Mindfulness fans might not be pleased with this post. I’ve written it because I’ve noticed some confusion about this form of meditation with it seeming more complex than it actually is. In fact, meditation in general has become more confusing with the plethora of articles, videos etc. claiming all kinds of therapeutic uses for it and multiplying the methods. Mindfulness is the most popular as it has been aligned with the medical community, emphasizing stress management. So I thought I’d add my 2 cents worth based on 30+ years of practice.
Mindfulness meditation was originally a Buddhist practice called Vipassana or insight meditation. It was said to be the practice used by the Buddha through which he achieved his awakening.
In essence it is the practice of watching the activity of the mind moment by moment, paying particular attention the stream of thoughts along with feelings (body sensations, emotions etc.). The idea is to observe these inner movements closely without judging or interfering. One is just aware or mindful of each moment.
The practice can be used in a variety of ways. For example, one can watch the inner process with the goal of learning to remain detached from each inner event. In this way, one becomes less sensitive to emotional disturbances because one practices being mindful of each mental state without latching onto it and its emotional associations.
Another function is to watch the connection of thoughts to trace each back to its root cause. In other words, one watches how the mind connects thoughts in repeated patterns, often starting with something fundamental. Understanding how one’s mental patterns are formed can provide understanding of the way one’s personality is structured.
But the most important insight gained from this type of meditation is often overlooked in favour of the fascination of exploring the personality. This insight is into the nature of thought itself. One sees that thoughts are constantly coming and going in an endless stream. Each thought is momentary and fleeting, so is not something one needs to identify with or become connected to. Seeing this directly is a liberating experience and the one to which I would counsel anyone to work towards rather than delving into the dungeons of our memories and associations.
In other words, mindfulness can help one attain the understanding that inner events such as thoughts are momentary and can be watched with detachment. In this way, one can become free of inner turmoil and confusion. This is easier said than done of course, which is why it must be practiced. Developing the skill of observing one’s inner experience while remaining detached takes time and practice.
Ok that is all well and good. But one interesting and potentially problematic aspect of the practice that has become apparent in the last 10 years or so is the branding of the term “Mindfulness”. Because it is taught as a special program and is now widely accepted in medical circles, the name has come to embody the idea that it is “the special meditation taught by health care professionals”. In other words, it has become a “special practice”. I’ve actually heard the phrase, “I do Mindfulness”. This instantly gets contrasted to someone else who is “not doing Mindfulness”. What may result are notions such as: “this meditation is better than that……” or “I am doing the better meditation than…….”. This becomes a problem because these ideas remove one from the actual practice. Please read that last sentence again.
I’ve been involved in a chronic pain management program at a medical clinic since 2005. In the meditation practiced in the clinic, the same process is used to maintaining mindfulness, but we simply refer to it as “noticing”. This is what one is actually doing. Being mindful simply means noticing what is happening while it is happening.
So attaching a special name to it can mask the actual practice in favour of the “doing something special” idea mentioned above. Of course, the same trouble can occur with our “Mindbody Pain Clinics” program which is why we never say we are practicing the “Mindbody Method”.
So simply put, mindfulness is a valuable practice for noticing what is happening and learning to remain detached. This sounds simple enough, but it is certainly not easy. Complicating it with all kinds of expectations about its effects, uses, therapeutic value etc. adds a layer of expectations that actually obscures the practice. (see my post “Great Expectations“).