In the context of contemporary western science and healthcare, mindfulness can be understood as a particular quality or form of awareness, or it can describe a secular form of meditation practice, (developed from eastern meditative traditions), which produces that form of awareness. It's important to note that the words mindfulness and meditation are not interchangeable. Today, the word 'mindfulness' is frequently heard in clinical, therapeutic and research settings, it's also increasingly common in the media and popular culture. So why is there so much interest in it?
In part, the answer lies in the amount of peer-reviewed scientific research that has been undertaken into mindfulness & mindfulness-based therapies. Starting back in 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn developed a program which became the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course (MBSR), which proved highly effective in helping patients experiencing chronic pain, often in cases where other medical interventions had done little to help. Subsequently, MBSR was used as a basis in the development of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which has been shown to be the best approach to preventing relapse & recurrence with depression. Today there are a number of different 8-week courses, along with individual therapies based on mindfulness. In addition, mindfulness is beginning to inform interventions within the therapy room, and many therapists are benefiting from developing their own mindfulness practice. The corporate world is also investing time & money in mindfulness training, and seeing benefits that will often result in mindfulness training programs being expanded to include more of the workforce.
Mindfulness meditation involves the process of becoming familiar with the mind & getting to know how it works; it is not a way of controlling the mind.
A variety of benefits tend to arise from developing a mindfulness practice, and these could be thought of as by-products; the intention is not to make changes happen, yet they are likely to occur nonetheless. Examples include:
Developing the ability to respond (skilfully) rather than reacting (automatically).
A greater awareness of what is going on in the moment, both 'inside' (thoughts, emotions and sensations in the body) and in the external world.
Noticing the mind's tendency towards automatic (reflex) preferences and judgements, thus enabling greater choice to come from awareness, rather than being limited by habitual patterns.
The development of compassion, including self-compassion.
Greater feelings of well-being and positive mood.
The ability to acknowledge & accept (rather than avoiding), and from this position, allowing response and change to occur: In this way, not seeking change may bring about change.
Mindfulness-based therapies for individuals:
It's increasingly common to find elements of mindfulness within psychotherapy, but there are still relatively few approaches that are truly mindfulness-based. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is probably the longest established and most well-known, having been in development during the 1980s. It can be classified as a behaviour therapy, however it is radically different in approach to almost every other form of CBT (and there are hundreds of types of CBT!). For more information on ACT, please use the link at the top of the page.
Mindfulness-based courses & group therapies:
Mindfulness really develops through experience, and this means it is ideally suited to learning in a group setting, with plenty of practical experience, and the opportunity to discuss all aspects of this within the group. Even those courses with 'therapy' in the name are quite different from most group therapy situations, as the emphasis is mostly on the mindfulness practice which lies at the heart of the course.
Research has shown the structure of the MBSR course to be highly effective, and so many other courses follow the same pattern: Typically lasting 8 weeks, with one session of around two hours per week, and often a single 'all-day' session towards the end of the course. Participants are usually expected to practice for around 40 minutes per day for the duration, and this is a highly important part of the course.
Choosing a course:
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course (MBSR) - This is the original mindfulness-based program, and provides an effective way of discovering mindfulness, and developing a personal mindfulness practice. It has been shown to be effective in helping people with chronic pain, and of course, dealing with high levels of stress.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) - This was developed from the above MBSR course, and shares a great deal of content and structure, so naturally it is also an effective way of discovering mindfulness, and developing a personal mindfulness practice. The inclusion of some cognitive therapy content is likely to be helpful to people who have experienced depression or anxiety. The program is specifically designed to reduce the risk of relapse in depression, and has been shown to be highly effective for people who have experienced three or more bouts of depression.
There are a number of other Mindfulness-based therapies that involve group or individual work, such as Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) for the treatment of borderline personality disorder.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Is Mindfulness a religion or does it involve any spiritual teachings?
Western mindfulness (as taught on the courses above) is entirely secular: It is not connected to any religion, and does not involve any religious or spiritual teaching. Many of the practices have origins in contemplative traditions, particularly Buddhist traditions, although meditation practices stretch back thousands of years before the life of the Buddha.
Is Mindfulness meditation relaxing?
It certainly can be, and many people do find meditation makes them feel relaxed. However, relaxing is not the intention, and there may be times when it is not relaxing. This is one reason why it can be unhelpful to use mindfulness meditation as a way of relaxing: If it stops being relaxing, you're likely to stop practicing!
Do I need to sit in a special way?
Not really, although posture is important for a number of reasons, including your own comfort, and guidance is given to groups when they meditate. Groups are most often taught whilst sitting on normal chairs. Quite often, people like to use cushions, stools or benches for their own personal practice. There are some practices which are best done lying down, and others involve standing & moving, so it's not all about sitting!
How often will I need to meditate?
Most courses involve around 40 to 50 minutes of personal practice per day, and it's worth checking what may be expected of participants on a particular course before starting one, as home practice is a very important element, from which many of the benefits of mindfulness arise.
Afterwards, maintaining a personal practice will involve deciding what works best for you, as, if it doesn't work for you, you'll probably stop doing it before too long! Most people will maintain a practice because they feel that it benefits them, and many say that they seem to make more effective use of their time after meditating, so they actually feel they have gained time. Some research indicates that regular short meditations are more beneficial than occasional long ones, i.e. 10 or 20 minutes a day, rather than several hours at the week-end. Another possibility is to combine both, with short daily meditations, and longer ones at the week-end.
Are these courses available on the NHS?
Yes, some are (e.g. MBCT), although it will vary from one area to another. Unfortunately, there are often long waiting lists.
Quite how the separation of mindfulness from it's spiritual and philosophical origins transforms it's essence is open to debate, but most involved, from Tibetan monks to neuroscientists are accepting and positive towards the development of western secular mindfulness; welcoming the ways in which it is benefiting people around the world, regardless of race or creed. Many questions remain to be answered; those of a philosophical nature are being addressed in open dialogue between individuals and communities. Questions of method, practice and efficacy are gradually being answered by a rapidly expanding body of research which is beginning to explain factors such as: How turning non-judgemental attention to thoughts and emotions can result in desensitisation of conditioned responses, and reduce avoidance behaviour. How cognitive changes can be brought about by experiencing thoughts as separate from self, not necessarily factual but always transient in nature. How the quality of life can be improved thorough greater moment-by-moment experiencing of the present. How turning towards difficulty, rather than away from it, can transform experience....
...for more, see the mindfulness entries on my blog.