Below is an outline of my approach to Mindfulness and Mindfulness training. If you are interested in training in mindfulness, whether as an individual or group / team, then please do contact me. I have been practicing mindfulness for over forty years.
Mindfulness has become very fashionable over the last few years, seemingly being incorporated into every stream of life. At its heart is the power that comes from making a conscious connection to our body, often our breath, but including our sensation generally. This deepening awareness of our body, whether it is our breath or feet on the ground, our weight on the chair or sensing any part of the body from the inside, fundamentally changes our perspective.
The first ideas around Mindfulness seems to come from early Sanskrit writing, with its roots in ancient Hindu culture (the Upanishads), and it was later incorporated into Buddhism. It is from here that it has found its way into modern western culture largely through meditation techniques.
O E Dictionary refers to its Eastern origins “with reference to yoga philosophy and Buddhism: the meditative state of being both fully aware of the moment and of being self-conscious of and attentive to this awareness; a state of intense concentration on one’s own thought processes; self-awareness”. – In my understanding, it is not so much “concentration” but ‘attention’ that is important and it is not just on “thought” but on the whole of ourselves.
Mindfulness comes from spiritual traditions which see human beings as being on a path of self-development, of working towards realising their potential. In Buddhism it is part of the necessary practice on the path towards enlightenment or nirvana.
The O E D also notes that the term “mindfulness” is “in weakened use”. It’s been diluted from its origins to now encompass all manner of meditation techniques, treatments for daily stress, even ways to lose weight, ways to improve the work you are doing! The word is everywhere at the moment, there were 7500 results on Amazon for books about mindfulness
The book that came top of the search I did was “Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world” – in it they say that to practise mindfulness, “a person must focus on what is happening inside their body and mind in real time” – a technique they refer to as “full conscious awareness”. They go onto to say, “Practicing mindfulness can be done anywhere, tubes, buses, trains, queues or any pause or break in the day are all suitable places to rehearse mindfulness. The simplest way to practice mindfulness is to sit in a straight backed chair, close your eyes, and focus on the sensations that your breath makes as it flows into and out of your body, … As your mind begins to chase after different thoughts, bring your awareness back to the sensations of the breath.”
All fine, although I would say “thoughts and feelings” rather than “mind” – also not just “sensation of the breath” but awareness of the sensations of the body as a whole.
One of the leading Mindfulness training institutes, Bangor University, say “We call the kind of moment to moment awareness invoked by tuning into your breath and to every other aspect of your life MINDFULNESS.”
This correctly, I think, emphasises how this approach is fundamentally about bringing your attention onto yourself. Onto what is happening inside you and how you are functioning, right now. If we use the word “awareness” the whole field of our experience is opened up, we are invited into a phenomenological exploration of our total experience, that of our body as well as our thoughts and our feelings, as well as the world we exist in.
Wider developmental context of Mindfulness
After many years practicing mindfulness techniques I started my psychotherapy training in Gestalt with its humanistic background. Here the approach is phenomenological, i.e. an open investigation of ‘what is’, of the whole of ourselves and the ‘field’ we a part of. For me the wonder of therapy was that it enabled me to really pay attention to my underlying feelings. Humanistic approaches try to be holistic and trust that meaning will emerge organically if we can connect with the whole of ourselves, heart, head and body – rather than being interpretative (Psychodynamic) or manipulative (behavioural / CBT) i.e. coming more from the head alone. So the humanistic approach naturally fits with “mindfulness” in terms of opening to and exploring what is here in the present moment, with trust in the innate wisdom of the self.
CBT has recently been integrating Mindfulness into its approach and in doing so it has been moving much closer to Gestalt (and other humanistic traditions). As with so many, so called ‘new’ approaches to therapy, that are simply re-inventing the wheel whilst arrogantly and lazily claiming their ‘newness’, I wish they’d study the history of philosophy, psychology and spirituality and acknowledge the work of those who have gone before who have established the philosophical and cultural ground they stand on. There is very little that is ‘new’, human nature changes very slowly, Plato, Christ, Shakespeare and Lao Tsu still speak to the heart of human experience, let alone the many thousands of amazingly astute and creative observers of human nature down the centuries.
