A brief history of mindfulness

Hang out around mental health circles either side of the Atlantic at the moment and soon enough you’ll hear someone talking about mindfulness. And here in the UK, the status of mindfulness as official flavour of the psychotherapist’s month was secured this year when the Mental Health Foundation launched its Be Mindful project.

With its well-presented website, it is mainly a campaign to encourage the NHS to make mindfulness-based courses more widely available, especially given the effectiveness of their clinical application to endemic conditions such as depression, anxiety and chronic pain. But what I find surprising about Be Mindful – apart from its refreshing aesthetic – is that nowhere in the materials does it say what mindfulness actually is. We’ll get to that in a moment.

The M word. But before we enter the murky world of definitions, let me tell you a quick story. Quite some time ago, a young(ish) man, thanks to an extraordinary amount of curiosity and dedication, came to deeply understood something really quite radical about what it is to be human and the role the mind has to play in the way we experience life. His name was Siddhārtha Gautama, also known as the Buddha. In the centuries and millennia that followed his life, that strangest of things – a institutionalised religion (in this case Buddhism) – emerged and evolved into various forms across Asia.

Fast forward to the 1970s and a bunch of young (am I allowed to say hippies?) travelled to India, Burma and Thailand and trained with some rather skilful Buddhist meditation masters and in turn got rather good at this meditation thing themselves. Eventually their visas ran out so returning to the USA and Europe they somehow found the means to start to teach and share the more Westerner-friendly subset of the Buddhist tools and techniques – badged as vipassana or insight meditation. And what they themselves had learnt were in turn also just a subset of the tools and techniques available in the enormously richness of the Buddhist traditions.

Then, in the final part of this brief trilogy, one day in the early 80’s a chap asked the simple question: given that the human mind is independent of denominations, do we have to limit the teaching of these powerful and transformative mental practices to Buddhists only? His name was Jon Kabat-Zinn who as well as being an insight meditation student was a clinical researcher in mental health and he went on to become the pioneering figure in the translation of insight meditation into a clinical setting for the treatment of mental health and chronic illness. And the courses and provisions that are growing in prevalence originate from his design.

Ok that’s all very nice, but what is it? Mindfulness is the core element of Buddhist meditation. Indeed the major meditation instructions from the original canon of the Buddha’s teaching is called “the talk on the ways in which to apply mindfulness”. And as someone who has practised mindfulness meditation for some years now, it is both exciting and amusing to see it with such a high profile. I know first hand how transformative it can be in dissolving negative mental patterns, increasing happiness and encouraging profound wellbeing. So to see it grow in application and utility is a cause of great joy. But with that comes the concern that mindfulness meditation becomes yoga-fied… popularised to such a degree that not only is the richness of the tradition lost (e.g. yoga as just fancy stretching) but also those that pertain to be teachers have only a very limited understanding of the full potential of practice.

Come on now, just tell me what it is! Kabat-Zinn’s definition is that mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. This is really quite good in that it defines mindfulness as not being a thing in itself but a way of relating to experience, and also an intentional process. If I may be so bold as to offer my own definition, it would be that mindfulness is a natural quality of mind which arises when we relax our struggle with experience, neither pushing or pulling life as it presents itself but instead allowing and even embracing it. And as we intentionally develop this quality, it can lead us to deeper and deeper levels of peace and wellbeing. And without doubt, it is most effectively developed through a regular meditation practice.

Meditation is a word which means all things to all men and it too was curiously (almost) absent from the Be Mindful website. This might indicate that the word still carries with it a lack of seriousness in clinical circles, still associated with the 60s/70s counter-culture that first brought it to the Western attention. It however is an error to confuse the wrapping paper for the gift. Until now the majority of people doing the trying and testing wore love beads and dreadlocks. But today they instead have stethoscopes around their necks, own MRI machines and brandish feedback forms. The sooner we recognise meditation for what it is the better. It is a suite of tried and tested systems for the development of mental qualities that lead to happiness (and even beyond). Hallelujah.

This is a guest post by Rohan Gunatillake. Rohan writes about contemporary Buddhism at 21awake and is currenly developing the Hear&Now Project, a design-led set of tools for urban meditation.