Mindfulness, McMindfulness, Mindfulness Lite and so on

I'm writing this in reply to a great post on our Facebook page, Martin Stepek's Make Scotland Mindful. In it, Nina Muir wrote about the very real issue of the variability in understanding what mindfulness is, even amongst those delivering it.

Firstly we need to go back to the origins of Mindfulness. It is the 7th of the Buddha's Eightfold Path, or eight aspects of life we should try to develop simultaneously. It was called even then, 500BC, Right Mindfulness. The "Right" matters because it refers to using mindfulness in a particular way, namely to be vigilant about our wayward mind's reactions and thoughts, so that we could let them go rather than be caught up in them.

So mindfulness, right from the start, was about a practical skill to help people help themselves through a subtle but effective mental self-discipline.

The 8 Noble Truths however, were themselves only the 4th part of the Four Noble Truths. (a rubbish translation but the one that's most well known. Actually it should be the Four Truths that Ennoble you). This 4th part was essentially "follow the path". The other three are Know about the reality of dissatisfaction and suffering; Abandon the origins of suffering; self-centredness and the ego; and realise that there is a path out of human dissatisfaction and suffering.

So mindfulness was originally part of a much larger philosophical, ethical, and practical programme for life invented and taught by this man who was called the Buddha, which means someone who has awoken (from dissatisfaction and suffering).

So fast-forward 2,500 years or so, and we have two pivotal figures in Buddhism becoming well-known and admired in the West: the Dalai Lama, and Thich Hhat Hanh, from two very different forms of Buddhism. Both spread the word of Buddhist teachings without the usual religious narrow-minded view that only their way is right. Both say it doesn't matter if you are Buddhist or not, just that you try not to harm, and try to liberate your mind from its inherited or life-gained negativities. The Dalai Lama is in exile from his native Tibet, while Thich Nhat Hanh is in exile from Vietnam.

Along with hundreds of other emigres from the far-east and south-east Asia where Buddhism is most popular, various monks and priests and nuns from all the Buddhist traditions start to open classes, study groups, and temples if they can afford it, to offer the people in the west, mostly in the USA initially, Buddhism, and especially the various Buddhist forms of meditation. The most common and most universal is called "mindfulness".

Eventually some of the students and practitioners of these groups start to wonder if they could bring a version of mindfulness to specific people - patients. The students are doctors, psychologists, neuroscientists, and they're finding the mindfulness methods really helpful in their own lives. So the first to decided to try it out on his patients, with a view to publishing the results in a peer reviewed academic journal, is Jon Kabat-Zinn, a doctor specialising in psoriasis in Boston.

He devises a partial version of mindfulness in order to make it replicable by others should the results prove it is beneficial for patients. He calls it MBSR. It shows great results in terms of reducing patient stress, acceptance of long-term conditions, and great contentment. He published this in 1979.

But MBSR is secular, without most of the philosophical and ethical frameworks of the original Buddhist version. That was justifiable though because it would have been impossible to do a scientifically-valid experiment with something as unwieldy as the vast panorama of Buddhist teachings. So he was right to do it his way.

The results have been remarkable. Tens of thousands of studies followed in the next 40 years, mindfulness passes the NHS's strict checks on proof of benefits (NICE), and it starts to spread from the Buddhist-interested community which is tiny, to the general public.

And that's where we are today. There are no statutory qualifications to be a mindfulness teacher. There are no agreed definitions on what mindfulness actually it. There is for the two main methods MBSR, and MBCT, but both of these are health-biased, as in ill-health-biased, as in mental-ill-health-biased, whereas mindfulness is beneficial for all people regardless of health conditions.

Therefore there are no statutory bodies to say who is a qualified teacher and who is not, nor any ways of checking who is good or not so good at teaching mindfulness, except for word of mouth, or "qualifications" they have received. Then there's the really tricky bit: people can be "qualified" ie, they know their stuff but can't deliver it well, and delivery is a hugely important part of the mindfulness experience when you're learning it. Some of that is personal chemistry, some is words, some is the elusive word "presence". Just like in the health service but much more so, the "bedside manner" is important. How are we to qualify or quantify that?

The "market" for mindfulness has grown but it is not lucrative as a whole, though some may think it is, and that may be partly why they seek to qualify as a mindfulness teacher. However most of the people I've met in this field are genuine, want to learn it deeply, and want to help others with it.

Every mindfulness teacher must, in my opinion, teach from the depths of their being. That means every mindfulness teaching will be different from every other one. The emphasis will be different. The choice of technique will be different. The use of words will be different. However, if properly taught, and properly learned (only one of which is in the hands of the teacher) it will still be authentically mindfulness.

So I have no answers to the fundamental question about how to stop shallow or plain wrong teachings of mindfulness but to repeat what I wrote at the beginning, the Buddhists split and changed and disagreed with one another, yet from it came the benefit of diversity of approaches, and this, I hope, will be the long-term effect of the development of mindfulness teaching in our times.



© 2019 by Martin Stepek.