Mindfulness is in the news as an antidote to the stresses of modern life and in the treatment of assorted physical and psychological ills. You hear about it on Radio 4, read about it in the Sunday supplements. Courses are being advertised everywhere. It’s taught in the mental health services, in hospitals, hospices, prisons, schools and corporate settings. Should we join in on this mindfulness revolution? Has it got something for us as students and teachers of yoga, or are we doing it already?
The fundamentals of these Western mindfulness courses differ little from Eastern teachings: mindfulness is about learning to fully inhabit the present; to let go of wanting to be somewhere or someone else; to accept whatever the present is; to develop new relationships with our thinking, and ultimately to still the chatter.
Central to the practice are three interconnecting elements: an intention or commitment that sets the stage for what is possible, an awareness and the qualities of that awareness. Awareness is of our moment-to-moment experience, both inner and outer, watching it unfolding in the here and now; being immensely curious, but, as best we can, suspending the usual desire to interpret, analyse and verbalise. Just noticing. We are aiming to cultivate a ‘beginner’s mind’ so that every new moment is for the first time, fresh and new. This breath, and this breath, and this breath. The focus can be narrow, as when observing the breath, but also may involve holding a wider awareness: observation of all constantly changing internal and external stimuli.
But just bare awareness is not enough. What if that awareness were cold and critical? We are aiming to develop deep compassion for ourselves, something we are often very good at doing for others, but not for ourselves. So many of us are very self-critical and may even strongly dislike ourselves. So we aim to be kind and friendly towards ourselves. We notice how we tend to judge things, ourselves, people, experiences, as good, bad or neutral, and then work towards being non-judgemental, attending to everything that is presented to us with open-heartedness and equanimity. Even when our internal or external experience is difficult, or contrary to our expectations, we learn not to automatically move away from it and seek out something pleasant. Things are as they are, and anyway, ultimately, everything changes. We are not aiming to have any particular experience. Our experience is whatever it is. It is important to develop a basic trust in ourselves, our intuition and feelings, not always looking outside ourselves for guidance, but connecting with our own innate wisdom.
Another feature is the seemingly paradoxical attitude of non-striving. While we are doing the practice because ultimately we want something to change, we also need to be totally accepting of how things are in this moment.
None of this is easy, so that patience is another important quality to cultivate, particularly at the beginning, when the mind seems like one of those snow storms in a bottle. If the mind wanders a thousand times, don’t worry, that’s just what the mind does. Simply bring it back a thousand times.
The qualities of mindfulness are practised in the body scan, where attention is focused on different parts of the body, in seated meditation practice and in some sort of mindful movement. The breath is our ever-present anchor to which we can always return. Over and over we work to accept whatever our experience is, in each moment, cultivating a kind, curious and compassionate attitude to ourselves. For most people, it doesn’t come easily, but, as Jon Kabat-Zinn said rather succinctly, ‘you don’t have to like it, you just have to do it’.
Mindfulness is not about having just one practice a day, but looking at ways to make it a way of being, encouraging the attitudes we are developing to permeate everything. We can stitch them into the cloth of everyday life, and make them a living reality. In order to facilitate this, there are lots of ‘off the mat’ practices, over and over bringing us back to wherever we are. These include mindful eating, mindful personal care, mindful washing up, etc. The possibilities are endless. It is all about being aware of whatever we are doing, while we are doing it.
Where perhaps the course becomes more ‘Western’ are the teaching and discussion that accompany the practices. We learn about how we function for much of the time on ‘automatic pilot’. While this can be immensely useful, for example, driving a car, and life saving, as in the fight or flight reaction, sometimes automatic reactions are unhelpful and lead us into destructive or self-defeating behaviours, such as over-eating when stressed, and automatic thought patterns, such as spiralling into feeling completely useless when one small thing goes wrong. By noticing more and more our patterns of behaviour and thought processes as they are happening, we begin to be able to act more intelligently.
We also learn about the physiology of stress, how to spot the warning signs of stress build-up, and gradually to learn to respond mindfully, rather than react in a knee-jerk fashion, to difficulties. There is discussion about thinking, how thoughts are not facts, but only mental events, and how trains of thoughts develop but ‘you don’t have to get on the train’. We recognise how thoughts, feelings, body sensations and behaviours can interact, and can lead us into downward spirals. We explore what our particular patterns are, and think about strategies to resource ourselves.
Mindfulness courses are usually taught in groups, over a period of eight weeks. The programme is very well put together and the atmosphere very supportive. The importance of home practice is constantly stressed, and somehow the group experience facilitates doing it.
Since its development thirty years ago by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a huge body of research has accumulated showing that this approach is accessible and acceptable to most people. Participants on the courses develop a greater sense of well-being, improved self-esteem and become more resilient to stress. Improvement of symptoms is reported in a wide variety of physical and psychological illness.
You might be wondering whether, as a good student of yoga, you would have much to gain from this approach. I have to admit that when I first did a course, I wasn’t expecting to discover quite as much as I did, or for it ultimately to be such a life-changing experience. The intelligent weaving together of practices with teachings about the nature of the mind and the physiology of stress, the emphasis on home practice, and the way the practices are incorporated into every facet of life are an immensely potent combination.
I would strongly recommend further exploration into the practice of mindfulness. There are great riches to be found!
Full Catastrophe Living: How to Cope with Stress, Pain and Illness Using Mindfulness Meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn
The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn
Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman
There is masses on the Internet, including:
To find a mindfulness course in your area, put MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) into your search engine.