Mindfulness and Buddhism

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.

Jane Powell

4 thoughts on “Mindfulness and Buddhism

  1. ian finlay says:

    Yes, there is always a danger that techniques can be taken out of context and used for undesirable ends. It certainly happened with zen, where attention and mindfulness were used in the service of the state and ultimately the militarisation of Japan in the lead up to the second world war.
    Likewise some buddhist teachers feel that there is a danger of mindfulness being used so that people can become more efficient businessmen etc.Real mindfulness is looking deeply at things, being aware of the source, not just being good at things, though that might be a useful byproduct. Thank you Jane, Ian

  2. Maurice Kyle says:

    Well yes, I agree with Ian. Extracting techniques of Buddhism from the wider picture and disregarding the more ‘cerebral’ philosophical groundwork may well make people operate more efficiently, but will completely miss the point of the dharma.

    Jane, I like your point that, fundamentally, Buddhism is NOT a self-improvement project, although its study and practice may well have that beneficial side-effect. It is challenging, complex, yet paradoxically uncomfortably simple (!) and ultimately compassionate!

  3. 1234sudip says:

    There are many things in life that are beyond our control. However, it is possible to take responsibility for our own states of mind – and to change them for the better. According to Buddhism this is the most important thing we can do, and Buddhism teaches that it is the only real antidote to our own personal sorrows, and to the anxieties, fears, hatreds, and general confusions that beset the human condition.

    Meditation is a means of transforming the mind. Buddhist meditation practices are techniques that encourage and develop concentration, clarity, emotional positivity, and a calm seeing of the true nature of things. By engaging with a particular meditation practice you learn the patterns and habits of your mind, and the practice offers a means to cultivate new, more positive ways of being. With regular work and patience these nourishing, focused states of mind can deepen into profoundly peaceful and energised states of mind. Such experiences can have a transformative effect and can lead to a new understanding of life.

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