Mindfulness is all the rage at the moment. The technique of ‘just sitting’ (observing the breath, noticing that thoughts arise, and gently leading awareness back to an appreciation of the breath) is increasingly being used in a variety of settings. The work of people like Jon Kabat-Zinn and clearly reproducible effects (for reducing physical pain, decreasing anxiety, alleviating depression and other challenges that people face) has made mindfulness a big hit. In my own spiritual practice mindfulness often features and I teach mindfulness in museums, to teachers, older people and others. I’ve got friends who regularly use it in therapeutic settings with people suffering from a variety of problems – and it works. Not only is it effective (in empirical terms) but the basic technique (outlined above) is very simple. Mindfulness does not rely on ‘mastery’ (at least not in the way it is typically presented in secular western settings). It’s all about the practice.
I was pleased to discover recently that one of the students, from a meditation group I had been teaching, had been so inspired by their experiences with mindfulness, that they had started sharing the technique in the educational setting in which they taught. They had started an opportunity for mindfulness practice for teachers and also, in a wonderfully accessible way, for students as a voluntary course of study. This included an opportunity for students to explore mindfulness technique as way of supporting them as they faced examinations.
Mindfulness is certainly helpful when we are ‘sitting with’ anxiety and that is bound to be a feeling which may be difficult to manage when facing an academic test. However the vogue for mindfulness in medical, psychological, corporate and even military settings is not without its problems. As recent articles have pointed out, for some people mindfulness can throw up some difficult situations. Problems that arise for practitioner can include feelings of ennui and emptiness, disconnection and even fear. These reactions are ones that therapeutic practitioners are increasingly aware of. This is important news since, if you’re diagnosed with a ‘medicalised’ experience of depression in Britain, and many other western countries, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is something you’re likely to be offered as a treatment.
There are also voices being raised about the political implications of mindfulness. Mindfulness practice can be imagined as something that locates ‘the problem‘ in the mind of the individual, and as such may ignore the social dimension. The anxiety or depression is our, internal, problem. However, what we feel emerges not from our own isolated neurochemistry, but through the relationship between us and the world in which we find ourselves.
The point here is that mindfulness is a tactic and a process. It’s an approach to help us manage our anxiety, for instance when facing an examination. It’s also a process which, when considered in the light of the huge corpus of Buddhist texts which describe it, can create a wide variety of states of awareness. For instance mindfulness can generate weird sensations of heat or cold in the body. It can also generate optical phenomena and occasionally experiences that are perhaps best described as ‘spiritual visions’. What we might describe as ‘breaks’ in attention are perhaps the result of the mind looking for something to do. Consciousness craves stimulation and when we reduce the input (closing our eyes and focusing on the breath) it is prepared to create all kinds of odd feelings and ideation to get our attention. Typically the advice, especially in spiritual traditions that use mindfulness, is to concentrate on the breath, notice those feelings, and let them pass. The problem is that encounters with these phenomena sit outside of the simplistic utilitarian view of mindfulness as a cheap and easy way to stop employees going off sick with mental illness.
Again, this is an example of using a one-size-fits all approach to the world rather than appreciating mindfulness, and other ways of thinking, as tactics. Mindfulness certainly has benefits in situations where we cannot do much to change things (eg when we are registered to take an exam). Never-the-less there are times when we should be angry and distressed, and determined to change things. Trying to paper over the cracks in situations where inequality, oppression, alienation and other difficulties face us, with what amouts to an injunction to ‘stop thinking about it’, is not much better than using repressive psychopharmacology to restrain us. As they say, ‘calm down dear!‘
The way to address these problems is to see mindfulness as part of a repertoire of techniques for living. Sometimes it’s helpful but at other times it may be disempowering, and certainly it can be deployed in a one-dimensional way to keep people isolated, passive and compliant. If we are to mine techniques from Buddhist culture it would be interesting to see other methods being imported into the west. These could include the art of debate as practiced in the Tibetan traditions. In this method, a rapid fire technique of question and answer is used between two or more people, to explore what is truth.
If mindfulness is a method for addressing our suffering, and perhaps enhancing our lives, it must be balanced with methods that do this in the social sphere as well. Moreover the range, depth and meaning of experiences we may encounter using when using this technique need to be fully appreciated (especially by those teaching this tactic).
When I lead a mindfulness group I generally finish the practice of just sitting by thanking everyone around me for their practice. Although this perhaps seems like a quaint flourish it is very important. This act is a way of acknowledging that the exploration of who we are, in this instance by meditation, is a social act. I thank my students for engaging with this technique because their work affects me and all of us. We are not isolated meditators but a sangha, a community of practice, where what we do is a shared experience. We all share the limitations, the challenges and difficulties, as well as the benefits, that mindfulness practice offers us.