The important fundamental aspect of the humanistic approach is the premise that we are born ‘good’, not bad (so many religious beliefs and current moralists hold – that people are evil or negative, or driven by selfish drives that have to be controlled). The other part of this is that we have within us a deep wisdom that is always trying to find its way towards health and growth and freedom. It is trauma that splits us up and cuts us from living in tune with it this wisdom.
Can you really believe that a murderer or rapist etc. was born that way? How fully do you believe that you are good at heart and not ‘bad’, inadequate, “not good enough” in some way?
Most therapeutic approaches work from the basic premise that it is our conditioning, especially through trauma in its widest sense, that makes us “negative”, that causes us to get caught into doing “negative” things. These consequences with all their various compensatory processes are what psychology investigates. But it is the humanistic approaches that are clearest about this basic premise of innate goodness. The idea of evil is, I think, itself simply a projection of unconscious repressed hurt, distress, fear etc. (i.e. trauma).
By bringing ourselves and our functioning ‘to consciousness’ – by using our attention (mindfulness) – we are separating ourselves from ourselves – inserting awareness into where there was previously just reaction, just unaware “sleep”. This is what the esoteric heart of all great religions mean when they talk about “waking up”. It was a man called Gurdjieff who was pivotal in bringing back this idea to Western philosophy / psychology before and after WW2. This approach to investigating ourselves was continued by Maslow, Rogers and Perls, et al. and was called the “third force” in psychology (the fist was Freudian, the second was Behaviourism) and it became called “humanistic psychology”.
This “separation of self from self”, is the first step to realising that we are not just our functioning, that we can have self-awareness in fleeting moments where we are aware of our aliveness and our functioning in a different, more presentful way.
This is the journey from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence to unconscious competence – i.e. towards that place where there is no separation – just present spontaneous living. All the mess and contradictions of self-doubt and anguish are in the first three modes.
It is the possibility of living more and more embodied in self-awareness that represents the highest possibility of freedom and development for ourselves.
This is the road that leads towards enlightenment! All the major spiritual paths emphasise how enlightenment can only ever happen right now, can only be a here and now process.
Ken Wilber has clarified how the realisation of our potential has two dimensions of development that have to go hand in hand supporting each other – one is moving ever more closely into the here and now i.e. “waking up”. The other is maturing and integrating our split selves, over time, i.e. “growing up”. I like his “integral philosophy” because it does try to be as inclusive as possible, acknowledging, crediting and including as many perspectives as possible.
Maturing / growing up – is about integrating our head, heart and body, reconciling the compensatory conflictual structures underlying our habitual way of being through understanding ourselves, facing our fears, our hurts etc. and taking responsibility for ourselves in terms of owning and facing more of the reality of how we are. This is about knowing what motivates us to be the way we are and how trauma in its widest sense is the force behind these driven parts of ourselves.
As an experiment try simply standing still in a busy street and observe yourself and the world around you. We can be caught by the outside world, by sexual attraction, judgements, aversions, envy, etc., or by our inside reactions of sadness, anger, boredom, impatience, happiness, shame, etc. Or we can move into being more fully open, aware of ourselves and all our reactions, sensitive and attentive to seeing and being with ourselves (including awareness of our body) in this extraordinary world at this extraordinary moment. Sensing how our consciousness is this very special ingredient at this moment.
So … from thinking that “mindfulness” might be a little technique to help us live with less stress – it can open the door to a radical change of perspective that invites a lifelong commitment to self-exploration. It can be a way of living.
Our intention has to come from ourselves, from our real interest, not from any “shoulds or oughts” – it has to be about our wish, our curiosity, our intuitive sense that greater freedom is possible and something that we want for ourselves. This is what self-responsibility is ultimately about.