Mindfulness is now hard to miss in the UK. There are taster sessions, term long classes, break-outs at work, and meetings after work. It fits perfectly with the growth of our desire for Me-Time, peace and quiet away from pressure and technology. So what is mindfulness and where did it originate?
Contrary to many people’s beliefs, it is not some hippy dippy fantasy of the New Age Movement, but was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts. Kabat-Zinn was himself practicing yoga and Buddhism and decided to try combining these with his scientific findings to try and help people in pain, through illness, stress and anxiety. His work was so successful it was soon adopted by hospitals, health centres and prevention centres within US and in an increasing numbers of countries. Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction Clinic and Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health care and Society, where mindfulness is taught to practitioner level and courses are developed to enable self-study and the application of mindfulness into self-care.
Mindfulness is a way of getting back to basics and tuning into the simple joy that can be found in the present moment, your own thoughts and feelings and in everyday things within the world around you. It is all too easy to stop noticing all of these and be driven by emotions we are not even conscious of. With mindfulness, you re-connect to your body and its sensations, what you see, smell, hear and taste. You are enabled to control your thoughts rather than be controlled by them.
All the mindfulness teachings have strong Buddhist influences. The five mindfulness teachings are also at the very core of Buddhist ethics, though you can learn and apply them irrespective of any religion or faith. Within the teachings of Buddha, they aim to lead to the path of understanding, true love, healing, transformation and happiness. This is achieved by removing anger, fear, despair, discrimination and intolerance. The five teachings are as follows:
Reverence of Life: This is a commitment to protect the lives of everything that grows on this planet and not kill or support killing. Killing is seen to come from fear and greed and intolerance so the path of reverence for life is promoting the polar opposite. It supports openness, non-discrimination, and is against violence and all fanaticism and intolerance.
True Happiness: The follower commits themselves to sharing their time, energy and material wealth to those who are in need. They also cultivate understanding and compassion. Fame, power, wealth are all seen to bring unhappiness, suffering and even despair. The belief is that we are all individually responsible for our mental attitude to life, and that happiness should never come from external conditions around us, but come instead from within ourselves. Therefore living in the present moment will also bring happiness.
True Love: The follower commits to only having sexual relations within the context of true love. They also commit to doing everything in their power to protect others from sexual abuse. They cultivate their ability to love, in all its different forms, including kindness, joy, compassion and inclusiveness.
Loving Speech and Deep Listening: Followers recognize the potential for doing damage both by careless speech or poor listening to others. They work instead at cultivating speech that inspires confidence, joy, hope and peace. They keep quiet when they are angry and instead breathe deeply and investigate the anger, till they can see that it comes from their own lack of understanding of the suffering of either themselves and or the other person. They vow to listen to others in ways that can help them progress and find their way out of problems and share time and energy with those who need it, promoting compassion and joy.
Nourishment and Healing: This is the commitment to practice mindful consumption, both of food and drink and all other consumables, to increase both personal good health and that of society. Alcohol and drugs are rejected along with any entertainment containing what are seen as toxins. Followers work at their self-development, being at one with their surroundings, and being in the present moment, not being brought down by the past or fears of the future. They work on finding answers that bring peace and joy and well-being to themselves and others. Lastly, they believe in healing by avoiding the toxic and continually observing healing things in our present.
These teachings may seem very extreme to many people in the West, who just planned tuning in to an hour of mindfulness streaming in their lunch hour. Here we tend instead to focus on the living in the moment aspect, learning to be aware of the truth and beauty in every moment and every sensation. This starts by us concentrating on our breathing, releasing all tension and then using breathing techniques to focus ourselves into the present moment.
Mindfulness, while having origins in Buddhism, is not the same as adopting the full doctrines. It does help many people in their daily lives, to cope with stress and change and build up resilience. It has also become a recognized part in many other psychologists’ work, especially those helping people who need to increase self-love and forgiveness to help with mental stress and strains and also reduce physical pain.
Kristin Neff is author of Self-Compassion, and founder of the movement of the same name, which she describes as a combination of self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. Neff says that by looking kindly, but with acceptance, at our shortcomings, we cease to be stressed or frustrated by them. We can start to care for ourselves instead of pitying ourselves.
She argues that as all humanity has failings, self-pity is irrelevant. We learn to be less judgmental or obsessed by our failings within these practices. Instead, by using self-compassion, we can connect with others with greater understanding and empathy. Thinking this way, means we no longer have to strive for perfection as we accept ourselves. Neff’s teachings are much more complex than the mindfulness as seen within Western classes but it is still an essential component of them. Neff and Sharon Salzberg, author of Loving Kindness, believe in the Buddhist maxim that you cannot look after others unless you take care of yourself first. If we are in too much pain, physical or emotional, we cannot see ourselves clearly.
There are two other great ways to put this. Maya Angelou said “I do not trust people who don’t love themselves and yet tell me “I love you”. There is also an African saying which is: “Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt”. Women, in particular, have a tendency to forget this maxim and put the good of others continually in front of their own.