As someone who used to go to weekly yoga sessions and has dabbled in meditation, I have an open mind to mindfulness. Acting as a secular version of meditation, it has spread to schools and universities and has become increasingly popular, with a page about mindfulness on the NHS under the ‘Stress, Anxiety and Depression’ section and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) as a treatment for depression and anxiety. There is evidence that mindfulness reduces stress and improves moods, furthered by an ongoing study by the University of Cambridge to see how mindfulness affects students’ mental health, grades and even their immune systems. However, mindfulness has had mixed reviews since its rise to fame, the latest of which may be the most damaging to its reputation, and to us, yet.
Mindfulness is the practice of focusing on the present, allowing your mind to quieten so peripheral thoughts can enter, and being in touch with your body and senses. Often introductory classes get the participants to eat something slowly, focusing on every taste, texture and emotional response. What is more, mindfulness can be practiced anywhere, it is cheap and does not require you to believe in anything that you do not already. As our lives are continuously saturated with information from our phones, computers and TVs, mindfulness has become an oasis for our ever-working brains. It is a way to relax and be kind to yourself.
However, stories of people who have tried this ‘fad’ and come out the other end feeling worse are highlighting the side effects of mindfulness. One person wrote an article for The Guardian about other people’s bad experiences with the practice, saying there are many internet forums where people share their worries after experiencing things like panic attacks and hearing voices during sessions. This may be because of past trauma, or being in stressful situations. It may also be due to a lack of studies on the side effects of mindfulness and the limited number of teachers who know what to do when something does happen. In an analogy to exercise, the article says you need a good teacher to prevent such effects from happening, just as you need a good trainer to prevent injury. This, I believe, is a smart way of looking at it. If mindfulness is supposed to be helpful and not be detrimental to mental health, it must be thought of in the same way as exercising any other part of the body; you need to take care when exercising it and ideally have someone at hand who knows what to do if you injure yourself.
Some businesses such as Google and Ikea have added mindfulness to their ‘employee package’, claiming that it increases productivity and happiness among their employees. Furthermore, in recent years it has evolved into a product to buy and sell, with classes, books and guided CDs readily available for everyone. So are businesses using mindfulness sessions just to get around the problem of overworked employees? Some people have described mindfulness as a way to solve a problem (helping stressed workers and students) whilst actually covering up the roots of the problem which lie in the institutions themselves.
With all these negative factors, you may be discouraged from trying it. But I think we should look at mindfulness’s goal: what are we aiming for when we choose this practice? Simply, it is to become more relaxed, less stressed, and to be happier. But can we really do this in a world that is ceaselessly sharing information, working too hard and ignoring the major problems we face today? Maybe mindfulness can help us. Or maybe simply finding other ways to relax is the way forward: writing, reading, walking, knitting, baking or laughing. Either way, next time you find yourself alone for a time, whether you are waiting for an appointment, you are early for a train, or getting home from a lecture, do not take out your phone straight away or fill your head with whatever is in front of you. Just stop. And listen. Pay attention to your surroundings, how your body feels, how you feel. Be still, be mindful. Maybe it will change your life.
Image: Flickr: [jjj_ssv]