Is mindfulness for me?
It is hard to see the wood from the trees these days for the plethora of books, apps and media articles extolling the virtues of mindfulness. So prevalent is the subject that you could be forgiven for thinking you were failing if you hadn’t at least given it a go. Whilst I practice mindfulness and recommend it to clients whom I think might benefit from getting a bit more perspective about particular issues or need to manage stress levels I don’t do so in blind faith. If you are interested in the subject there is always merit in doing some reading around it before diving in.
Don’t get me wrong I’m delighted to see mindfulness being given a greater profile in our schools, gaining traction in sport and that organisations such as Google, IKEA and Apple to name but a few are offering courses to their employees to help manage stress and build resilience in the workplace. However it should not be used as a sticking plaster for bigger issues. In the workplace for example stress, anxiety and absenteeism are often symptoms of a bigger malaise if they are widespread, and no amount of mindfulness will compensate for poor management, unrealistic deadlines or inadequate communication with employees.
Much of the current argument for mindfulness is based on the premise that the way we live now is problematic, that for our well-being we need to withdraw, switch off or regularly engage in what’s termed a ‘digital detox’. Well yes, there is such a thing as too much but it is often easier said than done, in particular for younger generations who have known nothing else. There is a risk also if we are to buy this argument perhaps that mindfulness will always be destined for the sidelines amidst the detritus of all our other good intentions.
So Rohan Gunatillake's new book This is Happening feels like a breath of fresh air in the midst of all this preaching. Gunatillake is intent on making mindfulness fit for purpose in this ‘always on’ digital age. In what he describes as the next generation mindfulness book he aims to break down what he sees as the three main barriers to mindfulness becoming more mainstream – namely the time problem, the hippy problem and the digital problem. The solution he argues is not to switch off or withdraw necessarily, though if you can great, but rather bring more awareness (which is what mindfulness is all about anyway) to the simple day-to-day tasks of living. In other words to make the practice of mindfulness fit your lifestyle rather than the other way around. To this end he has developed the buddhify app designed to help you establish a mindfulness practice on the go (other apps are available by the way).
Anna Black’s book Mindfulness at Work is written in a similar vein. Acknowledging that switching off isn’t always an option for most of us, it is packed full of short and simple meditations to help deal with stress, manage relationships at work better and even be more mindful in meetings.
Another welcome addition to the canon of literature on the subject is Vidyamala Burch and Danny Penman’s book Mindfulness for Health. It is based on the programme Burch developed to cope with her own pain as a result of serious injury and is taught through her organisation Breathworks both in the UK and around the world. The book provides a down-to-earth introduction to mindfulness and how it can be used to relieve pain and the stress of illness. The chapters are set out in the familiar format of an eight week course and there is an accompanying CD. It is an accessible read with a good blend of theory, backed up with science and practical exercises requiring no more of a commitment than 20 minutes a day which should be doable for most.
Russ Harris has an interesting perspective in his book The Happiness Trap. Harris is an advocate for ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) rather than mindfulness per se but a mindfulness practice is part of his model. According to Harris the current preoccupation with finding happiness is not always helpful for people; in fact it has the potential to be quite damaging. Instead a more authentic and perhaps accepting perspective on life might be better, one that acknowledges that life has and always will have its difficulties. It is how we chose to address these that can make the difference to our quality of life.
Whilst there is clearly a growing body of evidence and research for the benefits of mindfulness, enter the NHS who are prescribing it now even in preference to the previous panacea CBT, there are notes of caution to be sounded. Despite how it might be positioned in the media mindfulness is no silver bullet. Farias and Wilkholm’s book The Buddha Pill addresses this and gives a balanced account of currently available evidence on the subject. This includes a chapter on what they describe as ‘the dark side of mindfulness’ which is worth a read. Complement this with Dawn Foster’s recent article in The Guardian on her experience and research and you have a more rounded perspective on whether it might be for you.
Suffice to say mindfulness has its merits but it is not for everyone, and other hobbies and interests are available from which we might derive just as beneficial results.
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