I was amazed recently, after I’d signed up for the newsletter of the American Mindfulness Research Association (AMRA), to see just how many new research studies on mindfulness come out every month. For January there were about 40, covering a broad range of areas such as cancer survival, pain management, alleviation of depression and anxiety, age-defying effects on brain grey matter, alcohol use in undergraduates and, intriguingly, its role in the female orgasm. Mindfulness is being explored as a tool in all conceivable areas from the board room to parliament and congress to the school room and the clinic on top of the hundreds of 8 week MBSR and MBCT courses being run up and down the UK and all over the world.
This can be seen as a huge validation of the effectiveness of mindfulness in a great variety of human lives and situations. The studies demonstrate how mindfulness practice promotes happiness, reduces anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders, helps people live with chronic pain and illness, is anti-ageing, memory boosting, increases compassion and improves relationships.
Or you could look at this a trifle more cynically and wonder if this isn’t just some zeitgeist phenomenon that will blow over eventually, a fad, a trend and something more suited to the fringe element of hippies, academics and Buddhist monks and nuns. Surely nothing can be such a cure-all, such a panacea? Can we really trust all these research studies?
There has been a backlash against the mindfulness boom recently, some of it intelligent and a good corrective to the evangelising aspect; some of it superficial and ill-informed. But then some of the eulogising of mindfulness is equally superficial and misleading.
So, how do we ourselves appraise mindfulness honestly and fundamentally. Well, there is only one way, and that is to approach the practice and experience of it as your own scientist conducting an experiment within the laboratory of your own life. Coming to it with an open mind, free of overly specific expectations, aware of whether you are bringing an attitude of “this will be the thing that makes my life perfect at last” or “I am very doubtful that this will be of any benefit whatsoever for me”. This is asking a lot already, I know. It’s not easy to shelve all our hopes and fears, our long-held views about the way we are, such as “I’m not the sort of person who can sit still and meditate”.
As well as being like a scientist or an explorer, it takes some of the approach we had as children when everything was fresh and new and worthy of interest. As adults we tend to default to automatic pilot for most of the time, underlying which is a sense of familiarity with things, an idea of “I already know this” which is a barrier between us and an alive, present perception of a person, object or situation. As children we scrambled about on the floor, finding another world in the underneath space of a table or the inside of a cupboard, or climbed up on top of chairs or sofas – we were always looking at things from different angles – able to make an adventure or an imaginative world out of everyday objects.
So as adults, with mindfulness, we can experience a new kind of adventure. Loading our weekly food shop onto the conveyor belt at the supermarket, instead of seeing this only as a chore to be accomplished as quickly and efficiently as possible, we can open up to our senses. See all the myriad of colours – shades of red, green, yellow, orange – in just one apple, or appreciate the tactile sensations of handling packaging, the differing weight of things. While we stand there, rather than being overtaken by impatience and frustration because the person in front has suddenly produced a massive sheaf of money-off coupons, we can notice that impatience, but then also see that this is a natural pause in the busy flow of our lives, maybe even a gift! So we could check in to the feeling of our feet on the ground and sensations in the body. We could also look around us and open out of our usual tunnel vision, to see the supermarket as a whole and all the individual human beings, whether they are shop assistants or customers, young or old, all sharing in this moment and yet all with such diverse lives. Then you can begin to realise that there is incredible richness in even the most ordinary of daily processes.
So in taking this new open approach to life we become like scientists, like explorers, like artists and like children, all rolled into one.
But seriously, these are just labels, or pointers. The bottom line is – in finding out about mindfulness and trying it out for size in your life – to check in with yourself about the effects of this, its workability, its difficult parts and its rewarding ones. Perhaps using some discrimination and not believing the first judging thought that comes along like “this isn’t working for me” but holding all that in reserve, giving the practice some time and effort and seeing what results. If at the end of the “experiment” you decide, “no, mindfulness really isn’t for me – I’ll stick to running or painting or walking the dog” then that’s fair enough and it’s being honest to yourself. You’ve really tried it out and that’s worth more than all the 500 annual research papers on mindfulness put together.
But watch out, because once the seeds of mindfulness practice have been sown, they have a habit of sprouting up unexpectedly!