by Madeleine Bunting The Guardian, 6 May 2014
This increasingly popular tool for calming the mind, once seen as a New Age fad, could play a role in hospitals and schools.
Mindfulness is selling millions of books and apps, it appears on the front cover of Time magazine, pops up in the Financial Times and is used by all kinds of people from corporate executives and nurses to sportsmen and primary school children. Once a poorly understood New Age fad, it has moved from the margins to the mainstream. Nothing demonstrates that better than the launch of an all-party parliamentary group on mindfulness on Wednesday.
At this point I will come clean. I am one of a group of people working with three universities (Oxford, Exeter and Bangor) to support the all-party group. What interests us – academics, journalists, mindfulness teachers – is the potential for public policy. What role could mindfulness play in schools, in the NHS or in the criminal justice system?
But let’s start with definitions, which are notoriously difficult with this phenomenon. What exactly is mindfulness? Because it has precious little to do with the pretty women sitting on beaches with their eyes closed who are usually used to illustrate articles on the subject. The only way to explain is to suggest you try. Right now. Close your eyes and bring your attention into your body, to the sensation of your feet on the ground; the movements of your breath, the expansion of your rib cage. Stay with these tiny physical sensations. Patiently. Without getting cross with yourself for getting distracted. Try it for two minutes.
Unfamiliar? It is, because our minds spin with thought, and we are absent to much of our physical experience. But bringing the attention back to the most basic and essential part of living – the breath – we can slowly bring an awareness of the obsessive thought patterns and the instant reactions which on reflection we so often realise were unhelpful or even destructive.
Mindfulness is both astonishingly simple and, for most of us who live in our heads, very difficult. It is also immensely rewarding, as plenty of people are discovering. I would argue that it is probably the most important life skill I am learning (after 15 years of practice, I am acutely aware that there is always more to learn). It is up there with reading, and probably in my old age with eyesight gone, it will prove more valuable to me than books.
The interesting thing about mindfulness is that it would probably have stayed on the margins – a passion for only a few – if it hadn’t been taken up by scientists as a subject for research 40 years ago. It started (read more) …