducing stress, anxiety, and depression.

2. Mindfulness practice is difficult and time-consuming.

No, it might not always be difficult and time-consuming; it can be simple and practical. As in playing any sports, mindfulness practice (can be seen as a form of mind sport) is of various levels of difficulty. Not all of us can play badminton as good as world champion Datuk Lee Chong Wei. But that does not mean we cannot enjoy and gain benefits from playing badminton. The same goes for mindfulness training. For beginners, it is good enough if we can try to take a few slow, deep, and mindful breaths intermittently throughout the day to refresh ourselves and make peace with the present moment. To be mindful is easy; remembering to be mindful is difficult. Using a phone app with the soothing sound of a bell as a reminder to take mindful breaths periodically is useful for many people. Advanced mindfulness training is, of course, more challenging. But that is fine as mindfulness cultivation is a life-long journey. We progress step-by-step and learn from the journey, every step, every moment – take your time – enjoy the present moment.

3. Mindfulness is just paying attention to the present moment.

Not fully correct. It is not just paying attention to the present moment; it is relating to the present moment with kindness and appreciation. People who are clinically depressed often pay attention to their faults and blame themselves. Those with poor self-esteem habitually pay attention to and amplify their weakness. Is that paying attention in a mindful way? No. Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way; non-judgmental, with kindness, compassion, appreciation, gentleness, goodwill, warmth. It is not just attention; it is ‘kindful’ attention to the present moment - ourselves, others, and the world. Relating to our present moment experience with kindness, appreciation, and gratefulness is an effective way of increasing mental wellbeing. Here is a question to test your understanding of mindfulness. Does aiming to shoot and kill a bird involves mindful attention?

Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way; non-judgmental, with kindness, compassion, appreciation, gentleness, goodwill, warmth. It is not just attention; it is ‘kindful’ attention to the present moment - ourselves, others, and the world.
To be continued - Part 2

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