Hanging out in the mindfulness scene has really upped my vocabulary. Go to a scientific conference, read any of the many studies, listen to a Ted talk, and pretty soon you too can start throwing around words like “relationality” or “anterior cingulate cortex.” You might even know what they mean!
Here’s a word that was not in my active or passive vocabulary before I took up meditation: Conflate. Online dictionaries tell me that, in the best sense, conflation is the melding of two identities or ideas into one, for concision or efficiency. Here, I want to talk about the other end of the spectrum, when conflation leads to misunderstanding. If you treat two distinct concepts as one and the same, confusion and imprecision follow. There happens to be a great potential for conflating concepts around the aims and applications of mindfulness. I experience and hear about this from students in 3 basic categories of misperception, as follows:
Be Mindful ≠ Feel Good A common mistake, stemming from a perfectly healthy desire to feel well and/or some cherished early experiences of feeling quite well as a result of meditation. This is a perfectly understandable misunderstanding, and also a trap. Because the minute you start experiencing discomfort, you might think you’re “doing mindfulness wrong.” Now you start trying to make good or happy experiences happen, rather than simply staying with the experience you’re having. Now you’re out of the zone of mindfulness practice and into the spinning wheel of self-recrimination and self-improvement. How to step back in: notice the habit of chasing the feel-good moment, as though someone promised you you’re entitled to only feeling good in this life. Potential mindfulness-related side-effects with this antidote: awareness of true discomfort leading to self-care activities, or an immediate shift toward curiosity, mystery, even well-being. May lead to feeling humility, inner chuckling, and dope-slapping yourself for falling into that trap for the million-millionth time.
Be Mindful ≠ Think Positive In a similar vein, many times as we’re thinking negative thoughts we’re experiencing related discomfort somewhere. I don’t like discomfort, and most other people I’ve worked with don’t either. So if negative thoughts don’t feel good, you’re immediately back up into the Be Mindful = Feel Good conflation. Antidote for this trap is as above, and can also include examining negative thoughts to differentiate fact from fiction. Can lead to the release of addiction to acting on the fictional, and a re-deployment of resulting freed-up energy toward handling actionable facts.
Be Mindful ≠ Be Nice This one has the greatest potential to kill the mindfulness movement dead in the shortest time, especially if you’re using mindfulness as your new stick to beat yourself over the head with, or just as harmful, beat someone else over the head with. Mindfulness evokes many enjoyable, beneficial qualities in people, and it’s also much bigger than any particular quality or behavior. Orienting toward living mindfully means experiencing all human qualities and behaviors directly, and learning how to move toward the useful and away from the harmful, as each moment and situation warrants.
So it incudes every human quality and behavior equally. All of them. It’s that big. Making it about “being nice” sets you up with a new, perhaps more socially rewarded limitation structure. That’s still a trap. And just to keep it really interesting, you’ll very often come off as “nice” to others, once you get the hang of this mindfulness biz.
Making present moment wakefulness all about being nice, feeling groovy, smelling fabulous, or sporting the latest industry approved self-aware clothing line ain’t where it’s at. I strongly recommend resisting the urge to set up rules, for yourself or others, around what it’s like to inhabit this moment. That would just be faking it.