I AM walking through Onslow
Square, in London, and see a rain-coated businessman hurrying
towards me, his head severely kinked to one side, and his face
deeply creased in anxiety. He is shouting into his mobile phone
something about being "mindful of the fact that . . . ". His mind
is clearly very full: mindful he is not.
Mindfulness is not about
having a full mind and being oblivious of the body. It is about the
mind and body's willingness together to attend absolutely and only
upon the present moment.
It is not mindlessness,
cultivating an empty mind, nor a value-free mind/body exercise. It
is deeply, morally engaged. While the outward technique can be
reduced to simple instructions, the approach is one of love and
acceptance, or, as some phrase it, "friendly curiosity" or
Mindfulness in the West has
been developed from an ancient Buddhist spiritual practice into a
Western technique for coping with chronic pain, chiefly through the
work of Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn with his patients in Massachusetts.
Learning to meditate - and within that self-created "safe space",
exploring, very gently, the edges of pain - allows patients to move
beyond fighting or fleeing it.
as-yet-little-appreciated connection between spirit, mind, and
body, mindfulness has been developed as a clinical treatment for
recurrent depression in this country by Mark Williams and others at
the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, at the Warneford Hospital.
It is also being used widely
as a safe, effective self-help system in non-clinical settings,
including business and education. Increasing numbers of NHS Trusts
are sending their social workers, psychotherapists, and counsellors
to be trained to teach courses in the community; and teachers are
bringing the course into schools.
The students may be of any
age, and be referred to a course by a clinician because of chronic
pain or recurrent depression, or they may be
coping-very-nicely-thank-you professionals, who are aware that
there is a dimension to life which they are missing because each
day is lived under constant stress.
Mindfulness can be a natural
partner to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) - a
psychotherapeutic method that is firmly anchored in the present,
not seeking so much to understand or analyse the past as to
untangle habitual behaviour and defences that patients have used in
the past, so that they can evaluate their effectiveness and find
better strategies of coping with whatever is causing distress.
So, for instance, if a
person is beginning to think about the reasons he or she turns to
food when unhappy or tired, or why he or she might be afraid to
speak in public, simply taking the opportunity of a non-judgemental
"friendly" time of stillness is going to be a good first step.
The Revd Terence Handley MacMath is an NHS chaplain, and a
teacher of mindfulness in Christian and secular settings.