Mind that Matters

Mindfulness has become one of the foremost techniques used to ease the demands of the attention economy. Ross Davies looks at how this contemporary form of meditation might be applied to renew the mind and help us better reconnect with ourselves

Such is the pace of the modern world that our ability to live in the moment feels almost impossible.

There are just too many distractions.

In search of the next dopamine hit, the average Briton checks their phone – without prompting – around 1,000 times a week, revealed a recent study. Even with the most abstemious of intentions, a pitstop on our Twitter feed can lead us down that interminable rabbit hole of memes and videos of cats doing silly things.

Most of us recognise this as being symptomatic of the attention economy, in which the worlds of digital technology and social media compete for our time – and our money. In recent years, research has even suggested that social media addiction might be classified as a mental health disorder.

Our apps might serve as a welcome diversion on the morning commute, but that shouldn’t be all there is when we have downtime. “Take rest – a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop,” said the Roman poet Ovid. In contemporary layman’s terms, that reads: “Put down your phone once in a while – you might feel better for it.”

In a twist of irony, even the big tech players have become wise to the impact that being constantly online can have on our mental health. Apple recently introduced a new feature on its iPhone, which lets users set up a daily permitted screen time on certain apps, apparently to encourage us to spend more time away from our devices.

But arguably the most popular technique deployed – in the western world – to help us refresh the mind and better connect and focus on the here and now is mindfulness. Such is its mainstream adoption, there are purported to be over 100,000 books on sale on Amazon that include either the word “mindful” or “mindfulness” in their title.

For the uninitiated, mindfulness is a meditation technique that serves to help us experience the present moment, with a focus on breathing and being. Widely recognised by scientific community and health organisations – including the NHS – it is commonly prescribed to help patients control symptoms of depression, anxiety and chronic pain.

With mental illness recognised as a global scourge – according to a report by the Lancet Commission, it could cost the world economy upwards of $16 trillion by 2030 – the rise of mindfulness is not altogether unsurprising.

Arguably its main appeal is that it can be practiced anywhere and anytime, and for free – if you choose to eschew the subscription-based apps and literature. It can also be applied to almost any activity, from mindful dog walking and tree-climbing to gardening and tv-watching.

“The same applies to anxiety and depression, when we get trapped in cycles of negative thinking and worrying. Mindfulness provides us with the tools to step back through simply grounding ourselves in our bodies and what’s present, as opposed to worrying about the future or regurgitating the past.”

For much of our waking hours, we are not really present. We are not experiencing life as we are going through it. We are missing out through always thinking about the next thing we need to do

But what I really want to know is how meditation ties into the theme of self-renewal. A common symptom of poor mental health is the sense of being in a rut; of feeling beholden to the demands of daily life, be it work deadlines, checking messages or updating profiles: the feeling that there is never enough time in the day to get things done.

It could be reengaging with nature through a walk on a spring morning; savouring every drop of Argentinian Malbec after a long day at work (mindful drinking is also a practice in its own right); or losing oneself in a piece of music.

How do we reset our mindset to become fully conscious of the simple things we take for granted?

“Human beings tend to go on autopilot,” explains Watt. “For much of our waking hours, we are not really present. We are not experiencing our life as we are going through it. We are missing out through always thinking about the next thing we need to do.

“What happens with mindfulness is that we are able to anchor ourselves in the simplicity of what’s actually happening right here, right now. The focus on the five senses allows us to reconnect with the simple joys of life. This creates a freshness and vividness to everyday life, in contrast to that stale feeling where we take everything for granted.”

While its roots can be found in ancient Buddhism, mindfulness’s origins date back to 1979, when first pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn at his Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Despite a grounding in Zen Buddhism, Kabat-Zinn’s decision to soft-pedal the meditation’s spiritual origins has helped it become accessible to those who wouldn’t be caught dead in the spirituality section of a bookshop.

Tessa Watt is a London-based mindfulness teacher and writer. A former BBC radio producer, she first started practising mindfulness to counteract the effects of “an exciting but stressful job”, before becoming a full-time practitioner. She runs workshops in organisations and workplaces, including Westminster, where she says there has an increased uptake of her mindfulness programme among parliamentarians.

“Obviously, Parliament is a really chaotic environment, which includes demanding work and difficult hours,” she says. “We run a drop-in session every week for MPs and peers, who find it helpful for feeling more grounded and stable within their environment.”

An increase in “randomised control trials and countless peer-reviewed research papers” has lent mindfulness scientific credence in recent years, says Watt, which has been reflected in adoption across the wider general public. But just how does it work? And how, for instance, might it be applied to assuage a prolonged period of work-related stress?

“Stress is measured in terms of various measures through heartrate variability or by cortisol levels,” she says. “It’s been shown again and again that mindfulness helps us reduce stress by allowing us to move into the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the calming aspect of our nervous system.

Mindfulness TOP tips

Mindfulness has its critics, however, such as Ronald Purser, Professor of Management at San Francisco State University. Purser is the author of McMindfulness, a 304-page critique of modern meditation that argues that in its stress on the private individual, the contemporary practice of mindfulness does little to engage with the actual roots of mental health problems across society.

