Meditation in western culture has been around since the Sixties. It arrived with yoga from the east and has existed in innumerable forms since then. Personally, I have tried walking meditation, mantra meditation and pranayama, a form of meditation using the breath. But, I must admit that when ‘mindfulness’ suddenly started hitting the headlines, I was confused by this apparently new name for a practice that is as old as the hills.
I found it interesting that Emma Barrett, writing for the Telegraph, has a rather disdainful view of its growing popularity. It is, as she says, a meditative practice with roots in Buddhism that encourages you to focus on the present rather than on your anxieties about the past or future. She has studied the trend for a documentary in an attempt to explain how mindfulness has become a billion dollar industry. The answers she discovered are a mixed bag of positives and negatives from her perspective.
On the positive side, the UK’s National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) backs its use as a treatment for depression. Evidence shows that using mindfulness reduces the recurrence of depression by 40-50% over a 12-month period. From a less positive perspective, one can also argue that in the workplace, a lunchtime session of mindfulness meditation is only a sticking plaster over the costly problem of workplace-related stress. Employers pay for the sessions in order to improve productivity, but unless the pressures corporate employees encounter daily are changed, it is unlikely that mental wellbeing will truly improve. Unless, of course, mindfulness enables its practitioners to approach the status quo from a new perspective. Certainly that is a more positive way to look at its purpose.
But what is it about mindfulness in particular that attracts people? Perhaps it is the fact that it has been disconnected from a religious or spiritual practice. It is called a tool and although it is thousands of years old, it appears to be very modern. As a tool it has the potential to change how our mind functions and that can affect our quality of life. Decisions made following mindfulness training should be more conducive to a healthier lifestyle and emotional state, yet that is what meditation has always promised.
Mindfulness is also promoted as having concrete health benefits. This differentiates it from meditation, which traditionally is used a tool for spiritual insight. Mindfulness, by contrast, scientists say it does the following:
- Improves immune system function
- Increases resilience to stress
- Improves ability to cope with pain
- Reduces anxiety
- Raises emotional intelligence
These are all things that more immediately concern the general population than the prospect of spiritual enlightenment.
We are not our thoughts
One very important thing that mindfulness does teach us is that we are not our thoughts. This is a critical element of mindfulness, because the ability to observe your thoughts as if they were passing images, without emotional attachment to them, enables us to break free of the prison our thinking can put us in.
It also enables us to be more fully present in all our relationships, whether at home or work. When we can get past ourselves, we are better able to empathise with others and understand their needs. We become better listeners and less judgemental.
Mindfulness also helps us to realise that happiness doesn’t depend on material possessions or certain specific conditions. Basically, it teaches you that you can be happy in any circumstance. Only our thoughts decide whether what we are experiencing is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Science backs mindfulness
Basically, all these benefits have been known to Buddhists for about 2,500 years, but the current popularity of mindfulness boils down to a couple of essentials: scientists says it’s good for you and they are the high priests of contemporary Western culture.
Whatever your views on meditation, it undoubtedly has benefits, whether you’re told that by the Dalai Lama or a Harvard research scientist. Mindfuless is an easy tool to learn, but please remember that it requires diligent and committed practice to reap its benefits. And, it is the benefit of real peace of mind in a seemingly chaotic world that will ensure mindfulness is a popular trend that is here to stay.