What is Mindfulness anyway?
The focus of this year’s Mental Health Awareness week is Mindfulness. You’ve probably heard a lot about mindfulness already - as the latest ‘cure all’ treatment popular in mental health, reports, articles and comments about it are everywhere. But do you actually know what it is?
Mindfulness is often referred to as having links with ‘eastern’ mysticism. And Buddhism certainly favours the practise of mindfulness - as one of seven factors believed to move you closer to ‘enlightenment’. But Buddhism doesn’t have the monopoly on mindfulness, nor is it a concept restricted to buddhist spirituality. In fact, Mindfulness is all about what your attention is focused on - what you are ‘mindful’ of. Christian writings on Mindfulness will often quote Psalm 8:4 - where David, full of wonder at the magnitude and wonder of the heavens and stars, wonders ‘what is man that you are mindful of him?’ (NIV) This verse is expressing amazement that with so much else going on - so many things so amazing and distracting, God chooses to focus His attention on humankind.
Mindfulness as a therapy also asks us questions about what our attention is focused on. The original buddhist texts on mindfulness talk of the complexity of life - the tendency for us to be juggling many things in our heads at one time. One speaks about the common chore of washing the dishes and asks what your mind is doing when you are washing the dishes? Are you focused on the task in hand, the sensations involved and the experience you are part of in that moment - or is your mind miles away, running through what you have to do next - tasks, challenges, deadlines, worries …? Mindfulness challenges us to be more aware and ore deliberate, to take control of where our mind wanders, and to spend time ‘experiencing the moment’ better - instead of just allowing our minds to always rush ahead onto other things.
So how does mindfulness related to mental and emotional health? One key thing is about the effect that practising mindfulness exercises - whether that is eating a raisin, going for a walk or paying attention to things your body is doing like your breathing or your emotions - can have on your body and brain. Research has demonstrated that such practises seem to have an impact on our physiological and even neurological state - in particular reversing many of the effects of stress. Mindfulness practise can reduce blood pressure, improve breathing depth/patterns and has even been demonstrated to apparently reduce the size of the brain centre associated with fear and anger. In a world where stress - and particularly its effects on physical and mental health - is such a big issue, this power of mindfulness practice to reduce our stress levels makes it a very valuable skill to learn.
The second useful impact of mindfulness is on how it helps raise our awareness of our emotions, and the thought processes that accompany (and sometime magnify) them. Throughout the last couple of decades, cognitive behavioural therapy has steadily grown in popularity as it became apparent just how powerful the effect could be of transforming unhelpful patterns in our thinking. But cognitive behavioural therapy has one big problem: it is pretty hard! If you have ever undergone CBT you’ll know about this - changing the way you have thought for years, probably decades, is not something that happens overnight. One of the various big issues in CBT is that most people simply aren’t that aware of their thinking patterns - especially the kind of automatic, belief based thinking that can contribute to emotional ill health. In fact, some areas of emotion research also identify the struggle that a lot of people - especially those who do struggle with emotional ill health - have with even being aware of their emotions. Some theories suggest that, having learned that there is little they can do about painful emotions, some individuals push their emotions down and learn to ignore them so well that they really only recognise them when they are immensely powerful (by which time of course they are much harder to do anything about). Mindfulness, with its practice of improving awareness not just of your surroundings but also of your own body and mind - with its non judgemental observation of what is going on in that moment - can help people immensely with their awareness both of their thought patterns, and of their emotions. Use in conjunction with CBT type approaches therefore, mindfulness can help people start to make choices about their thinking rather than being at the mercy of automatic thoughts and beliefs, and to get better at recognising emotions earlier, when it is easier to understand what has triggered them, and much more possible to intervene before they become overwhelming. Some even argue that awareness through mindfulness can have such an impact it effectively allows us the chance to re-wire our emotional reactions.
In mental and emotional health contexts therefore, mindfulness is a lot about empowering people and getting them back into a position where they can take control of their own thoughts and emotions. Why? Because if you experience thoughts and emotions automatically, you have no choice about them - particularly if one or both happen outside of your awareness zone. But if you become aware, and understand what is going on - then you have the choice of whether you want to make any changes, and the chance to analyse further some of the things you believe about yourself and the world. And anyone who has been through CBT and found it helpful will be able to tell you just how powerful that can be.
