Mindfulness - the art of the two winged bird
Mindfulness has now been mainstream for some time. In 1979 a medical doctor in Massachusetts called Jon Kabat Zinn, formed a stress reduction clinic, based on Buddhist principles of awareness, wisdom and self-compassion. This clinic was offered to those patients who had come to the end of the road in their treatment, no one else could help them and several were terminally ill.
Over the years that followed the format was honed into what is now known as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction or MBSR. Then, with the addition of therapists and psychologists from the world of cognitive therapy, another form evolved to help those specifically with depression and low mood in the form of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). These approaches are now considered so effective they form the core of dealing with non-medicated treatment of depression and anxiety within the NHS and in private practice.
Well, this is all very well I hear you say but why the history lecture? Well, many people have seen the term mindfulness and possibly read an article or even attended a course but few realise its true impact on so many areas of our lives.
When one practices mindfulness, formally in meditation or informally, say by just paying attention to our bodies whilst sitting in traffic, we bring a conscious awareness to ourselves and our situations, something that is rapidly decreasing in the 21st century. By design or default, we live in a constant ‘on’ state, with few natural moments of pausing and simply paying attention to our frazzled minds and exhausted bodies.
In mindfulness, this is referred to as ‘the doing mode of being’. Always on, always planning, always ‘doing’ something and this may not be through our conscious choice. Psychologists have pointed out a string of influencing factors; shorter ‘frame’ clips in films and TV (especially with children) consumer ‘immediacy’ e.g. online shopping, external Wi-Fi and reduced time in nature, all influence shorter attention spans. So too with contactless payment, online gambling and constant mobile and social media access and updates, it is basically hard to pause... unless we train ourselves to make that choice.
This is where the first wing of mindfulness comes in, wisdom.
When we take a pause, we begin to notice things about our minds and our bodies that we may not have noticed before (or chose to ignore). We may notice how much ‘chatter’ is going on in our minds, how restless our bodies are becoming, now we’ve come to rest or how judgmental our thinking is, simply for stopping! And if this wasn’t frustrating enough the immediate expectancy of modern life is that ‘something’ is going to happen now!
A good analogy is to visualise a snow scene paper weight, the ones you shake to see snow fall. Being in ‘doing’ mode all the time is a bit like constantly shaking the snow scene and expecting to see the image clearly. At some point you have to put it down and allow the snow to settle at its own pace, then the scene appears. Here we will experience the ‘being’ mode. You need wisdom to do this.
In developing wisdom, we become more aware of how we are treating ourselves as well as others. We may begin to notice our harsh inner critic, the ‘shoulds’ ‘oughts’ and ‘have to’s’ in our lives. In doing so, the second wing of mindfulness appears, compassion.
With compassion, we begin to know ourselves more fully and in doing so, know others better too.
In Western culture, it can be seen as a sign of weakness to show compassion, either for ourselves or others. If we are kind and give to ourselves, it can be perceived as selfish. If we offer compassion to others it can be interpreted as weak and soft. This is wrong on both accounts.
There is an old proverb ‘One cannot pour from an empty pot’. Unless we do take time for ourselves, recognise when we are suffering, we will be trying to pour from an empty pot. In modern life, this manifests itself on the surface as anger, rage, fear or sickness or in more extreme cases as breakdowns, depression and substance abuse.
Without developing wisdom, a compassionate person can appear as a good hearted fool.
Without developing compassion a wise person can appear distant, result focused and cold.
In mindfulness, both wings are needed in order to enjoy our journey, soar high and see clearly.
With warm wishes.