TA Barnhart
a progressive voice from the Pacific Northwest
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any mindfulness will do

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Mindfulness is a great thing, but you have to find the right mindfulness. These days, there are two kinds of mindfulness being taught, but only one is, in my opinion, the right mindfulness.

(To steal a phrase from the Buddha, and that’s the lamest dharma joke ever, by the way.)

One variety is what I’d call “corporate casual” mindfulness. (I almost went with “business casual” but we can save that for wearing Dockers on Friday.) This is the version that is not concerned with the dharma – foundational Buddhist principles – but rather with helping people to handle the stress of their worklife better. You might call it calmness training or focus training.

Nothing wrong with that. If people in all walks of life – school, home, retail, corporate, sports, government – were able to handle stress better by applying some simple and effective mindfulness practices, then I think the world would be a much better place. I don’t know what is being taught by the myriad “mindfulness” trainers out there, but if they are helping people to let go of whatever stresser they are dealing with in that moment, then they are doing a good thing.

An incomplete thing, to my mind, but a good thing.

The other kind of mindfulness is a more complete practice, and it’s rooted in the teachings of the Buddha – the dharma. Jon Kabatt-Zinn brought dharma-based mindfulness theory and practice to mental health care decades ago and is the chief person responsible for the development of mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive training (MBSR and MBCT; he’s also Howard Zinn’s son-in-law, for what it’s worth). He and Mark Williams have brought nearly three thousand years of Buddhist learning and practice into the modern world of medicine, with results that match, at the very least, what pharmaceuticals have achieved.

There is, however, nothing religious in their work; Kabatt-Zinn has a Buddhist past, including monastery training, but he makes clear that his work is non-religious (he’s not a Buddhist either). “The Mindful Way Through Depression”, co-authored by Williams, Kabatt-Zinn and two others, is fully grounded in the dharma but you would never know that if you had no knowledge of Buddhism. There’s no teaching of the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path, but if you know what these phrases mean, you can recognize how they are foundational to dharma-based (or perhaps, dharma-inspired or dharma-influenced) mindfulness.

But so, too, is brain science. That’s the key to the work of Williams et al: unlike those working in corporate circles, etc, they are not “merely” teaching methods of dealing with stress, anxiety, etc. They are medical doctors, professionals running clinics to do research and treat patients dealing with the full range of mental health afflictions. They are combining the ancient and modern knowledges to help deal with depression, anxiety, stress, etc – and they are having excellent results.

When Kabatt-Zinn started the first MBSR clinic in Massachusetts in 1978, brain science didn’t really exist. Pharmaceuticals were in the process of taking over the mental health field. The development of tools that could investigate the human brain as it functioned came along later, and the remarkable thing is that science began proving that mindfulness, while not a panacea, was tackling the problems of mental health care in almost exactly the right way.

In other words, the Buddha sitting under his tree all those centuries ago was not only the first brain scientist; his conclusions were right. The brain functions more-or-less as the Buddha taught it did.

Notwithstanding all the religious stuff that came later.

Personally, I’m witnessing how mindfulness training helps. I’m following an eight-week course developed by Williams and Danny Penman (and following in the work pioneered by Kabatt-Zinn and colleagues). The program begins with simple, short meditations and gradually works into “deeper”, more intensive meditations that explore the body and the mind (because, of course, the mind/brain is a part of the body, something we forget at our health’s peril). For me, this is working, slowly but surely (and given that my mental health today is the result of sixty-plus years of experience, a slow recovery is something I’ve accepted as inevitable and necessary).

But if your needs are not as desperate as mine – your life is more stable, your mental health relatively good, but you could use some help coping with the normal stress and anxiety – then even a short mindfulness course might suffice. Learning to meditate in some way can benefit almost everyone. One of the most useful tools Williams et al have developed is the “Three-Minute Breathing” exercise, and it is literally three minutes to examine your thoughts and emotions, then your breath, and then your whole body. Something this simple and short enables many people to “settle down” and move forward without the stress that blinds them to whatever the reality of their here-and-now is.

(For people with severe or chronic mental health issues, simply picking up a mindfulness book won’t be enough. As with any physical ailment, at some point you need the help of a trained medical professional. Not Amazon or Powell’s. Or me, for that matter. ✌️)

The basic need for mindfulness is simple: If we are absent from our life right here, right now, because we are distracted, stressed, depressed, whatever; if we are not aware and awake and present; we are not really alive. The reason meditation is a universal practice with roots in all religions is because long ago, humans came to understand the need to focus the mind on right-here and right-now.

Because anything else was a fiction and life wasn’t being lived. It was being endured.

T.A. Barnhart