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Mindfulness: Let's Be Mindful of Its Limitations

12/05/2015 17:51 BST | Updated 12/05/2016 10:59 BST

The ancient practice of mindfulness meditation has received a lot of hype over the past few years. Tens of thousands of people are signing up for courses all over the country, therapists are using it as a core part of their treatment for depression and anxiety, and millions have downloaded an app called 'Headspace' allowing them 'meditation on the go'. Even Emma Watson calls it 'genius'.

The funny thing is, its not like it's a new discovery. Besides the fact that the basis of mindfulness is a form of meditation that goes back at least 2000 years to the earliest Buddhists (I wonder what they would think if they knew their age old spiritual practice was now in 'app' form), as a therapy it has actually been incorporated into psychiatry since the 1970s. So why now has it exploded onto the general public's consciousness?

Well it might have to do with Emma Watson's enthusiastic endorsement. Similar to what happened in the early Noughties, when Madonna and her Hollywood pals popularised yoga, and suddenly everyone started doing downward dogs in their living rooms, now mindfulness is having its day. But should we believe the hype? I myself am cautious...

In the same way that doing a couple of sun salutations a week isn't going to make a huge impact on your flexibility, and overall physical health, 'mindfulness' is something that has to be practiced regularly to make any real impact. Not only that, but it has to be taught properly and thoroughly, something that I don't believe is currently being done with every public institution from hospitals, churches, and workplaces running their own mindfulness courses.

The first time I came into contact with mindfulness was in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) sessions I was receiving for anxiety and depression through the NHS . In these bi-weekly, half an hour sessions (far too short but that's a whole other article), the idea was introduced to me of focusing on my breathing, and listening to the sounds going on around me for several minutes. I had to admit that doing this did make me feel calm, and occasionally I practiced this at home, or on the tube, but that's as far as it went. I didn't apply this to stressful situations, and it didn't help me when I was lying awake at night.

This is because I hadn't been taught it, I had been briefly been introduced to the idea by a newly trained therapist who had probably only had a few days of training on it herself. I'm not blaming the therapist at all, I know how stretched they are, but my feeling is that shoehorning a 2000 year old form of meditation into an already too short therapy session regardless of the patient, or their specific problems, is not only not that effective, but irresponsible.

We've seen the results of studies such as that done by Oxford University which found Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to be more effective at treating depression than medication. I don't dispute its effectiveness if it's taught properly. But telling an emotionally vulnerable person how effective a form of therapy is , then not teaching it properly, or thoroughly, just leaves them open for failure.

I know for a fact that when I didn't feel that the therapy I was receiving was working, it made me feel worse about myself. I felt like I couldn't even succeed at trying to make myself better. Having mindfulness explained by someone with little training who isn't even convinced of it themselves, is the same as having a first year medical student prescribe you medication.

Now I am not writing off mindfulness at all, I have no doubt that the testimonials of thousands who have had their lives changed are genuine. I also realise that if a practice has existed for thousands of years, there must be a pretty good reason. I just believe that like so many things in our society, there is a tendency to use it as a 'quick fix'. In the same way that the standard '6x 30 minute session' model that the NHS uses to treat mental illness is unlikely to make a lasting impact, an introduction to mindfulness through five minutes of deep breathing, or looking at your app, is unlikely to be a cure all for mental illness.

Like any form of therapy, the key to the effective practice of mindfulness is what works for you as an individual, as part of your life.

I was speaking to a friend the other day who has suffered with depression for many years. He had been going through a particularly tough time recently, and I asked him, ' have you been to therapy?', he paused and said 'no, but I've been gardening'. He explained to me that despite everything that was going on in his life, his loss of connection with everyone around him, that when he was gardening he felt a sense of peace. He let hours pass focusing on nothing but the task in front of him. This to me is mindfulness. Sitting in a room listening to sounds, and breathing deeply may not always be easy to make a part of our busy lives, especially if we have young kids, or a demanding job. The thing is we are probably already taking part in small moments of mindfulness without knowing it. It's a case of figuring out what they are.

For me, its listening to music on a long journey or taking a long walk. A long journey, whether on foot, in the car, or on a train, allows me to clear my mind, knowing that I am moving towards a destination and giving my mind a chance to clear before I arrive there. For other people it could be ironing, walking the dog, going to the gym. A part of your day that is only yours. In my mind this is a more practical way of thinking about mindfulness than sitting and meditating for half an hour a day.

For other people it may be different, and I am not discounting the potential benefits of mindfulness, all I am saying is that it is about finding what works for you rather than trying to force yourself into a something because it is popular. Any kind of therapy has to find a way to be a part of your life for it to be effective in the long term.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme is mindfulness. For more info follow #mhaw15 on twitter.