Are you mind full, or mindful?

By Paul Little

What is mindfulness, why are businesses buying into it and what can it possibly have to do with the more recent craze of adult colouring-in books, asks Paul Little.

Have you succumbed to the secret Buddhist attempt to infiltrate the world via the cult of mindfulness yet? Or are you just having fun colouring in? Everyone - from individuals who have trouble concentrating to establishments such as Kiwibank, the Mental Health Foundation and schools - is talking about and ¬promoting "mindfulness".

It has been around in its current form since the 1980s when scientist Jon Kabat Zinn secularised some Buddhist practices and called them Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. In the past couple of years it has pervaded hitherto unmindful corners of the community.

To some it's just another annoying buzzword. It's annoying, particularly because the implication is that if you're not involved in mindfulness then presumably you're ¬engaged in the opposite, which would have to be mindlessness.

But is it any more than another new-age fad? And, more impor¬tantly, what is it? With its stated primary promises of less stress and anxiety and more energy and relaxation, does it offer anything more than nature already does?

Well, no, according to most of those who promote and teach it. Mindfulness merely restores the mind to its natural way of being, something modern life has made difficult for our poor overstretched mental faculties.

And there's nothing new about it. Versions of mindfulness have been around for ages.

Every religion has a tradition of contemplation or meditation, from Jewish Hitbonenut to the Catholic rosary.

And there's nothing unusual about taking a religious concept and taking out the God bit - just think Christmas and Easter.

So what is mindfulness as ¬currently practised? One worker in the field answered that question with a definition that would have taken up half this story.

Another, Stephen Archer of Mindfulness Training, covered all the bases with a mercifully low level of jargon: "It's the natural awake state. It's the recognition that the mind is a natural environment.

"It sounds simple but most people, once they start to practise the orientation, discover that the question becomes not just: 'Am I awake?' but 'How awake am I?'

"Another thing people notice is that their mind is overwhelmed with information, which is hardly surprising as most of us are giving our attention to digital technology, which is very stimulating.

"Attention is a resource we're making use of a lot of the time. So mindfulness is also about establishing self-awareness. That doesn't require thinking. It's more a quality of feeling and intuition and paying attention."

Practitioner Glenda Irwin of Mindfulness Works nominates as the simplest of examples one you can probably do right now: ¬"Notice how your body is sitting in the chair."

In other words, mindfulness is being aware of what is going on ¬immediately in and around you, rather than letting your mind ¬wander into a past full of what might have beens and a future full of what might ¬never happens.

There's an important ¬caveat that relates to all those things, such as driving ¬familiar routes or making a cup of tea, that we do on autopilot - mindfulness isn't agin that.

You don't have to be aware of your bum in that seat. But for ¬ other things, such as work and communicating with a partner, it's good for your mind and body to be in the same place at the same time.

And you don't need to do it all the time, says Glenda's partner, Chris ¬Irwin. "It's a practice. Just as going to the gym keeps us fit."

And just as the enthusiasm for physical fitness has spawned an industry, the people in the field of mindfulness also mean business.

At Mindfulness Auckland, you can follow up the eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course with study in self-compassion, mindfulness for mothers and deepening mindfulness.

And yes, you will pay, just as you would to go to the gym. It is worth noting these courses are a lot cheaper than the going rate to learn transcendental mediation. Among the basic tenets of which seems to be if people don't pay for something they won't value it.

If the Mental Health Foundation has its way, everyone will soon be learning mindfulness for free in childhood.

"We believe there's a place for it in schools," says the foundation's acting chief executive, Hugh Norriss. "It does seem to be something that could be taught as a basic life skill that kids can use later in life.

"They get to understand that thoughts aren't the same as reality - if you know how to be mindful you know how to look at a thought more objectively."

Mindfulness programmes are already reporting good results in many schools.

And yet it's in schools that mindfulness has probably been most controversial. One ¬Family First blogger has written at length to justify the claim that teaching children the practice is "Buddhism by stealth".

