Mindfulness has taken the world by storm as a smartphone-accessible treatment for mental overload and a tool to help us be calmer and clearer. Is it the same as meditation? Victoria Woodhall finds out
We’ve all heard of meditation, right? People have being doing it for thousands of years. But hands up who’d heard of mindfulness ten years ago…? Five years?
So where did it spring from? 2010 saw the launch of the Headspace mindfulness app by former Buddhist Monk Andy Puddicombe and former marketing exec Rich Pierson. Suddenly individuals and corporations, politicians and celebrities were buying into this practice of focusing and calming the mind in order to them help become saner and happier and more productive. It’s no coincidence that its rise coincided with a dramatic gear change in our use of social media - the more technology we consumed, the more scattered our attention – no wonder we craved tools to bring us back to a state of mind in which simplicity and clarity reigned.
It’s easy to see how mindfulness has captured the public consciousness. It’s something we can ‘do’; we can download app, we can do it while walking, eating, commuting, even talking. And we can do it from our smartphones. But is it the same as meditation? What’s the difference between the two and which one is going to help you the most?
First a quick history lesson...
Mindfulness can be traced back to the yoga traditions of Hinduism. Buddha refined its practice some 2,500 years ago as part of a spiritual discipline leading to enlightenment, where the mind is free of suffering and in a state of complete wisdom and compassion. It was pretty much exclusive to spiritual seekers in the East, until the advent of international travel in the 20th century brought Eastern spiritual practices such as Transcendental Meditation to the West. In 1979, American molecular biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn convinced the American medical establishment that the Buddhist meditation and yoga techniques he practised were worthy of medical trials. He wanted to establish whether he could help people with chronic pain, by changing the way they felt about their pain. He secularised the approach in order to make it accessible for mainstream America, taking out any religious, spiritual or New Agey elements – and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) was born. Thus, mindfulness was rebranded and crossed over into western medicine and has been used to helps a wide range of physical and mental health conditions.
In 2008, the Oxford Mindfulness Centre was founded within the University’s Department of Psychiatry. MBCT is now recommended in the UK by NICE, as a way of preventing people suffering from depression from relapsing and GPs now prescribe mindfulness for people suffering with depression and anxiety. And with the Mental Health Foundation saying that one in four of us suffers from a common mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety, it’s clear why there is a demand.
What is mindfulness...?
The fact that this secular approach to mindfulness is not affiliated to any spiritual brand or religion makes it accessible to the masses. Plus, the practices are super simple, they can be taught in just a few minutes and often involve nothing more than paying attention to your breath as you sit, your body as you walk or the taste of an apple as you eat it. Not lotus pose required. “All mindfulness practices are easy! All you have to do is use what you've already got - your awareness. Mindfulness is simply being aware of what you're doing, feeling, thinking, experiencing," says Gary Hennessey , who has been practising and teaching mindfulness for 35 years and is author of author of the new book The Little Mindfulness Workbook £7.99.
These techniques teach us practical ways to be in the present moment without judgment and to step out of the busy-ness of the mind. As Andy Puddicombe told a Radio 4 documentary on mindfulness (well worth a listen). "If we think of mindfulness as being present in the moment with our full attention, undistracted and not being overwhelmed by emotion, you can apply this to anything, any time anywhere. Most of us have experienced moments in life - maybe when skiing down a hill or watching a sunset listening to some music, watching a child play. It’s that moment where all the thoughts fall away - and for a moment there is just a feeling of being grounded or present where we are."
Mindfulness, it seems, is a quality of awareness - a state of being while doing. So where does meditation fit in? After all, when you download the Headspace app, you are given exercises for 10, 15 and 20 minutes which involve not only common mindfulness exercises such as counting the breaths and scanning the body, but moments of sitting in silence meditating. Andy explains: "The tricky thing about that is those moments tend to come and go so we need an exercise to learn how to be more mindful more of the time and that’s really what meditation is - we step out of our everyday life and we take a short period of time to allow the mind to be still. And as we become more proficient at that, we can then apply that into everyday life. We start to experience a sense of mindfulness through all our activities no matter where we are.”
In his book, highly recommended as a way in to mindfulness, Gary Hennessy offers both these types of practice – mindfulness meditation and exercises to do in daily life, which he calls ‘mindfulness in action’. "If our practice was restricted to meditation alone, we’d be mindful for quite a short period every day. What we’re aiming for is to be mindful more or less all the time," he says. Think of it as training your mindfulness muscles via meditation, and flexing them during the day to help you find islands of calm or to call time on the self-sabotaging aspects of the mind.
The big debate: is meditation a way in to mindfulness, or mindfulness a preparation for meditation?
Not everyone agrees that meditation is a practice simply to cultivate mindfulness. Meditation guide and Lululemon ambassador Jody Shield says: "Meditation is about releasing resistance in the mind and body, then getting in touch with your inner self and is a spiritual experience. It is about connecting with that inner wisdom, that inner voice, the part that’s giving you strong intuitive information."
Jody uses mindfulness techniques as an entry point to meditation. "We might start off watching the breath or doing a body scan, then we start to look at of what we are holding on to in the body – which is still an element of mindfulness. Mindfulness techniques help our mind to get to a deeper meditation. Once in it, you let go of all control, thought, and totally surrender." Find some of her free guided meditations here .
