Jan 13, 2016

Do we really need more guides to mindfulness?

Oliver Burkeman
The Guardian
January 9, 2016

 Ruby Wax A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled was released this week.
I have a personal theory that almost everyone secretly meditates, whether they realise it or not – even the kind of people who’d make extravagant “I’m being sick” gestures were you to suggest they attend a Buddhist retreat. Scratch the surface and you’ll find that almost everyone pursues some activity demanding absolute presence of mind: if not mountain climbing or sailing or bike racing (where a lapse of attention might mean death), then photography or singing or recreational cookery (where a lapse of attention means you’ll screw things up). Train spotting and caring for a newborn arguably occupy different ends of the scale of worthwhile pursuits – but they’re both incompatible with getting totally lost in thoughts of the past or future. Deep down, we know that we need this kind of present-moment focus, so we find ways to make it happen. But neither the need, nor our ways of fulfilling it, are anything new. So what to make of the fact that 2016 will see the publication of approximately three gazillion more books on How To Be Mindful?

The mania is already intense, of course: if anything, 2015 was the year not of mindfulness but of mindfulness debunkings. “I am being stalked by meditation evangelists,” wrote Adam Grantin the New York Times in October. “They approach with the fervour of a football fan … ‘Which method of meditation do you use?’ I admit that I don’t meditate, and they are incredulous. It’s as if I’ve just announced that the earth is flat. ‘How could you not meditate?!’” Most of the proven benefits of meditation, he rightly noted, can be gained in other ways. But unfortunately for Grant, I suspect the stalking’s only going to get worse. The coming year’s new titles, or new paperback editions, include books on mindfulness for women, for mums, for kids, and for bros (“manly mindfulness”, though I think that one’s a joke); on using mindfulness to enhance your fertility, rewire your brain for leadership or improve your athletic performance; and on paths to mindfulness through poetry, looking at paintings, or completing dot-to-dot puzzles, as well as the inevitable mindfulnesscolouring books for adults. The first book from Penguin’s new healthy living imprint, Penguin Life, was released this week: it is A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled, by Ruby Wax.

You’d be forgiven, amid this deluge, for having forgotten – or maybe never having quite grasped in the first place – what mindfulness actually is. Often, the word just functions as a non-religious, de-hippified synonym for formal meditation practice, which most commonly involves sitting quietly and following the breath. But it’s perhaps most usefully understood not as a practice but a state: a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience, conducted in a non-judgmental spirit, and without undue focus on the achievement of any particular goal. We could get sucked into some philosophical quicksand here: after all, is it really possible to be aware of anythingexcept your present conscious experience? Still, most of us intuitively grasp the difference between being distracted, or daydreaming of being somewhere else, and the feeling of full, multisensory engagement in the moment, in which thoughts, whether positive or negative, are seen as passing weather. And for all the debunking, there’s now plenty of evidence that cultivating this state is associated with lower anxiety and depression, and improved physical health.

The problem – or one of them, anyway – is that it’s clearly much too easy for this good and useful mindset to be co-opted for dubious ends, such as passivity and resignation, or distracting people from things they ought to be upset about. (From the brilliant Ladybird Book of Mindfulness, part of the new satirical series aimed at nostalgic grown-ups: “Mindfulness has taught Leanne to accept things as they are: rubbish, expensive, unfair and out-of-date every six months.”) Or, alternatively, self-absorption. (“Clive likes to practise loving-kindness meditation … Clive finds this easier than bothering to meet his friends or lending them money.”) In fact, as the psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach points out, the “radical acceptance” of mindfulness needn’t entail resignation or narcissism; on the contrary, it embodies a refusal to dwell in comforting illusions, and may thus be an essential precondition for positive change.

A different sort of problem, with too many books on mindfulness, is the implication that it’s something sacred and special – to be practised, if not on mountaintops, then at least by retiring to your room with a colouring book or relaxation tape. This implies that it’s necessarily in conflict with a busy existence – so it’s a relief to discover Rohan Gunatillake’s new book on “redesigning mindfulness”, This Is Happening, published next week by Bluebird. The notion that you must “find time” to meditate is built on a dodgy premise, Gunatillake writes. Instead, we can “use any activity we happen to be engaged in as the basis for our development of awareness, calm or kindness”. Try focusing on the physical sensations in your hands, or any other body part, while riding the bus or shopping for dinner, and you’re “doing mindfulness” no less authentically than you would on a Himalayan retreat. And we should reject the “digital dualism” that insists tranquillity can only be found by switching off smartphones and the internet, he insists. If our lives are truly to become more mindful, we’ll have to start with our real, technology-entangled lives, as they are – not just the tiny oases of calm we occasionally mange to cram in.

The appeal of colouring books is the promise of escapism – the precise opposite of mindfulness. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt for the Guardian

This helps explain what really grates about all those “mindful” colouring and puzzle books: for most people, surely, their appeal lies in the promise of escapism – which may be entirely defensible, but which is also the precise opposite of mindfulness. You certainly could approach colouring mindfully: focusing alertly on the subtleties of different hues, feeling the pressure of your finger on the pen, or the play of air as your hand moves through space, not racing to reach the state of completion. But that’s the whole point: in principle, you could approach anything mindfully – so you needn’t buy a colouring book. (One well-known exercise, promoted by the mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn, involves meditatively contemplating a single raisin. You probably already have a raisin.) It’s similarly unclear how “poetry for mindfulness” is to be meaningfully distinguished from “poetry” – or why any artistic activity or sport or puzzle isn’t exactly as much of a mindfulness tool as you choose to make it.

Contrary to the debunkers, the point certainly isn’t that mindfulness is rubbish. It’s that it’s so non-rubbish – so much a crucial foundation of a fulfilling life – that you shouldn’t relegate it to the status of a minor hobby, something to be done with your downtime. And that you might already be doing it.

Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinkingis published by Canongate.

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