Four meanings of mindfulness

Mindfulness has certainly become very popular – when the US army, Capitol Hill, major corporations and Silicon Valley all embrace mindfulness, you know it’s gone mainstream. On the whole, this is positive – a wonderful antidote to our overly busy and hectic lives. Yet, as with anything which becomes popularised, there is the risk that mindfulness is becoming increasingly superficial. From mindful colouring books to thousands of mindfulness apps, suddenly everyone is doing mindfulness. More disturbingly, mindfulness is sometimes taught by inexperienced teachers to vulnerable people in a way which may do harm. I’ve heard staff members say, ‘oh yes, we teach mindfulness to all our mental health clients’, but when I talk to the staff about mindfulness, they have no idea what it is. And while mindfulness can be taught to clients with mental health issues in certain contexts, the teaching needs to be done by highly qualified and experienced practitioners.
It occurred to me that we really need to start using different words for mindfulness, depending on how it’s used. Part of the problem is that mindfulness is an English word which means ‘paying attention’ or ‘being thoughtful and considerate’. It was then appropriated to also describe sati, the Buddhist concept of non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Then, when the practice of mindfulness became legitimised in the West based on thousands of scientific studies, its meaning broadened to include different kinds of meditation. We used to talk about the relaxation response, guided imagery meditation, transcendental meditation and so on, but suddenly all we ever seem to hear about is mindfulness meditation. From there we come to mindful colouring books and apps, which have their place, but are a world removed from sati.
So we have Buddhist mindfulness, or sati, which needs to be taught by a Buddhist teacher. Then there is therapeutic mindfulness, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and similar programs, which is usually (though not always) taught by experienced meditators who have been trained to deliver these programs safely. We then come to relaxation mindfulness, which can be taught through CDs and apps and the occasional workshop. This way of using mindfulness can be helpful for stress management, but it doesn’t really explore key mindfulness concepts such as non-judgmental awareness, non-striving and acceptance. In the field it’s sometimes called Mindfulness Lite or McMindfulness. As for adult colouring books, they help to slow people’s minds down, which is beneficial – but they really have nothing to do with mindfulness as such.
In the next four weeks, I will explore these different categories of mindfulness. I’ll describe them as Buddhist mindfulness (sati), therapeutic mindfulness, relaxation mindfulness, and recreational mindfulness. Of course these categories are not distinct – they overlap, and within the various streams there are many variations. But perhaps, over time, we can come up with new words to describe the different ways of using mindfulness, and acknowledge the skills of those who have been trained to teach Buddhist and therapeutic mindfulness.

Weekly practice idea:
Which aspects of mindfulness do you feel most drawn to? You might well be using mindfulness in these four different ways, or you may be exploring one area in particular. Are the four categories meaningful to you, or can you come up with your own description of mindfulness?
Anja Tanhane

Feeling alive – Part 2

When people in affluent societies are asked about their stressors, being time-poor is often near the top of the list. Of course there are also stresses like illness, job insecurity, mental health issues, accidents and so on, but nonetheless there are few people who would say they are able to do everything they need to do in a day and still have plenty of time left over. A few decades ago we heard about labour-saving devices and the four hour working week, but the opposite seems to have occurred. Computers were supposed to save us time, but many of us seem to spend an inordinate amount of time each day wading through emails and logging in and out of various websites to pay bills and make bookings and so on.

So finding the time and space for those areas in your life you’re passionate about isn’t always easy. To say ‘just do it’ might not be enough – many of the limitations are real and need to be considered. Perhaps you’re a single parent juggling two jobs, and a child with a disability, who loves reading, but by the time you get to bed with your precious novel you’re so exhausted you can’t even get through a paragraph without falling asleep. You might dream of owning and training a dressage horse, but can barely afford to feed the cat. Your vision is to paint a ten foot panoramic depiction of the sea, but your living room is so small even your visitor’s chair is a fold-up.

All the wishful thinking in the world won’t make these limitations go away, at least not in the foreseeable future. Yet there is also a cost in abandoning your dream altogether – life can start to feel dutiful and dull. So we need to get creative, adapt, and find a way of keeping the spark alive in the midst of our many other demands.

An artist friend of mine did have a studio, but not much time between work and family. So he used his daily commute on the train to sketch post-card sized portraits of other passengers, and then held an exhibition at the end of the year. It was one of the most moving exhibitions I’ve been to – hundreds of portraits of people sketched with humanity and compassion. The famous novelist Kafka wrote his masterpieces in the morning before going to his job as an insurance lawyer. Even if you only write for 20 minutes a day, by the end of the year you’ve gathered 118 hours worth of writing. How often do we fritter away 20 minutes on Facebook, or watching something on TV we’re not really interested in, or trying to find the car keys yet again?

Perhaps your passion is gardening, but you live in an apartment? You might be able to volunteer once a month in the therapeutic garden at your local hospital. You didn’t end up becoming an astronaut, but can explore space travel through websites and magazines, and teach your granddaughter about the galaxies and nurture a sense of wonder and curiosity in her. A wholesome passion brings out the best in us, and as long as we’re not rigid about it, with a bit of planning and prioritising we can allow that passion to enrich our lives and nourish us year after year.

