Bear yourself in mind for a better (or potentially worse) life
By Halima Hassan
Nobel Laureate, Professor Elizabeth Blackburn, suggests that in order to lengthen your cellular lifespan, and thus your life, you should consider adopting the practice of mindfulness. In several scientific studies, it has been observed that this activity can help those suffering from depression and anxiety deal with their condition and lead more productive lives. In fact, many large and well established institutions are now incorporating mindfulness into the workplace. From the National Health Service in the UK providing mindfulness seminars for patients with depression, to cut-throat firms like Goldman Sachs and Google, one cannot deny the rising popularity of mindfulness from how it is permeating into so many facets of society. So what exactly is mindfulness and is it really as miraculous as some scientists and Google will claim it is?
…it has been observed that this activity can help those suffering from depression and anxiety…
Lets begin with a definition: “Mindfulness is the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment.” Essentially, being mindful is to be aware of oneself in the present and this ability can be honed through meditation and breathing exercises. Regular practice of mindfulness is believed to have many benefits such as improving memory, cognition and lowering stress levels. The ability to focus underlies a lot of productivity and considering how we live in an age where attentions spans are shorter than ever, we could all, in theory, do with some mindful practice.
Practicing meditation and deriving mindfulness was once, thousands of years ago, a practice associated with Buddhist monks. To them mindfulness constituted only a small component of their faith and the greater struggle of striving for enlightenment. So what bought this ancient, once sacred practice, to the secular west? None other than Jon Kabat-Zinn, currently Professor of Medicine Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts medical school. In the 1970s, Kabat-Zinn began studying under Buddhist teachers. This inspired him to combine what he had learned from his Buddhist teachers informally with his formal education in science. The result, a program called Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR): a therapeutic application of mindfulness which claimed to help patients with psychological conditions cope with the illness. Since then mindfulness has been marketed to everyone as a means to improve your life.
With continued practice of mindfulness, the hope is that you’ll acquire the ability to not become overwhelmed with the emotions that result from daily dilemmas and instead learn how to focus your attention; understand that you have the ability to not allow your emotional state to take over your life. “Your ability to recognize what your mind is engaging in, and control that, is really a core strength,” remarks Peter Malinowski, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK. “For some people who begin mindfulness training, it’s the first time in their life where they realize that a thought or emotion is not their only reality, that they have the ability to stay focused on something else, for instance their breathing, and let that emotion or thought just pass by.”
Naturally there are some staunch critics of mindfulness. But they should not be dismissed as mere ‘haters’ of what appears to be a generally positive practice. Starting off, many psychiatrists are questioning the methodology used in the studies that exist in support of mindfulness practice. “Many of the studies are small. [They are] pilot studies and are carried out on those who are not very ill,” says Professor Patricia Casey of University College Dublin. Additionally, many of these studies have not compared how mindfulness performs compared to the usual pharmaceutical interventions for individuals with serious illnesses like depression. It would be interesting to read a study investigating what exactly may be underlying the positive effects some may have experienced after practicing mindfulness.
“…it’s the first time in their life where they realize that a thought or emotion is not their only reality…”
The parallels between mindfulness and prayer or other religious practices are undeniable. It is well known that individuals who practice a religion are generally thought to be happier and that in general, prayer and meditation have many beneficial effects on the brain. So is this surge in mindfulness and its popularity just a marketing thing, making a practice usually tied to a religion secular and more digestible for individuals in the west? Journalist Melanie Mcdonagh writes, “[Mindfulness is] non–doctrinal, non-prescriptive, non-demanding in terms of conduct apart from an insistence on not being judgmental.” The perfect new religion for westerners.
Is it wise to remove just a single practice from a religion? This is the question Mcdonagh asks in her critique of mindfulness. “Taking an established religion — Buddhism in this case — and picking bits from it piecemeal can be a more dangerous business than it might seem. However much people may dislike the idea, the major world religions have developed incrementally over time to be a comfort and support for humans in their quest for meaning. Even the seemingly eccentric bits can serve a vital purpose, hidden from non-believers. One rejects ‘the boring bits’ of an established religion at one’s peril.”
This ‘danger’ is understood clearly once you learn about Dr Willoughby Britton’s ‘Dark Night Project’, also known as ‘Varieties of Contemplative Experience’, at Brown Medical School in the US. Dr. Britton deals with the psychological disturbances that meditation can sometimes cause. Not everyone has the strength to confront their inner self, and when meditation becomes an affliction to you rather than a therapy, then Dr Britton is the one to contact. Dr. Britton is an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior. Her study of this phenomenon is an effort to document, analyze, and publicize accounts of the adverse effects of contemplative practices such as meditation. Britton has presented her findings at major Buddhist and scientific conferences and even to the Dalai Lama at the 24th Mind and Life Dialogue in 2012.
The perfect new religion for westerners.
Mindfulness is currently the trend. I would be surprised to hear of someone who had not yet encountered anyone speaking about the practice or about their quest to incorporate meditation into their lives. Though I do not doubt there are benefits in taking some time in the day or every now and then to de-stress, I do not agree that mindfulness and meditation are the only ways to do so. Take a walk perhaps, listen to some calming whale sounds or watch a show on Netflix. Regardless, if you do decide to take a seat next to google in the sauna of mindfulness, enter with an open mind and a pinch of salt. It may work for you, and if so wonderful. On the other hand, it may not. If at any point you feel it is weighing you down in any way get out. And breathe.