There is a story about William James, the foremost American psychologist who was lecturing at Harvard in the early 1900. James suddenly stopped when he recognized a visiting monk coming from Sri Lanka in the audience. Directing his attention to the monk he is reported to have offered his chair, “You are better equipped to lecture on psychology than I. This is the psychology everyone will be studying 25 years from now”.
Mindfulness has been practiced over the past 2500 years primarily as a means to relieve or alleviate human suffering. It is small wonder then that the fields of psychotherapy, medicine and education have begun over the past few decades to recognize the benefit of meditation practice, and to research the impact of mindfulness practice more thoroughly.
The term mindfulness is derived from the Pali word “sati”. Sati can be translated as awareness and attention. A basic definition of the word is moment to moment awareness without judgment. For example, as you read this article you are paying attention from moment to moment. You might become distracted at certain points however you can also chose to return your awareness back to reading without judgment. Although Buddhism has provided in-depth understanding and the means by which to cultivate mindfulness, mindfulness is an innate quality that we all possess.
This capacity to pay attention in the present moment can be cultivated, and with training we can move from more habitual ways of functioning (usually on autopilot with our minds busy in the future or in the past), to a more present and embodied way of functioning (more aware of the task at hand, the sensations in the body, our emotional states, and our thoughts).
One of the better known programmes that develop this capacity is Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre. Kabat-Zinn developed this programme about thirty years ago as a means to helping people who had been diagnosed with chronic pain, medical or psychological conditions. He discovered on his ward rounds that often people were told they have to live with a specific condition but not taught HOW to live with it. More recently, as a result of Kabat-Zinn’s work, three well known cognitive psychologists, Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale became interested in the use of mindfulness practice for depression, and developed a programme called Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy which is now a well-recognized intervention for recurrent chronic depression.
In both these programmes mindfulness is taught as a formal practice, meaning patients learn to carve out 40 minutes to an hour of their days to be present in a meditation practice. They also intentionally cultivate informal mindfulness by paying attention during the day to what is being felt and sensed in the present moment. For example when washing the dishes they might be instructed to “be aware of the soap on your hands, the feel of the water, and the sensations in your body”. Patients learn about cultivating more of a sense of “being” as a opposed to “doing” and also to be able to manage thoughts more effectively, not by changing them, but by understanding more about the nature of thought which is transitory and recurrent.
Mindfulness-based therapies and interventions are gaining increasing interest in the health field and the past thirty years have seen a proliferation of research. More recently the developments in neuroscience have allowed us to actually map the part of the brain that is activated when we meditate. This part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, corresponds with more effective emotional processing and more contented emotional states.
The beauty of mindfulness practice is that it can be taught to individuals in the same group all experiencing different types and degrees of psychological or physical symptoms; MBSR groups are diverse, and yet all the participants are able to share on the level of being human and being able to feel the movement of the breath in their body, and to notice the movement of their minds. They begin through mindfulness practice to recognize the nature of suffering which is often based in the fluctuations of the mind, and to better manage their lives. The approach is one of teaching patients to turn towards the moments of their lives with compassion, acceptance and equilibrium as opposed to trying to change, fix or analyse. Paradoxically, patients are empowered by learning to relate to their lives with gentle acceptance and non-judgement. To quote one of our participants, “mindfulness reveals as it heals”. With the recent neuroscience and thirty years of research to back it, this ancient science has the potential to live up to William James’s prediction and become an important part of psychotherapy in the future.