The Modern Mindfulness Movement: a Talk by Alison Yiangou
I am going to talk about Mindfulness, and specifically what is called the Modern, (secular) Mindfulness Movement, flowing from the seminal work of Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s. I am going to say some things about what mindfulness is and isn’t, and then also try to place the arising and development of the Modern Mindfulness Movement in a larger context.
Why am I doing this?
Because I have been a student of the Beshara School for most of my adult life. This has been a great river in my life, and In the last few years this has been joined by another river, mindfulness. When two rivers join they become one. That is my experience of it and what I hope to convey to you.
Actually, you cannot really talk about mindfulness, because the arena of mindfulness is your own direct experience, not in conceptual thinking. So to begin, let’s just dip our toes into the water with a very short mindfulness practice.
[ Mindfulness Practice]
Mindfulness emerges from the great spiritual tradition of Buddhism and refers to awareness: moment by moment awareness of life unfolding just as it is, right here, right now, as you. Moment by moment awarenss is not specific to Buddhism: it is at the root of all the great spiritual traditions, perhaps known by different names. Here at the School, for example, right in the introductory lecture we encounter Bulent Rauf’s words:
‘The degree of evolution of a person is measurable only by the constancy of their awareness of reality.’
Mindfulness includes both the direct experience of moment by moment awareness, as well as a ‘tool box’ of meditative practices. The practices help us to stabilise and to cultivate the abiliity to pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, to whatever focus we are attending to, whether it is what we are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, feeling or knowing. But from the very beginning, it is important to know that it’s not the things we are attending to that are the most important. What is most important is awareness: the awareness that arises when we pay attention in this way; the awareness that feels and knows, without thinking, what is in our experience now. Just a little exercise…
For a couple of breaths, pay attention to breath’s movement in the body. Perhaps feeling the cool intake of air at the nostrils, the rising and falling of the chest with the inbreath and outbreath, the rising and falling to the belly.
How did you know you were breathing? Any answers?
This knowing, this awareness is direct and non-conceptual. It is not something we do, or can achieve, it is something we already are. It is the domain of Being, not doing. Why? because at its root this awareness is intrinsic to Being Itself, ever awake, ever aware, and present right here, right now, as ourselves. It is what is present, and to be found, ‘at the root of the root of our own selves’ as Rumi says, and this is universally true for all human beings, regardelss of age, race, religion or culture. Any mindfulness practice is simply a door into the same room – the room of what we already are.
Before we go on, please check in with your own response to the word ‘mindfulness’, the associations it brings up for you. It is so easy in English to associate ‘mind’ with thinking, but as we have seen, mindfulness is not thought. It’s different in eastern langauges because in most, the word for heart is the same as the word for mind. In Mindfulness, heart and mind are inseparable. Mindfulness is inseparable from Love, because the consciousness that Being has of and for Itself is intrinsically compassionate, intrinsically loving. Please bear this in heart and mind as we go on!
Here are a few contemporary ‘definitions’ of Mindfulness
Knowing what is happening, while it is happening, without preference.
Paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally, to things as they are, and as if our life depended on it.
The awareness that arises when we pay attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally, to things as they are, and as if our life depended on it.
Inhabiting the present moment with awareness, equanimity, clarity and caring.
A radical act of love.
In the Modern Mindfulness Movement – or Mindfulness Based Approaches – this invitation to constancy of awareness of reality is presented in completely secular form. Secular doesn’t just mean the opposite of ‘sacred’ or of ‘spiritual’. ‘Secular’ oringinally means ‘of the time’, ‘of its own time’, what is of ‘now’. Mindfulness is not concerned with an imaginary boundary between what is spiritual and what isn’t. I personally like this very much, because if ‘we are committed to seeing God’s vision of Himself’, as stated in the Introudctory lecture to this course, then that vision is unified, all-inclusive and admits no boundaries.
Mindfulness courses are open to everyone, whatever their background. They do not require people to have any conscious motivation towards self knowledge, or spiritual seeking. Indeed many come to it in order to relieve unbearable suffering, as we shall see. This was perhaps the key insight given to Jon Kabat-Zinn. He saw the possibility of taking mindfulness practices out of an overtly spiritual context, like a Buddhist centre, and into everyday life. Why not try to make meditation so commonsensical that anyone would be drawn to it? Why not develop an American vocabulary that spoke to the heart of the matter, and didn’t focus on the cultural aspects of the traditions out of which the dharma emerged, however beautiful they might be……. We will return to this later. The approach is much more empirical: just do it, totally, sincerely and with all of yourself, and discover what you discover. Dive into the ocean of awareness, to whatever depth suits you.
