Mindfulness is huge at the moment. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have completed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme of Jon Kabat-Zinn. Counsellors and therapists train in mindfulness techniques in order to offer them to their clients. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends mindfulness therapies for depression. And the amount of research on mindfulness as a treatment for stress, pain, anxiety, depression, and a range of other health and emotional difficulties, has increased exponentially in the past two decades. The word ‘mindfulness’ brings up around 4000 hits on Amazon because self-help books, CDs and DVDs on the topic have also proliferated in recent years.
Meditation: A central focus?
Central to most therapies, programmes and books on mindfulness is meditation. Generally this takes the form of sitting quietly and focusing your attention on your breath. When your attention wanders (to a thought, feeling, or sensation, for example), you bring it back to your breathing. Through such meditation it is said to be possible to notice the kinds of habits that you often get stuck in, such as identifying with a pain that you feel, or telling a story about why you are feeling angry or sad. The practice of bringing your awareness back to the here-and-now of breathing in and out can shift such habits. Such meditation can also expand our attention so that we notice everything that is going on in and around us (rather than focusing on one thought, memory, or sound), and we may also see that everything is impermanent (the thing that was niggling us when we started meditating has gone by the end).
However, the focus on meditation in mindfulness approaches has recently come under criticism. Wakoh Shannon Hickey points out that the Buddhist traditions which mindfulness was drawn from only advocated meditation for monks and nuns, not for lay people, and also that it was generally a practice which was located in a community for ethical purposes, not something that people did by themselves to make them feel better. She, like many Buddhist scholars, questions the cherry-picking approach to ancient traditions, locating it in the history of colonialism. In addition to such criticisms, some of the main leaders to bring their ideas to western audiences have emphasised aspects other than mindful meditation. For example Hickey writes that the Dalai Lama advocates other forms of meditation, or sound sleep, over mindfulness. And Thich Nhat Hanh writes a lot about community work and about practising mindfully in everyday life.
Make it the practice
It is this kind of everyday mindfulness which I have been thinking about a great deal as I write my own book on mindful counselling and psychotherapy. I felt that I should really commit to regular meditation if I was advocating it to other people, so I have been meditating for around ten minutes every night. Whilst there is a lot that I’ve found useful about this practice, for all the reasons mentioned, I’ve also noticed that it is easy to separate it off from the rest of my life: for meditation to be the only point in the day when I’m being attentive in that way.
I came up with a different approach when reading the work of Pema Chödrön. Whilst Thich Nhat Hanh mostly suggests cultivating mindfulness during fairly calm everyday activities like washing up or drinking tea, one of Chödrön’s main practices (Tonglen) takes almost the opposite approach. She uses the experiences that we find most difficult and troubling as the way in. Whilst this still takes the form of a kind of meditation, I wondered if we could apply that idea to everyday life as well. Instead of accepting that we will inevitably be least mindful in the most challenging parts of our lives, could we deliberately engage with those things mindfully? I wondered whether the slogan ‘make it the practice’ might be a useful response to such situations.
I was inspired in this idea by my sister. She was on a train recently and a guy had his music turned up so loudly that it was bothering her and other passengers. This was exactly the kind of situation which she usually hates, so she decided to engage with it in a different manner to usual: to confront the guy and to use it as an opportunity to observe herself in a conflict situation. There is no conventional happy ending to the story. The guy responded abusively and didn’t turn down his music. But my sister determined to remain sitting directly across from him as long as the music remained loud, and used it as an opportunity to notice what happened in herself and in the carriage around her. She was aware of her physical responses, and the stories she wanted to tell herself about what might happen or what other people were thinking of her. She was also able to notice the guy’s discomfort and the way her actions drew others in the carriage into a sense of solidarity with her.
I applied this idea to one of my own difficult situations. I have a dog who becomes aggressive around other dogs. I’ve tended to respond by taking her out at times of day when others aren’t likely to be around, or to places where I know there aren’t many other walkers. When we do meet another dog I get stressed out, embarrassed, and irritated with her. Applying this slogan ‘make it this practice’ I decided to try something different: to deliberately take her to places where there would be lots of other dogs. I realised that what I’d done before wasn’t very kind to myself or to her because it only made her more aggressive. Allowing the situation to unfold meant that I could become more aware of the stories that I was telling myself (‘they’ll think I’m bad’, ‘they’ll want me to go away’) and realise that I could remain in the situation even with those fears, and that they didn’t define the situation (many of the other dog-walkers empathise and offer suggestions). My levels of understanding of what was going on for my dog also increased as I observed the situation and the impact of my actions on her.