Weekly practice idea:

Think of something you love but have been neglecting. Plan one way of bringing it into your life this week, even if it’s only for ten minutes, and notice how you feel afterwards.

Anja Tanhane

Feeling alive – Part 1

‘What is truly a part of our spiritual life is that which brings us alive. If gardening brings us alive, that is part of our path, if it is music, if it is conversation… we must follow what brings us alive.’

Brother David Steindl-Rast, Benedictine monk

What brings you alive? Is it gardening, music, sport? Going for a run? Scrap-booking? Reading a novel? Cooking?

We often think of these things as hobbies, something to pass the time – in fact we literally describe them as ‘pastimes’. As if our life consists of work and other obligations, such as looking after our house and family. Then we need to take care of our bodies, through exercising perhaps or going to a yoga class. There is spirituality, which we might view as something structured and elevated, set apart from daily life. We try keep up with the news and social media and stay in touch with our friends and community. And, if there is any time left after all that, we might squeeze in a hobby or two.

And yet this so-called hobby might be the time we feel most alive. We are absorbed, passionate, fully engaged. When we meet someone who shares our passion we suddenly sit up more straight, our eyes light up, and we can spend hours in happy conversation.

It’s strange how we often dismiss other people’s passions – we might call them Sunday painters, musical wannabes, dear old nonna who loves to cook for the whole family. A successful chef with restaurants in London, Paris and New York is lauded, while little nonna in the kitchen perfecting her recipes with equal passion might be gently patronised. We don’t need to share the passion to appreciate how much it means for people to live their passion out.

I love Steindl-Rast’s idea that those things which bring us alive are part of our spiritual path. In my work I often ask people – what do you enjoy doing? It’s wonderful to see people come alive as they describe their passions. Mindfulness is about bringing a sense of presence to our everyday life, to not distinguish between ‘special moments’ and ‘ordinary moments’. Many people talk about feeling that sense of being present most strongly when they’re in the garden, or listening to music, or going for a walk. If spirituality is about a sense of connectedness to something greater than our small, self-centered ego, where better to feel that sense of expanded connectedness than when we are engaged in something which brings us alive, and which moves us beyond our absorption with minor worries and concerns?

This is very different from the unhealthy obsession which causes us to neglect our obligations. That which brings us alive cultivates the best in us, and can indeed be a precious part of our spiritual path. Next week, we will look at ways we can bring more of this spirit into our everyday lives.

Weekly practice idea:

What do you enjoy doing? Write down a list of the top five. Then calculate how much time you actually spend with any of these in a given week. Do you allow much time for that which brings you alive?

Anja Tanhane

Who cares?

A few years ago, I was coordinating community recreation groups for adults with an Acquired Brain Injury. One of the participants, I’ll call him Bill (not his real name), had a wonderful way of shrugging his shoulders whenever something went wrong (which was quite frequently) and saying with a philosophical smile, ‘Who cares?’

I told myself that I could really learn from Bill. Because most of the time, he was quite right – who cared if something hadn’t quite worked out? You simply did your best to fix it and moved on. While it’s good to be conscientious, it’s certainly easy to over-exaggerate the importance of getting stressed over every minor hiccup. It might make us look and feel caring, but what is the right balance between being a caring person, and bringing a sense of equanimity into our lives?

In the helping professions, it’s well known that those who are most caring are also most likely to burn out. Yet for the people they’re working with, the simple sense of feeling ‘cared about’ (’I’m not just a number to this person.’) can be enormously healing. Most of us are helpers – whether we work in a helping profession, coach our son’s basketball team, take our elderly parents to the doctor, or volunteer for a good cause. It can give us a real buzz to feel we’re making a positive difference, but it’s also easy to exhaust ourselves in the process. And while there are certainly people who seem completely self-centered and don’t care much at all, many of us have the opposite problem of caring too much, and often feeling overwhelmed by all the suffering in the world we want to heal.

Sometimes, when I’m out and about for work, I might have lunch in a café. I’m entitled to a lunch break, so it’s a perfectly legitimate break, and yet I’ve noticed that I feel I should be slightly anxious during lunch, as if I’m about to rush back to work, being a busy little worker bee. Of course this makes no sense. One day I suddenly realised – who cares what my state of mind is while I have lunch? The reality is, no one cares at all. The whole world is completely indifferent to whether I eat my lunch quickly, with a serious look on my face, or whether I enjoy the break and the different surroundings and make the most of the experience. And of course I’m more likely to be effective at work in the afternoon if I’ve allowed myself a relaxing lunch break.

So, who cares? Perhaps those of us who tend to be at the over-caring end of the spectrum can all learn from Bill. I still picture him from time to time, with his philosophical shrug, and the way he reminded us,

‘Who cares?’

Weekly practice idea:

Pick one day where you will pause from time to time and ask yourself, ‘who cares’? Where are you, in that moment, on the spectrum of over-caring vs indifference? What would a happy, balanced amount of caring look like in this situation?

Anja Tanhane