The confusion over mindfulness

A friend of mine posted an article on Facebook recently and it motivated me to break my blogging silence. I am rather ashamed I have not written since January, but if any topic was to get me back in to blogging gear, it would be one that talks about mindfulness and therapy.

The article appeared last week’s on the Independent newspaper website, and speaks to the setting-up of mindfulness as the ‘all things to all men’ therapy of choice. I agree with so many things in the article: our health service is NOT addressing mental health sufficiently, and mindfulness is not going to cure all those ills. And, there IS a danger in mindfulness being used as a ‘plaster approach’ to mental health – a bit like the criticism that can be levelled at Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (thank you to another Facebook friend who posted this article by Oliver James from last year). However, I must address some of the inaccuracies concerning what mindfulness is, what it isn’t.

“The next big thing in mental health care”

dont believe everythingFirstly, mindfulness is a state of being, it is not a technique. Society is tending to slip in using mindfulness and meditation interchangeably – meditation is the practice that helps improve our mindfulness (the ability to be know what we are doing WHEN we are doing it). I think what the article is criticising is the use of mindfulness-meditation instead of talking therapy – and that I agree with. Meditation (and the mindfulness it encourages) may be therapeutic but it is NOT therapy. The error comes when people set it up as therapy – it doesn’t help that one of the popular 8 week courses is named ‘Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy’! Instructors on these courses should underline that the weekly sessions are not designed to be group therapy, but maybe this message is being lost? As a Buddhist, who learnt how to teach mindfulness-meditation (amongst other meditation practices) on a course with a secular Buddhist orientation, I think a more fundamental problem is how the practices have been stripped from their original contexts. Mindfulness in Buddhism is seen as only one component of exploring our suffering (or psychological distress in modern-day parlance). We cannot expect meditating every day to remove our stress, anxiety, depression – it was simply designed as a container in which to hold those challenges.

“Try not to think”

Ha! Good luck with that one!! This is my number one bug bear with how mindfulness is perceived. It was never designed as a practice to bring peace and calm (and nor do you need to “find somewhere quiet and peaceful”); and if you ever hear a mindfulness instructor (or a book, website, CD meditation) tell you to stop thinking then they are quite plainly not justified to teach the practice.

The aim of meditation is not to STOP thinking, but rather to allow your thoughts to be there whilst acknowledging they are ‘just’ thoughts.

Mindfulness therefore changes the relationship to our thinking, but even meditators who have been doing this practice for decades won’t report a less busy mind – rather, they will probably explain a benefit of the practice is that their mind is in less of a struggle, the heat under the pan has been turned down from boiling to simmer. In my experience, I think as much, but the thoughts have a gentler rhythm, and my reaction to those thoughts is calmer. This is why the MBCT and MBSR (stress reduction courses) work – and they do – the practice slows down the mind enough for the mediator to step back and observe the thoughts coming in and out; and to gain some clarity on how those thoughts can spiral down and take someone in to a place of stress, anxiety and depression. In effect, mindfulness develops an early warning signal.

“No amount of mindfulness is going to help messages of hate and emptiness and self-loathing”

To some extent this is true, but I would say that mindfulness is a great support for the very reason I mention above. Rather than being immersed and tangled IN those messages, meditation can move us back in to the audience seats of the cinema while we watch the thoughts and stories play out on the cinema screen. It sets up a healthy distance between our thinking and our experience in the moment.

So how can we use mindfulness-meditation?

As I say, meditation is not a “one size fits answer to mental health problems” like some might like it to be – firstly, many people don’t get on with an approach that doesn’t provide the ‘quick fix’ that a pill supposedly brings! Yet, it DOES have a place in the national health service. I believe patients presenting concerns with living should be offered talking therapy AND mindfulness work.

  • Meditating helps the mind become more stable bringing forth some clarity and some respite from the ‘heat’ of the presenting problems in life. The distance offers the chance to see the nature of the thinking, and the content of the stories being told to one’s self
  • Talking to a therapist helps unpack those stories. We cannot treat depression unless the depth of our despair is heard and held by an empathic other.
  • As we understand our stories and understand how we came to be heard, we need to bring compassion to ourselves – and again, mediation can be a great ally here.

So what I propose is a ‘back-and-forth’ between both, something I have written about before. Meditation helps us hold the container of our process, talking to a therapist helps us explore within that container. Speaking from my own experience, I could not have made the journey I have done these past 6 years without the two in tangent.

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