Mindfulness has huge health potential – but McMindfulness is no panacea
Original article: Jon Kabat-Zinn, TheGuardian.com)
Mindfulness is rapidly becoming a global phenomenon, supported by increasingly rigorous scientific research, and driven in part by a longing for new practices that might help us to better apprehend and solve the challenges that threaten our health.
This week a landmark British report will lay out recommendations for the provision of mindfulness across many public policy areas. Mindful Nation UK, based on evidence presented to an all-party group of the UK parliament, carries enormous promise for health policy in Britain and the wider world.
The World Health Organisation has warned that mental ill-health will be thebiggest burden of disease in developed countries by 2030. We urgently need new approaches to tackling this epidemic, and crucially more research to determine the efficacy of mindfulness as a prevention strategy. Already, mindfulness training has been shown to reduce the risk of relapse of recurrent depression by one third. A recent meta-analysis of 209 studies concluded that mindfulness-based interventions showed “large and clinically significant effects” in treating anxiety and depression – effects, crucially, that were maintained through follow-up. These are promising findings for a condition for which there are still only limited treatments. The need to both deepen our understanding of how mindfulness might effect these positive outcomes, as well as to learn how it might help other conditions is expressed by a call for more investment in high calibre research.
Mindfulness is often misunderstood – so let us be clear about what we are encouraging.
In essence, mindfulness – being about attention, awareness, relationality, and caring – is a universal human capacity akin to our capacity for language acquisition. It is a way of being in wise and purposeful relationship with one’s experience, both inwardly and outwardly, with oneself and with others. Thus there is an intrinsic social dimension to its cultivation as well. It usually involves cultivating familiarity and intimacy with aspects of everyday experience that we often take for granted.
These include our experience of the present moment, our own bodies, our thoughts and emotions, and above all, our tacit and constraining assumptions and our highly conditioned habits of mind and behaviour, both as individuals and in society at large.
While the most systematic and comprehensive articulation of mindfulness stems from the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness is not a catechism, an ideology, a belief system, a technique or set of techniques, a religion, or a philosophy. It is best described as “a way of being”. There are many different ways to cultivate it wisely and effectively through practice. Basically when we are talking about mindfulness, we are talking about awareness – pure awareness. It is an innate human capacity that is different from thinking but wholly complementary to it.
It is also “bigger” than thinking, because any thought can be held in awareness, and thus looked at, known, and understood. Awareness in its purest form thus has the potential to add value and new degrees of freedom to living life fully and wisely and thus, to making wiser and healthier, more compassionate and altruistic choices.
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