Mindfulness is a form of meditation which originated in the Buddhist traditions of Asia. It has been defined as ‘moment-to-moment non-judgemental awareness’ [Kabat-Zinn, 1990] and involves paying attention to the present moment with a non-striving attitude of acceptance.
Effectively, it’s about ‘being present’: quieting the endless mental chatter in order to fully experience everything the present moment has to offer. It means paying full attention to whatever you are seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, or tasting. It means regarding thoughts and feelings which do arise in terms that emphasise their transience and subjectivity within a broader field of awareness.
It has become quite popular. Over the past three decades, mindfulness has gone from an obscure Asian religious technique to become a widely-touted panacea and serious money-making industry:
We now have advocates for and practitioners of mindful eating, mindful sex, mindful parenting, mindfulness at work, mindful sports, mindful divorce lawyers, mindfulness-based stress reduction, mindfulness-based addiction recovery, and on and on… Today mindfulness is touted as a cutting edge technique said to provide everything from financial success to mind-blowing female orgasms.
Inspired by the success stories of Arianna Huffington et al., more and more people are taking interest. In February 2014, TIME even made the case for a mindfulness ‘revolution’:
Despite the often-exclusionary media depiction of mindfulness, meditation, yoga etc. as shallow activities for skinny white women, mindfulness may benefit anyone. In a stressed-out, multitasking culture the benefits of relaxing the emotionally-draining circuit of rumination may even be substantial.
Mindfulness has been associated with increased health outcomes. For example, Kabat-Zinn reported improvements in pain, body image, activity levels, medical symptoms, mood, affect, somatization, anxiety, depression, and self-esteem. Other studies have demonstrated benefits in helping people cope with many problems, including chronic pain, fatigue, stress reduction, various forms of cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, psoriasis, and insomnia.
Beyond merely a relaxation effect, meditation may also provide cumulative psychological and cognitive benefits via physical changes in brain structure:
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), one of the most widely used mindfulness training programs, has been reported to produce positive effects on psychological well-being and to ameliorate symptoms of a number of disorders. Here, we report a controlled longitudinal study to investigate pre-post changes in brain gray matter concentration attributable to participation in an [eight week] MBSR program.
… Analyses in a priori regions of interest confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR group compared to the controls. The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.
Perhaps the most engaging research has been conducted by Elizabeth Blackburn, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist inducted as a ‘Medicine Buddha’ by the Dalai Lama. Blackburn’s research indicates that our thoughts and emotions – especially stressful emotions – influence the rate at which we age right down to the level of our cells and telomeres (‘molecular clocks’). In this context, Blackburn has suggested that meditation, as an intervention against stress, may slow the ageing process and help beat chronic age-related diseases such as diabetes, heart-disease, and dementia.
Mindfulness meditation may not be a miraculous cure-all, but it can provide substantial benefits in a stressed-out culture and is something certainly worth trying. (You can begin by reading any number of appropriate articles or books; you may realise benefits from as little as ten minutes of practice a day or less).
But the concept of a ‘mindfulness revolution’ is not so straightforward. As consultants work to detach mindfulness from its woo-woo hippie context so as to make it more palatable to the corporate world, they risk turning an ancient spiritual practice into what some critics are calling ‘McMindfulness’: a stripped-down, secularised technique detached from its original purpose and foundation in social ethics.
Buddhist thought already diminishes the value of worldly bonds and aspirations by celebrating the essential unity of all living beings with the cosmos. Absent any social or political imperative, and as a path to ‘inner peace’, mindfulness may become just another way for corporations – together with the $11bn self-help industry – to justify the status quo by blaming individuals for their own unhappiness:
Mindfulness is often marketed as a method for personal self-fulfillment, a reprieve from the trials and tribulations of cut-throat corporate life. Such an individualistic and consumer orientation to the practice of mindfulness may be effective for self-preservation and self-advancement, but is essentially impotent for mitigating the causes of collective and organizational distress.
… Bhikkhu Bodhi, an outspoken western Buddhist monk, has warned: “absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.” Unfortunately, a more ethical and socially responsible view of mindfulness is now seen by many practitioners as a tangential concern, or as an unnecessary politicizing of one’s personal journey of self-transformation.
A ‘nonjudging, nonstriving attitude of acceptance’ begins to sound oddly twisted; even as a corporate ‘opiate of the masses’… What’s the matter employee #1098? Feeling stressed? Sick again? Goddammit, why haven’t you been doing your meditation practice?