1. An introduction to Mindfulness

Mindfulness is an increasingly popular modern phenomenon.

New books on the subject are being published all the time and the press is full of articles by people who claim that it has changed their lives. It is being sited as a cure for virtually everything, from depression and insomnia, to chronic pain and eczema and appears to offer a solution to almost every area of daily concern.

The fashion magazines are full of articles providing advice on ‘mindful eating’ and ‘mindful moments’, ‘moving mindfully’, ‘traveling mindfully’ and even ‘going to the loo mindfully’! Celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Oprah Winfrey frequently mention their mindfulness gurus in interviews and extol the virtues of incorporating meditation into their daily routines.

Companies too are enjoying the benefits of mindfulness. By making it available to their employees they are hoping to combat workplace stress, increase productivity and reduce the number of absentee days. Trials are also taking place in schools and universities to see if it helps improve exam results and manage the growing tide of mental health problems in young people. The Marines are using it to help treat Post Traumatic Stress and prisons claim that it reduces violence. There is even an all-party mindfulness group in parliament.

Mindfulness has benn particularly embraced by the big ‘tech’ companies of Silicon Valley. Google has implemented a series of bimonthly "mindfulness lunches" as well as built a labyrinth for walking meditations and both Twitter and Facebook frequently start their meetings with mindfulness meditation. The desired outcome is to increase creativity and communication, develop the emotional intelligence of their employees and ultimately to make money.

What is interesting, is that mindfulness seems to be ‘all things to all people’. To some a science, to some a spirituality, to some a therapy, to others a form of mental hygiene. It’s apparent applications seem endless resulting in vast sums of money being spent on research.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a meditation-based life practice which aims to, ‘bring attention to the present moment, on purpose, without judgement.’

It encourages people to focus on the breath and observe the thoughts that arise, in a non-judgemental way. It also gives advice and simple practices that can be incorporated into daily life to help break cycles of anxiety, stress, unhappiness and exhaustion. People are encouraged to fully inhabit the present moment, challenge negative thoughts, look at what nourishes and depletes them, turn towards difficulties and cultivate self-compassion and compassion for others.

People who practise mindfulness have been found to be happier and more content, with lower anxiety, improved reaction times, better memory and strengthened relationships.

The research results are so compelling that the NHS is now using it to treat people with all kinds of physical and mental health conditions.

The rise of mindfulness

Mindfulness began creeping into Western consciousness in the1960s when young people started to travel to India, Burma and Thailand seeking a deeper spirituality or to ‘find themselves’. They came across Buddhist teachers who taught them about mindfulness and how to meditate. When they returned to the USA and Europe they brought these techniques and tools back with them and taught them to others labelled as ‘Vipassana’ or ‘Insight’ meditation.

In 1979 Jon Kabat-Zinn, an American scientist and student of Zen Buddhism, developed a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course to treat the chronically ill. He then wrote a book called, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, which achieved international recognition. Following this, psychologists and medical professionals started to use mindfulness to treat a whole range of things and it wasn’t long before it’s value as a tool for the wellbeing of society was also recognised.

Since 1992 psychiatrist Mark Williams has been at the forefront of research in the UK, particularly exploring the use of mindfulness in the treatment of depression. In 2008 he founded the Oxford Mindfulness Centre whose ongoing research influences psychotherapy, healthcare and public policy. (It is less well known that Mark Williams is also an ordained Anglican priest.) In 2011 he co-wrote the book ‘Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World’ with meditation teacher, Danny Penman. It laid out a simple eight week course and skilfully brought mindfulness to the masses.

Courses became widely available causing concern about who was setting up as a teacher. In response, the UK Mindfulness Trainers Network developed good practise guidelines and stated that mindfulness teachers should be accredited and have professional qualifications.

Reasons for the current rise of mindfulness

There are a number of possible reasons for the current rise in mindfulness.

With it’s emphasis on calming the mind, mindfulness presents a possible antidote to the mental over stimulation which overwhelms us in the west. Society is drowning in information, entertainment and advertising and mindfulness offers a practical response to the exhaustion that this creates.

Linked to this, are soaring levels of depression and other mental health problems, most worryingly among children and young people. Prescriptions for anti-depressants have gone up 500% in the last ten years and work related stress is estimated to cost British businesses over three billion pounds per annum. These are all issues which the government is struggling to address.

A third possible reason for the rise of mindfulness is the decline of traditional forms of faith. This has created a vacuum in which other types of spirituality are able to flourish. To quote mindfulness guru Madeline Bunting,

“Mindfulness is palatable to the growing number of people who shy away from religion. It’s ritual for those who don’t pray, communal practice for the individualist, non-doctrinal, non-prescriptive and non-demanding in terms of conduct (apart from an insistence on not being judgmental). It seems to be the perfect religion for a Britain which is in full flight from it’s state church.”

Interestingly however, the church is also paying close attention to mindfulness. Many people have noted that there is great overlap with Christian contemplative practices. Reverend Tim Stead, who has just published, ‘Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality: Making Space for God’, is one of a number of anglican vicars who have trained as mindfulness teachers noticing that it helps people with their spiritual aspirations.

Is mindfulness just the latest fad?

Mindfulness is often criticised in the media for being just the latest fad.

Proponents, however, would say that mindfulness is deeply rooted in the science of the mind and it’s huge potential is only just beginning to be recognised.

1. An introduction to Mindfulness