What is a mindfulness course?
A mindfulness course usually extends over 8 weeks. There are times of gathering together in a group, interspersed with daily practice alone. The group gathers one evening a week, or 3 weekends spanning 8 weeks, and introduces you to mindfulness and the pratices, and you inqiure together into what arises whilst doing the practices. The daily practice is a guided meditation – continuing the practices that have been introduced in the group – undertaken every day, with intention, at home, or wherever you happen to be.
This dynamic of group work and home practice is very fruitful. It is said that 90% of the effect of a mindfulness course comes from your own daily practice, from your own experience resulting from the practices.
The group inquiry then gives the opportunity to reflect upon and deepen your own experience, and also to see and to benefit from other people’s experience. Perhaps the main benefit is in coming to realise that things we thought were our problem, unique to us, turn out to be experienced by many, if not all, others. So you begin to see that mind patterns are part and parcel of the human condition, rather than an affirmation of your own separate existence! This can be life-changing.
And why 8 weeks?
Because extensive research undertaken by Kabat-Zinn and many others has shown that as little as 8 weeks intentional daily practice results in significant changes: not only experientially, but also in the structure and function of the brain and nervous system. More of this later.
What does mindfulness training consist of?
It consists of a systematic training in paying attention, on purpose, non-judgementally, in the presnt moment, to things as they are. You are introduced to guided meditations which systematically work with different foci of attention – the breath; the body at rest and in movement, sounds, emotions and thoughts, bringing your full attention to what is actually happening now, and not how we would prefer things to be. [example of toe in body scan]
Most importantly of all, you practise bringing mindfulness into everyday life – starting with a routine activity, such teeth brushing or washing up, and gradually expanding into more and more areas.
For the real arena of mindfulness is life itself, not formal practice. And you also practice resting in awareness itself: not choosing an object to attend to, but instead allowing everything to be just as it is, right now. To witness, to welcome what is actually happening right now, without distraction, grasping or rejection.
As we have seen, what is important is the embodied awareness which comes to the surface as a result of this particular way of paying attention. Because most of the time we are doing anything but paying attenton to the present moment, we are anything but truly aware. Our minds are occupied with, and distracted by, the past, the future, daydreams, fantasies, worries, regrets, judgements, emotions, whatever. We have only to sit down to meditate for a few minutes and our minds wander off somewhere, anywhere…
That in itself is not a problem, that is what minds do, and do very well. But instead of recognising thoughts – even the most damaging thoughts, – as passing events and letting them go, most of us, most of the time, cling onto them. Without even noticing that we are doing it, we can graft onto a passing thought a whole package of emotions, past associations, and bodily feelings. We relate to them as facts, not passing thoughts, and very often this can set up an almost automatic cascade of reactions. By doing this we give thoughts a degree of existence that does not belong to them, and by clinging to them we continually re-create our sense of ‘I’.
The Buddha summarised his whole teaching as, “Nothing is to be clung to as I, me or mine.”
In short, the distracted mind is anywhere but here, anywhere but now. How often have we drunk a cup of coffee, for example and not really tasted it? Walked somewhere and not even noticed what we passed? We are rarely fully awake to Life unfolding itself as me, right here, right now, in all its splendour. Whereas mindfulness is about being awake to the present moment, however that moment is unfolding. And given the hadith ‘Every moment He is in a different configuration’, NOW is the only moment we have. If we are not alive to NOW, are we ever truly alive?
Let’s now look at the way we pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally, to things as they are. This can sound rather cold. But as I said before, mindfulness is inseparable from heartfulness: from love, kindness and compassion, because awareness belongs to Being itself, ever awake, ever aware, intrinsically loving.
Kabat-Zinn speaks of this paying attention as like a mother holding her child – loving, kind and accepting of whatever condition the child is in. Awareness can hold anything: joyful and painful; easy and difficult; the things we would prefer to push away and the things we would prefer to cling onto; trivial and momentous; personal and global. When a mother holds a child in pain, the very act of holding the child with complete kindness is comforting, even healing. So too with mindfulness. Whatever arises, especially the difficult, is welcomed as much as possible; is held close in awareness without probing, rejecting, or wanting it to be different, and when this happens then even the most difficult things can gradually start to soften and dissolve of their own accord in the light of open-hearted awareness.
That has to be experienced to be believed, and many thousands of people all over the world, including myself, have experienced it.
In mindfulness this way of paying attention is described by 7 ‘attitudinal foundations’.
They look uncannily like the qualities of a spiritual way – perhaps not word for word, but certainly in intent and tone.
