By Jane Powell
Mindfulness these days has two meanings. Spelt with a small m, it means bringing our experience into conscious awareness, in order to see it as it really is and awaken to reality. It is a practice found in Buddhism and many religious traditions, one which over a period of time helps to develop equanimity and well-being. With a capital M meanwhile, it is the name of a fast-growing movement to bring Buddhist meditation practice in secular form to anyone who feels in need of calm, grounding and mental clarity.
The modern Mindfulness movement began in the 1970s with John Kabat-Zinn, American doctor, Zen student and author of Full Catastrophe Living. He developed it to help his patients work with pain, finding that if they could see how they were making their pain worse by the way that they thought about it, then they would be able to choose other ways of responding and so find some relief. In this he was very successful, and the practice later spread to other settings, notably the treatment of mental illness, where Mindfulness is now recommended by the NHS as an effective treatment for depression.
Taken up by the universities of Oxford and Bangor and other groups in the UK, Mindfulness Based Stress Relief is now a standardized product delivered by accredited tutors in hospitals, schools and workplaces or as an eight-week evening class to the general public, and it has been shown to have all sorts of benefits, from pain relief to improving the concentration of school children and helping people lose weight. Here at Aberystwyth University, Mindfulness is being investigated for its potential to support whole populations to change their behaviour in response to climate change.
What do Buddhists think of this? On the one hand it is surely very encouraging that a practice that increases people’s happiness without dependency and consumerism is being made widely available. And many Buddhists have found that Mindfulness in fact can do a better job of teaching a fully embodied practice than many Western schools, which have tended to be excessively cerebral. But Buddhism has a greater vision than this. It is not a self-improvement project – quite the reverse, it is about cutting through our natural selfishness and awakening compassion for all living beings, and it invites us to challenge cherished assumptions about what we call our ‘self’. This is hardly the spirit in which Silicon Valley asserts that Mindfulness is ‘not just about inner peace – it’s about getting ahead.’
So do a Mindfulness course – but remember, it’s about developing compassion for yourself and others, not just learning a technique.