He also questions the co-optation of mindfulness among corporations (NB Google has its very own mindfulness tsar, whose business card reads “Jolly Good Fellow”) as a means of getting employees to be more productive in the name of good capitalism, as opposed to having anything to do with mental and physical wellness.

Even the US Army has implemented mindfulness into its military strategy in recent times in a bid to sharpen the senses of its soldiers. According to Purser, this only goes to show how contemporary appropriation should never be confused for the Buddhist tenets from which it is derived.

“Right mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition is not merely a therapeutic approach focused on stress relief just for one’s personal self,” says Purser. “Instead, it is an actively engaged and expansive awareness, which cultivates a way of life that results in liberation from attachment to the self-ego and the existential suffering of human existence.

“In fact, one could argue that right mindfulness is closely allied with the development of cognitive discernment, which is a discursive and analytic approach.”

Purser’s hesitance to conflate mindfulness with spirituality is also shared by Jinpa Thupten – long-time interpreter of Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama – who, in a recent paper published in Current Opinions in Psychology, argued that “a more fruitful approach” would be to look upon modern mindfulness as an entirely “new phenomenon”.

“Yes, the practice is derived from Buddhist sources, but it is also, if proclaimed to be secular, different…Having this kind of clarity helps all around… Theoretically, however, it makes more sense to consider contemporary mindfulness to be morally neutral, that is independent of ethics and compassion.”

In spite of his convictions, Purser says he has no wish to pooh-pooh anyone who has found mindfulness to be therapeutically beneficial. That is perhaps just as well, as many of us struggle to come to terms with COVID-19, the pandemic that has shut down much of the world.

At the time of writing, society remains under lockdown, with many confined to their homes, anxious over income, job security, and the health of family and loved ones. For all the wonders of Skype and Zoom, relationships can be hard to maintain amid isolation. All the perfect storm for a mental health crisis, warn experts.

“I’ve actually been busier than ever over the last few weeks,” says Watt, who has started teaching an eight-week online mindfulness course in response to the pandemic. “It seems timely. A lot of people are either wanting to learn mindfulness right now or are reconnecting with it.”

COVID-19 will be brought to heel eventually, but the world left behind is likely to be a very different place. In order to make sense of it, this could require a recalibration of societal priorities. A renewal, if you like, of our focus on what really counts.

This might be as simple as being conscious of how our chest rises and falls when we breathe – the rhythm of life itself.

Mindfulness TOP tips

Mindfulness has its critics, however, such as Ronald Purser, Professor of Management at San Francisco State University. Purser is the author of McMindfulness, a 304-page critique of modern meditation that argues that in its stress on the private individual, the contemporary practice of mindfulness does little to engage with the actual roots of mental health problems across society.

He also questions the co-optation of mindfulness among corporations (NB Google has its very own mindfulness tsar, whose business card reads “Jolly Good Fellow”) as a means of getting employees to be more productive in the name of good capitalism, as opposed to having anything to do with mental and physical wellness.

Even the US Army has implemented mindfulness into its military strategy in recent times in a bid to sharpen the senses of its soldiers. According to Purser, this only goes to show how contemporary appropriation should never be confused for the Buddhist tenets from which it is derived.

“Right mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition is not merely a therapeutic approach focused on stress relief just for one’s personal self,” says Purser. “Instead, it is an actively engaged and expansive awareness, which cultivates a way of life that results in liberation from attachment to the self-ego and the existential suffering of human existence.

“In fact, one could argue that right mindfulness is closely allied with the development of cognitive discernment, which is a discursive and analytic approach.”

Purser’s hesitance to conflate mindfulness with spirituality is also shared by Jinpa Thupten – long-time interpreter of Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama – who, in a recent paper published in Current Opinions in Psychology, argued that “a more fruitful approach” would be to look upon modern mindfulness as an entirely “new phenomenon”.

“Yes, the practice is derived from Buddhist sources, but it is also, if proclaimed to be secular, different…Having this kind of clarity helps all around… Theoretically, however, it makes more sense to consider contemporary mindfulness to be morally neutral, that is independent of ethics and compassion.”

In spite of his convictions, Purser says he has no wish to pooh-pooh anyone who has found mindfulness to be therapeutically beneficial. That is perhaps just as well, as many of us struggle to come to terms with COVID-19, the pandemic that has shut down much of the world.

At the time of writing, society remains under lockdown, with many confined to their homes, anxious over income, job security, and the health of family and loved ones. For all the wonders of Skype and Zoom, relationships can be hard to maintain amid isolation. All the perfect storm for a mental health crisis, warn experts.

“I’ve actually been busier than ever over the last few weeks,” says Watt, who has started teaching an eight-week online mindfulness course in response to the pandemic. “It seems timely. A lot of people are either wanting to learn mindfulness right now or are reconnecting with it.”

COVID-19 will be brought to heel eventually, but the world left behind is likely to be a very different place. In order to make sense of it, this could require a recalibration of societal priorities. A renewal, if you like, of our focus on what really counts.

This might be as simple as being conscious of how our chest rises and falls when we breathe – the rhythm of life itself.

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