In the most recent RSA animate lecture, on the divided brain, psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist challenges popular ideas about left and right brains which I have seen perpetuated in many mindfulness books (e.g. that reason/emotion or visual/language aspects are separated in this way). Instead, he suggests that there are divisions in attention between very focused attention (left hemisphere) and wider awareness (right hemisphere).
I found this fascinating because mindfulness also distinguishes these two kinds of attention, with different meditation practices for cultivating focused attention and wider spacious awareness. Some liken vipassanā to a broad searchlight and samatha to a focused laser beami: In vipassanā we attend to the whole of our experience in a wide, open, awareness, noticing what arises and that it passes away, whereas in samatha we focus on a particular experience, object or phrase, such as the feeling of the breath, or repeatedly asking ‘what is this?’ in Korean Zen, or contemplating a Japanese Zen Koan.
Iain also talks about the way that the frontal lobes help to inhibit the rest of the brain, stopping immediate reactions. Again, this links to mindfulness which is about developing our capacity to stand back and notice things before responding. Iain links this to empathy and compassion for others. We need to stand back in order to understand other people rather than just reacting to them.
Seems like this work opens up some new possibilities for creative engagement between mindfulness and neuroscience.
Meg Barker writes about bringing mindfulness to driving, and the value of engaging mindfully at times when it is most difficult.
Mindfulness is huge at the moment. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have completed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme of Jon Kabat-Zinn. Counsellors and therapists train in mindfulness techniques in order to offer them to their clients. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends mindfulness therapies for depression. And the amount of research on mindfulness as a treatment for stress, pain, anxiety, depression, and a range of other health and emotional difficulties, has increased exponentially in the past two decades. The word ‘mindfulness’ brings up around 4000 hits on Amazon because self-help books, CDs and DVDs on the topic have also proliferated in recent years.
Meditation: A central focus?
Central to most therapies, programmes and books on mindfulness is meditation. Generally this takes the form of sitting quietly and focusing your attention on your breath. When your attention wanders (to a thought, feeling, or sensation, for example), you bring it back to your breathing. Through such meditation it is said to be possible to notice the kinds of habits that you often get stuck in, such as identifying with a pain that you feel, or telling a story about why you are feeling angry or sad. The practice of bringing your awareness back to the here-and-now of breathing in and out can shift such habits. Such meditation can also expand our attention so that we notice everything that is going on in and around us (rather than focusing on one thought, memory, or sound), and we may also see that everything is impermanent (the thing that was niggling us when we started meditating has gone by the end).
However, the focus on meditation in mindfulness approaches has recently come under criticism. Wakoh Shannon Hickey points out that the Buddhist traditions which mindfulness was drawn from only advocated meditation for monks and nuns, not for lay people, and also that it was generally a practice which was located in a community for ethical purposes, not something that people did by themselves to make them feel better. She, like many Buddhist scholars, questions the cherry-picking approach to ancient traditions, locating it in the history of colonialism. In addition to such criticisms, some of the main leaders to bring their ideas to western audiences have emphasised aspects other than mindful meditation. For example Hickey writes that the Dalai Lama advocates other forms of meditation, or sound sleep, over mindfulness. And Thich Nhat Hanh writes a lot about community work and about practising mindfully in everyday life.
Make it the practice
It is this kind of everyday mindfulness which I have been thinking about a great deal as I write my own book on mindful counselling and psychotherapy. I felt that I should really commit to regular meditation if I was advocating it to other people, so I have been meditating for around ten minutes every night. Whilst there is a lot that I’ve found useful about this practice, for all the reasons mentioned, I’ve also noticed that it is easy to separate it off from the rest of my life: for meditation to be the only point in the day when I’m being attentive in that way.
There’s a great new podcast by Martine Batchelor out. Follow the link.
Details from the website: Martine Batchelor was a nun in a Korean Buddhist monastery for 10 years, where she followed a traditional path of practice and exploration. We speak about her journey in becoming a nun, what the rhythms of that life were like, what practices she undertook, and how she came to integrate, and deepen, the understanding she uncovered during her decade of training there.
The episode concludes with a compelling conversation about the multi-perspectival nature of human beings, and how we’re constantly practicing at a crossroads between various aspects of our lives.
This is part 1 of a two-part series.
Nice podcast on mindfulness here on the BBC, focusing on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and neuroscience research.
I can believe that there are over 40 publications on mindfulness per month, as it says on the podcast. I started with the idea of collecting together all the references together here and quickly realised that it was an impossible task!
Mention of the marines using mindfulness in the US touches on one of the key issues that Social Mindfulness is interested in. Does some Western mindfulness strip the ethics from Buddhist mindfulness in potentially harmful ways? Can, and should, we detach mindfulness from compassion.
In this post, Meg Barker considers the possibilities for mindfulness in everyday life.
I’ve been interested in mindfulness for several years now and will be writing a book about it in the next year or so, building on the chapter that I wrote for the OU counselling module.
Mindfulness is the big idea in counselling and psychology at the moment. The ‘gold standard’ of counselling – cognitive-behavioural therapy – is turning to mindfulness as its ‘third wave’. If you go to a mental health services it is likely that they will offer some kind of mindfulness training. Self help books for depression and anxiety are increasingly mindfulness focused.
One conclusion that I have come to is that there is no such thing as an inherently mindful or non-mindful activity. People (including myself at times) often have the idea that only certain activities could be mindful: like meditating, walking in the countryside, perhaps painting or other such tranquil pursuits. There is definitely a notion that certain activities are anti-mindful, including things like watching TV, commuting or social-networking. As with the idea that you are doing meditation wrong if you don’t have a completely ’empty mind’ I think this is a misconception which isn’t helpful and which often leads people to beating themselves up that they aren’t doing mindfulness properly (which really defeats the purpose!) Just as you can sit in meditation without being mindful at all, I think you can also be mindful as you are texting or surfing the internet.
Here I want to say what I think mindfulness is and why it is all about the way you approach activities, not the activity itself.