So, is mindfulness ever bad, or negative? Christian wariness of it usually stems from two places: the possible link with different spiritualities/beliefs, or its apparent requirement to practice meditation. Considering the first of those: some mindfulness practitioners do present it very much from the perspective of their Buddhist understanding of the world. They may link mindfulness teaching with other direction about spirituality and exercises which might make some Christians feel uncomfortable. However, many mindfulness practitioners - particularly those teaching skills in order to help those struggling with mental and emotional health - don’t. Mindfulness as a skill need not be rooted in any spirituality. In fact, interestingly and helpfully, it can be just as easily rooted in our Christian spirituality - and then my personal belief is that it becomes particularly powerful. It is well worth checking out the various teachings available from Christian practitioners - many of which you can read about on this website (more about those later!). Christians wanting to explore mindfulness might be advised to chat to potential teachers about their perspective on any links to spirituality, but need not ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater’.
As for the second main concern, worries about meditation often stem from teaching that many of us grew up with in the 80s and 90s linking any kind of meditation with occult practise. We were taught (I was at least!) to stay away from anything that ‘emptied your mind’ and to be very wary of meditation practices - especially certain kinds. It was good advice on the whole - but what it did was make us overly cautious about meditation - which can in fact be a very good thing. Meditation - focusing your mind on something - can be a useful technique in learning or prayer - and now Christian practices of it (eg biblical meditation) are becoming more widely accepted. Certainly worries about mindfulness based on its link to meditation are generally unfounded. Mindfulness practice doesn’t actually include meditation as such - and it certainly isn’t about emptying your brain. Much more it is about becoming better aware of all the things your brain is full of - and then better able to make good decisions about what you do let your mind get caught up with. These can only be good things, and they need not be a source of worry for us as Christians.
A final comment is worthwhile on situations or contexts where mindfulness can be unhelpful or even potentially dangerous. Adverse reactions to mindfulness are very rare, but as with any therapy - particularly when it is often used with vulnerable people, we need to approach it with wisdom and appropriate caution. Concerns have been raised in particular about teachers who are not appropriately trained, particularly if they are then working with those who are mentally or emotionally unwell. Mindfulness isn’t magic - it is dependent on being well taught and carefully practised. Select your teacher/course with care, and if you are hoping mindfulness will help with any physical or mental health condition talk to your doctor first.
So, you need to be careful you get a decent teacher - but are there groups of people for whom mindfulness just isn’t a good idea? Sometimes our mind can become trapped in thinking which goes round and round, and not in a good way. In those moments, focusing more on those thoughts might not be helpful. Certain kinds of thoughts in particular - those linked to delusional thinking, or sometimes suicidal thoughts has been suggested to mean that mindfulness might not be helpful for people struggling with these kinds of issues. Certainly if that’s you its worth talking to the people supporting you (whether that’s your GP and/or a psychiatrist, psychologist etc) before setting out on a mindfulness course.
But, for the vast majority of us the news about mindfulness, and any potential impact is positive. Mindfulness practice has been reported to have the potential to help you manage stress, or at least reduce the way stress affects your brain, recover from burnout, counteract the fraughtness of the corporate world, enhance happiness, declutter your mind, help primary school children concentrate, help parents calm their children down, improve the wellbeing of those struggling with chronic pain or longterm conditions like MS, increase the number of signalling connections, or axons, in your brain, improve your enjoyment of eating, stop you overeating, boost your enjoyment of music, even help you get a job! And that’s just a handful of the recent articles telling us how wonderful it can be. With all that going for it - why wouldn’t you want to give it a go?!
Want to learn more? Check out the NHS advice about mindfulness for wellbeing, or this from the Guardian: Mindfulness, a beginners guide. Or catch up on this interesting program from BBC radio4 all about mindfulness, exploring whether it is ‘A Panacea or fad?’
For more about Mental Health Awareness week check out the website. You can download a leaflet all about mindfulness, including how to find a teacher or course as well.
One popular way to practice mindfulness is via apps which take you through mindfulness exercises. Here’s a quick taster from one popular app, headspace which now has over 500 000 users! (Note that the app takes you through a free introductory course but after that does require payment - so it isn’t strictly ‘free’).
As you’d expect there are lots of great articles and podcasts on the Mind &soul website about Mindfulness. Check them out …