Is Mindfulness All It's Cracked Up To Be?

When I see the teachings of my religion reduced to the myth of mindfulness I despair a little

Mindfulness is everywhere. The internet abounds with inspirational Buddha memes and bumper sticker quotations, all underlined with the hashtag #Mindfulness. A quick Google search readily returns ads for books by self-help celebrities and well-heeled gurus advocating mindfulness through breathing, eating, journalling, art and even sex. If the hype is to be believed, mindfulness can make you a better lover, a better boss, a better photographer and even a better skier. HR departments are coaxing Buddhist monks into the workplace and headteachers are bringing mindfulness sessions into the classroom. Even MPs in Westminster are adopting the lotus position!

And then of course, gracing every supermarket book aisle, there are the ubiquitous mindfulness colouring books!

I work as a consultant psychiatrist and I’ve been hearing a lot about mindfulness, from the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme, which originated in the US to its domestic successor, the eight-week Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy course, here in the UK. In the NICE Guidance for Depression this therapy is described as “A psychological treatment that helps people with depression to become aware of negative thoughts and reduces the tendency to react to them. The aim is to encourage people to feel differently about their negative thoughts rather than to change the content of their thoughts”.

Long before I was a psychiatrist, I was a Buddhist. As a child of Sri Lankan heritage I was regularly dragged to the temple by my parents. So my mindfulness baptism at the age of thirteen came courtesy of a saffron-robed monk in a Northumberland monastery. Mindfulness was not so sexy back then but I was easily hooked as the monk who gave me my very first lesson was, in his life prior to ordination, a US serviceman who had served in Vietnam. Having my very own Rambo revealing his mystical secrets about how carefully observing the movement of my breathing might help me attain inner tranquillity was quite something. He regaled me with tales of other Western monks who, blissed-out on the hippy trail in the 70s, serendipitously found themselves in the forest monasteries of Thailand. I guess the bliss that they found on their meditation cushions beat the lure of the psychedelics hands-down and many stayed in Thailand until they eventually journeyed home to their native countries to found their own monasteries.

I have mixed feelings about the Western mindfulness revolution and I can definitely identify with those who roll their eyes at its very mention. It is far from the life-changing panacea that some claim it to be and in reality it was never meant to be the answer to all of life’s woes. Buddhism is a lifestyle choice, not a therapy, and mindfulness is just one aspect of a Buddhist’s life.

It is certainly true that mindfulness alone can change one’s perspective. Being fully in the present moment, we are much better able to notice the transitory nature of our existence. The knowledge that life is always changing can not only help us to endure the tough times, it gives us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the pleasures that we are lucky enough to encounter without becoming overly attached to them. However, mindfulness is but one facet of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. The other steps include cultivating a clearer view of the world around us and forming an intention to work on our thinking, speech and actions, to generally live a life in better harmony with others.

There is no God and no commandments but Buddhists sometimes undertake “precepts” to refrain from behaviour which is harmful to themselves and others. It is by trying to live well and avoiding these five behaviours - hurting others, lying, stealing, getting drunk or stoned and having affairs, to put them bluntly - that we hope to avoid negative karma, a much-misunderstood word which simply means “the sum of our actions”.

And at the heart of Buddhist practice there are some very simple values. These include love for others, compassion for those who are suffering, taking joy in other’s happiness and equanimity, which essentially means trying to face whatever comes our way with a smile and a spirit of “c’est la vie”.

So, when I see the teachings of my religion (or should that be philosophy?) reduced to the myth of mindfulness I despair a little. But only for a moment, because if the Western brand of mindfulness works for you, who am I to judge? The Buddha himself who was just a man, albeit an extraordinary one, was quite clear about his teachings. “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense”, in other words “Don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself and see what you think”.

Sage advice indeed.