This brings us, finally, to the topic of driving. I’m not the world’s best driver. I don’t enjoy driving and I worry about bumping into someone or breaking down and not knowing what to do to fix it. If I’m with somebody else I’ll generally let them drive. If I get into a difficult situation, like finding myself in an unfamiliar city, I get panicky and drive worse.
In such a situation recently I was caught by a speed camera: a combination of driving in an unfamiliar place, feeling stressed, and not really knowing what the speed limit was on an A road in a built up area. Luckily I discovered that there is an alternative to paying a fine and having points on your license: you can go on a speed awareness course. This is run by a separate company to the police and isn’t assessed in any way. You just get a tick in the box for having attended and it doesn’t go any further.
So I signed up for one of these courses, glad not to have points on my license, but resenting the morning that it would take out of my life, and hoping that I might just be able to work on my phone at the back of the room with nobody noticing. Arriving at a suburban conference centre I was soon surrounded by a group of people who looked about as excited to be there as I was.
We were led into a classroom. Clearly everyone else, like me, was expecting a three hour lecture on how dangerous our behaviour had been, punctuated with the odd uncomfortable ice-breaker type activity. I think we were all pleasantly surprised when the trainers started by acknowledging that they knew that was what we’d be expecting, and committing to offering something rather different. They said that it was our choice how we drove, and that they were just there to offer us some ideas and information which we might find useful.
The first part of the course was certainly helpful as a refresher for a bunch of folk who mostly hadn’t thought about the highway code since we passed our driving tests. We were surprised to learn how to identify speed limits when we were unsure (by the presence or absence of streetlamps and central reservations) and the presentation style of showing us different kinds of roads and getting us to guess the limit actually made it entertaining. There was also a useful group exploration of the reasons we had for speeding (backed up by research in the area which fascinated me as a psychologist).
And this is where I began to make the connection to mindfulness. So much of what we described as the reasons why we had gone over the speed limit (lack of concentration, stress, distraction, ignorance, following what the other cars were doing, overestimating our control, distortion in perception when coming off a motorway) sounded familiar from both writing on mindfulness, and from the psychology of mindlessness which Ellen Langer has written about.
After this, the trainers took us through an alternative way of driving, which is what is taught to advanced drivers on the various free training courses which are offered by charities like RoSPA and IAM. The acronym is COAST (Concentration, Observation, and Anticipation, to create more Space and Time). Basically the idea is to drive in as attentive a way as possible, noticing your surroundings so you are able to bring your attention to any potential hazard and to raise your concentration level at the times when you need it. There is an openness to the whole of the situation (in a loop from far distance, to mid distance, to near distance, to mirrors, to what is going on in the car, and then back again). This combination of open, spacious awareness, on the one hand, and focused attention (on any possible hazard) on the other, sounded very similar to mindful meditation. Also when driving in this we are clearly attempting to be present – something which is often emphasised in mindfulness programmes. We are trying to remain in the here-and-now of what we are doing (driving) rather than drifting off to mull over the past or think about the future.
Interestingly, also, the concept of mindful driving (as I’m calling it) includes something which newer forms of mindful meditation are often criticised for missing out: a social and ethical component. Mindful driving can enable a better relationship with other road users (as we notice that person who wants to pull out and give ourselves the space and time to evaluate whether it’ll be more beneficial to slow down and wave them on or to get past them so that they can use the space behind us). Beyond this, as we were well aware on this particular course, mindful driving will reduce our risk of harming somebody else in this potentially fatal activity. This is something which we often try to avoid thinking about when we get in a car. Furthermore, if we have to drive, then mindful driving is the most eco-friendly way of doing it because smoothing out our driving by being aware of when we need to slow down and speed up, and being in the right gear, all helps fuel consumption.
There are good reasons why meditation has become a popular way of cultivating mindfulness in the west in recent years. In our busy, information-saturated, often overwhelming culture, we perhaps particularly require deliberate times to stop and be completely still, just noticing what is going on.
However, it is important to consider why meditation is given such an emphasis, and to be aware of some of the limitations of focusing purely on this, as if it is intrinsically valuable and nothing else can be.
The challenge to live more mindfully can be cultivated in many ways. Like Thich Nhat Hanh we can bring mindfulness to daily household activities, to feed it into the rest of our worlds rather than leaving it on the meditation cushion. And perhaps we can also keep hold of the slogan ‘make it the practice’ such that the things we find most difficult can become our ways into more mindful ways of being, rather than those being the things that we avoid or only do mindlessly. Frequently – as with driving – the benefit of engaging with such situations mindfully has implications far beyond our own personal well-being.