An essential part of the mediative process in all of the ancient meditation traditions is observing the mind and how it works in order to achieve self-knowledge. For me, learning about the way the mind works has been key in establishing a meditation practice. I have tried and failed with Headspace, but I know many people who swear by it. Yoga - moving in time with the breath feeling the sensations in the body - has been my long-standing mindfulness practice, but even this has never made a meditator out of me. What finally got me sitting down quietly, for 20 minutes on a regular basis was learning meditation with Cornelius O’Shaughnessy co-founder of retreat company bodhimaya.com , who has studied the mind and could tell me how it worked.
I learned from Cornelius that, from an evolutionary point of view, our mind is programmed to problem solve and create a sense of identify - a sense of self. This helps increase our chance of survival. One of the core functions of this problem solving and survival process is to guide us away from pain and towards pleasure. "The problem is, we often can't avoid pain, because it’s an essential part of life. We can't live in a state of constant pleasure either. The mind can't seem to resolve this dilemma," says Cornelius. ‘The irony is that when we try to avoid the essential parts of life that bring us pain and when we obsessively pursue pleasure, we actually cause ourselves more pain, stress and suffering because our minds end up in a constant state of resistance." This really resonatesd with me; meditation can be uncomfortable - and of course my mind tells me not to do it, to give up. But I leraned that I didn't have to listen to my mind. "Knowing how this cycle works can help us break free from it and the stress and suffering it causes," says Cornelius.
There’s a common misconception that meditation is about stopping thoughts, making the mind go blank – it’s not. It’s about observing how the mind likes to create stories and thought loops about our past and our future, about who we are, and gradually getting less involved them. In so doing, we experience the part of ourselves - awareness or consciousness - that exists beyond our thoughts and ideas. Once we connect with this in meditation, in the gaps between the thoughts, we can catch glimpses of peace and gain a real understanding of what’s going on in the mind. It’s hugely liberating to realise that we don’t have to listen to all of our thoughts, desires and drives, that they are not who we are, because there is a part of us that is separate and able to observe our thoughts.
What does meditation feel like...?
Cornelius explains: "The way I practice meditation is first become aware of sounds, thoughts and sensations, allowing yourself to come into a deep acceptance of what’s happening in your internal and external environment, and then focusing on the experience of being conscious - noticing how everything is coming and going and we are aware of everything as it comes and goes."
But that doesn’t mean that mindfulness doesn’t have a place, he adds. "Mindfulness is really easy to learn, it has wonderful therapeutic effects, it’s a great way of taking yourself out of the narrative of the mind and the obsessions with our future and our past, but to get a real understanding of the mind requires reading, study, teaching and self-knowledge. Mindfulness is just the tip of the iceberg - a preliminary practice in a much wider set of teachings and the mind and mediation.
"Far from just being an exercise in concentration, meditation allows us to ask and answer the much wider questions – what is it that is aware? Who are we? What is the nature of the mind? What causes suffering? What causes our mind to become disturbed? What are thoughts? Why does focusing on the future or being stuck in the past cause problems? What is the personality and how is it constructed? What is consciousness? Those question aren’t answered by just practising mindfulness.
"Some people get caught using mindfulness to escape their problems or as a band aid instead of resolving issues through wisdom. Wisdom was always taught alongside mindfulness, it is only recently that much of that wisdom has been stripped away to make mindfulness more scientific and approachable."
Is the mindfulness we practice today in any way authentic? Does it even matter?
Gary Hennessey says: "Contemporary, secular mindfulness is not so much concerned with helping people to become awakened, but in helping them live better with long-term health conditions including chronic pain, with preventing relapses into depression, reducing stress, as well as simply becoming happier and more effective, so in that sense it isn't staying true to its roots and intentions The kind of mindfulness taught in secular contexts is slightly - but significantly - different from what the Buddha taught. Some Buddhists therefore say that mindfulness has been 'hijacked' by contemporary secular teachers. I have some sympathy with that point of view, being a Buddhist myself, but having taught many courses for people with really awful, painful health conditions, as well as for people who are very unhappy and stressed, and having seen them change in front of my eyes, I'd prefer to use a different term to hijack - perhaps 'borrowed!’"
The key is perhaps in finding the practice that works for you and your lifestyle without worrying about labels. Michelle Roques-O’Neil, life coach, aromatherapist and founder of the Therapie Roques-O’Neil skincare range has both a mindfulness and a meditation practice. “I’ve been meditating for 25 years and it’s changed quite a lot over the years. I started with guided meditations and then moved on to focusing on the breath. My meditation these days practice is simple, I do it in bed early in the morning after my Morning Pages. This is tream of consciousness writing and form of mindfulness that gets rid of all my mental clutter. I sit cross legged and start with deep abdominal breathing eight to ten breaths through the nose then, exhale through the mouth with a ‘haaah’. This helps me breathe more deeply. Once I establish the flow, I revert to breathing in and out through my nose and follow the breath. After a while, this becomes less conscious and I sink into a deep meditation. I often get inspiration or insight but actually most of all calmness as I hover between consciousness and a meditative state.”
MIchelle created her range specifically to address the need for escape and treat from digital overload and mental overwhelm. Throughout the day she slots in moments of mindfulness. “Any process done with conscious awareness can really create these mindful moments and consequently they will nourish and make you more present in the moment and reduces stress levels. For me a 30 second pause inhaling my Restore Aura Spray , £28 takes me out of the past and in to the present moment."
We say Om Shanti to that!