We are living in quite extraordinary times, with seismic shifts in the world's landscape. These changes are social, political and in terms of climate change quite literal. Technology connects us so that the reverberations of these changes are in a very real sense experienced in people's minds and hearts.
What place does mindfulness have in all of this?
Mindfulness practices have evolved over more than 2500 years as a way of knowing our minds, training our minds and transforming our minds. Mindfulness enables us to recognise and step out of reactivity and let go of frantic 'driven-doing.' We can steady our attention and turn towards both our experience and the external world with interest, care and balance. Mindfulness can help us to choose ways of responding with presence, equanimity, and compassion - with an ability to see things more clearly and choose a wise response.
Mindfulness practice. Steading and befriending our minds and hearts
Pause for a moment and sense what is happening in your body and mind ... what is happening around you. Quite intentionally adopting a bodily posture that has a sense of openness, care and dignity. A posture that embodies wakefulness and presence. Stepping back from any busyness, to-do-lists, driven-ness - just allowing yourself to be, to be with things exactly as they are.
Start by attending to your body, sense how your body feels touching the chair, the touch of the air on your skin, any sensations in the face and shoulders. You might begin to sense what your mood is: excited, tired, restless or calm. Are thoughts or images discernible? Take a moment to stand back, be still, turning your attention to the life of the body with curiosity, patience and care. Sensing the body's posture, the muscles on your face, your hands. Take a few moments to inhabit your body, to be embodied.
Now, if it is helpful, saying a few phrases under your breath, not trying to change anything, just saying the phrases and seeing how things are for you:
Safe and protected ... in the midst of this
Caring and kind .... in the midst of this
Contented and peaceful ... in the midst of this
Ease of being ... in the midst of this
Continue on with this for as long as it feels appropriate, with your body as an anchor. Mindful of how sensations are moment-to-moment, ebbing and flowing. Explore what it is to steady the attention within the body - standing or sitting - the body sensing, breathing. When your attention is drawn elsewhere, bringing the same simple knowing - a thought as a thought, an image as an image - returning once more to an awareness of the body of the moment, just as it is, without any demands or expectations.
When you choose to bring the practice to a close forming an intention to continue to sustain your awareness in the midst of your day-to-day life.
What does steadying our mind look like in day-to-day life?
Jennifer Napier, a General Practitioner in the UK National Health Service writes, "As we learn to just notice the traffic, rather than get caught up in it, we feel less like part of us is heading east at 80mph, whilst the other part heads west. Our attention begins to be centred in the moment." When challenged about how this is relevant to real world problems, Dr Napier adds, "By helping improve our emotional regulation, we can be better aligned with a sense of meaning in life, we can make wiser choices, and can be more available for relating openly, and communicating effectively." Tracey Crouch, a UK Member of Parliament and government minister illustrates this when she explained that she used what she had learned in an 8-week mindfulness course to better manage both her mental health and the challenges of her work, "It's an incredible way of dealing with everyday stress if we build it into our everyday lives." In my own life, there is not an area of my life (husband, father, scientist, mindfulness teacher and trainer ...), that has not benefited from living, as best I can, with awareness. Mindfulness makes it more possible for us, as best we can, to be the change we want to see in the world.
Mindfulness needs to be built on solid foundations of rigorous science. Some of the world leading research is taking place at the Center for Healthy Minds, University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and in our own University of Oxford Centre for Mindfulness. The emerging understandings are already having profound downstream implications. For example, work on mindfulness-based cognitive therapy means that the millions of people who suffer recurrent depression now have a treatment choice that involves learning skills to maintain long-term recovery. Our ongoing work is asking if teaching mindfulness in adolescence can develop resilience and alter the trajectories of young people's lives so they can meet challenges with resilience, learn how to take care of themselves and realise their potential.
Mindfulness is intrinsically ethical. To understand and train the mind reveals to us which of our thoughts and actions are helpful and which are destructive. Wisdom traditions, helping professions and science all point to ethics as foundational and have ethical codes to support best practice. Mindfulness practices are intended to reveal what thoughts and actions will bring lasting safety, ease of being and peace.
The foreword to the recent All Party Parliamentary Mindful Nation UK report asks if mindfulness might address "some of the most pressing problems of society at their very root - at the level of the human mind and heart." It is timely and prescient in the current landscape of change; can we cultivate steady attention, equanimity, compassion and wisdom in our hearts and minds. Can we use this to respond with discernment and wisdom to shape the world for the benefit of its 7 billion inhabitants as well as for future generations.