The many routes to mindfulness

Image credit: Ryan Harvey flickr

Mindfulness is a cultivated, conscious awareness of one's present situation – both inside and out. In our busy, stressful lives, lived in an increasingly uncertain world, it is all too easy to lose touch with how our bodies feel, and to get ensnared by our worries. Mindfulness helps us take a step back, and notice how our thinking affects both what we feel and how we behave. A wealth of clinical research has demonstrated that mindfulness of this kind can combat a range of mild to moderate mental health issues – including depression, stress, and anxiety. Introduced to Western clinical contexts by John Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts, mindfulness draws heavily on Vipassana, a Buddhist meditative technique. Other practices recommended to promote mindfulness – such as Yoga or Tai Chi – also have their roots in the rich philosophical and religious heritage of South and Eastern Asia. This is a heritage that is unfortunately ignored by certain European practitioners, creating a sterile, decontextualised 'McMindfulness', ready for commercial consumption.

While the mindfulness practices of Asiatic culture are very popular and very effective, some of the mindfulness practices of European societies are less well-known. This is a pity because the meditative techniques of Buddhism and Chinese Tradition Religions aren’t right for everyone. Some can, for example, find the practice of focusing the attention on the breathing rather boring. I myself struggle with yoga, as my lack of balance makes the advanced poses difficult! If this is true for you, then one of the Western approaches to mindfulness may well be better suited to your needs.

There is a long and profound tradition of contemplative prayer within Christianity – like Vipassana, Christian prayer seeks to concentrate the mind in service of greater understanding. But there are a great many other methods of mindfulness that lie outside of formal religion: the classical Stoics used rational contemplation to focus the mind, in a way not dissimilar from the Buddhist practice. Modern philosophers are not so far from their Stoic forebears either. As popularised recently by Federic Gros, walking into a meditative, reflective state plays a key role in the method of many Western philosophers, such as Thoreau, Nietzsche, and Kant, and has a long history as a spiritual practice. This is a history that sees current manifestation in the life-enhancing work of the British Pilgrimage Trust.

Another technique is that of Visualisation. Central within Western Esotericism, the use of the imagination to remember previous experiences, or construct entirely new ones, can have a profound effect upon one’s mental health, directing the attention away from troubling thoughts and unhelpful habits, towards more life-enhancing alternatives. Indeed, this is so effective that similar techniques are routinely used in clinical psychiatry. The practice helps to calm the mind and centre the attention, especially in stressful situations such as a political protest.

Regardless of whether you are manning the barricades or braving the rigors of tripos, practicing grounding – or any mindfulness technique – may be a great help to your overall wellbeing.

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