In the meantime, for the adults, just hanging a sign on your website that says "Mindfulness served here" is no guarantee customers will come flocking. One of the most impressive looking local websites found when researching this story seems not to have got very far.

According to a spokesman: "It started as a project but due to a lack of funding we have not been able to fully resource it so tend to do some support to business as and when more than actively promote the ¬service [sic]".

It's in the corporate world that mindfulness seems most vulnerable, if not to criticism, at least to abuse. Is it just another way for Human Resources to use workers' time and justify their department's existence?

Will it go the way of performance reviews, employee satisfaction ¬surveys and other arse-covering strategies and be looked back on without nostalgia as another management fad no one misses?

Possibly. According to Norriss, the danger in using mindfulness as a personnel management tool is "companies who may be providing courses for their employers to ¬reduce stress may in fact be the cause of distress".

Chucking the malcontents into a mindfulness course, therefore, becomes a way for a company to avoid facing its own shortcomings. So when Chris Irwin observes, "I had a person in a really boring job, and they shifted their attitude to it and their whole experience of their job changed", perhaps he shouldn't be saying that as if it's a good thing.

Advocates don't help their cause using language that looks like it's about to float into the ether, such as the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, quoted by Mindfulness Auckland: "The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers."

In my house, we practise something like that, but we do it by saying: "Put down that phone for five minutes while I'm talking to you."

And there is definitely a conflict between the spiritual tradition out of which the practice evolved and the fact that people such as Stephen Archer, who grew up in this tradition, are now helping people to become more productive workers.

His background couldn't be less corporate. He has been studying Eastern philosophy since his teens.

"I wanted to experience the benefits first hand," he says, "and went into a monastery at 23. I was 36 when I came out. I've just turned 57."

He does see the clash between his past spiritual and his new corporate life. "I hadn't had much to do with that world before. What I have to offer is my mindfulness skills. It's not for me to tell people how they should be running an organisation. If I can ground people in basic principles, they can get creative and do what Kiwibank, who I'm working with at the moment, is doing: create a more mindful workplace."

For the Mental Health Foundation there's no conflict because it's based on science. "We started thinking we should be incorporating it into our programmes about five or six years ago," says Norriss.

"The evidence was growing ¬exponentially. There were a lot of studies. The only real criticism has been small and from fundamental religious groups."

So why the boom? Several reasons. The first, as Norriss says, is there is now research to support the effectiveness of mindfulness in relieving stress and anxiety.

There is also an accessible infra¬structure for those who want to know how to go about it. There's the corporate enthusiasm for it - no matter how self-serving that may be.

There's an increased awareness that digital devices are cluttering our minds and getting in the way of clear thinking.

And then there are the colouring-in books. The colouring-in book boom has been much commented on, less so its use in mindfulness. In short - if you concentrate on not going over the lines you can't fill your mind with clutter.

Glenda Irwin made her own one for children, because the - other books weren't as mindful as she felt they should be. "Being mindful while you're colouring, there are nuances those books don't touch," she says.

"You observe the processes, what colour you choose, what part of the page you choose to colour. Mindfulness is always done with the body. In colouring, there's arm action, sight, texture and all the mental clutter that goes on about, 'It's not quite right', or 'I went over the lines'.

"That's outside you and you notice yourself as you're doing that."

And you thought you were just colouring in. Perhaps you'll be more mindful in future.

There's an app for that

Where a market forms, apps will surely follow and if you go to the iTunes store and type in "mindfulness" you will find more than 100 apps claiming to enable and improve your practice.

The experts are divided.

"On our courses," says Chris Irwin, "we provide people with access to online tuition and we work with a company that produces an app.

"I think some of them are very good, particularly those for guided meditations with music.

"For most people when they meditate it's good to have guidance."

"I'm not against all that stuff," says Stephen Archer, who doesn't own a colouring book, either, "but the person who taught me said, 'If you want to learn music, hang out with musicians'. It's a human quality, so learn with other people."

- Herald on Sunday

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