We may remember the Five Qualities of the Way seen by Ibn ‘Arabi’s saintly wife Maryam in a dream. But in this case it is without any suggestion that a spritual way is what is being undertaken. They describe in some detail the way awareness can hold the present moment.
I think many of us find that when we begin to pay attention, our attitudes are actually rather far from those listed. We have judgments about just about everything and everyone; we want things to happen in the time we think is right; we are full of knowing; we don’t actually trust that reality will unfold perfectly well without me trying to make something happen; we strive to do, to achieve; we have very strong views about whether what is happening is good or bad and we usually try to avoid what we think is bad; and we can carry one moment not only to into the next, but sometimes into days, weeks, months, years.
These attitudes are foundations because they actually belong to awareness itself, but we can also intentionally cultivate them, be mindful of them, as the way we pay attention.
Intention, attitude and awareness go together; deepening in any one, leads to deepening in the others. The more we bring these attitudes intentionally to our experience, the more our intrinsic awareness rises to the suface. The more we sink into the awareness we already are, the more these attitudes rise to the surface.
I wish we had time to talk about each of these, in detail, but we don’t. So I’ll just mention one:
This is the mind that is willing to encounter everything as if for the first time. Or as Suzuki Roshi says, the mind that is open to thousands of possibilities, whereas in the expert’s mind there are few. In its highest form this is the quality of being ‘ummi’, attributed to the Prophet. Although commonly translated as ‘illiterate’, this word actually derives from the same root as the word for mother (’mm, umm) and comes to mean ‘he who is as when his mother gave birth to him’. In other words, that condition of naked receptivity which receives the moment exactly as it is, uncoloured by our own conditioning, knowledge or preference.
I now want to look at the Modern Mindfulness Movement as a phenomenon of this time. It begins, as we said, with the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. A deeply commited practising Buddhist and trained as a molecular biologist, in the mid-1970s he was working at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre and was also profoundly questioning what his ‘karmic assignment’ might be. In other words, ‘what is my real purpose here? ‘How can I best be of service?’
I find his own acount of what happened so fascinating that I have left some copies for you to read if you want. In short, during the course of a long meditation retreat, he experienced ‘‘a ‘vision’ that lasted maybe 10 seconds. I don’t really know what to call it, so I call it a vision. It was rich in detail and more like an instantaneous seeing of vivid, almost inevitable connections and their implications. It did not come as a reverie or a thought stream, but rather something quite different, which to this day I cannot fully explain and don’t feel the need to.”
This is a moment of instantaneous seeing, of kashf, when he saw clearly the possibility of taking the meditative practices out of their ‘spiritual’ context and making them available to anyone and everyone, in a secular vocabulary. He put himself wholeheartedly into what he had been shown, and the extraordinary things is that everything he saw in that 10 seconds has indeed come to pass.
He started working in the hospital with people suffering from incurable pain, offering not to cure their pain, but to change their relationship to it by introducing them to mindfulness practices.
He knew these practices were drawn from Buddhism; they didn’t know, and didn’t need to. They just had to commit to doing the practices for a period of 8 weeks. The results were spectacular and humbling. Not only did the patients change their relationship to their pain, they found something that changed their lives. His approach, known as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, MBSR, has since ‘gone viral’ and is in use throughout the world.
In this country Professor Mark Williams and his colleagues have developed a variant of MBSR known as MBCT, Mindfulness Based Cogntivie Therapy. Now widely available to everyone, this was first developed in a clinical setting as a treatment for recurrent depression. It has proved to be more successful in preventing relapse than drug therapy and so is availbale on the NHS for clinical patients. Even 10 years ago who would have thought that a course based on meditation would be available on the NHS? Mindfulness based approaches have been successfully integrated into medicine, psychology, neuroscience, healthcare, education, parenting, childbirth, business leadership, stress management and many other fields.
People everywhere want it – it is meeting a real need and receptivity of our time.
Another characteristic of the Modern Mindfulness Movement is that it is bringing together two different ways of knowing: that of western empirical science, and that of the empiricism of the meditative or consciousness disciplines. And it is bringing these together without the thorny, and usually fruitless, arguments about science and religion.
A growing body of work within neuroscience, particularly using MRI imaging, is showing how mindfulness training results in changes to the brain, both in its structure and in the way it functions. For example the hippocampus, which plays an important role in learning and memory, gets thicker. The right amygdala, which regulates fear-based reactions, gets thinner. There is a measurable effect on the heart and the digestive system via the vagus nerve which connects the brain to major internal organs. Different brain networks are activated when we continue to tell ourselves the story of our own separate existence – a process known as ‘selfing’ – to when we experience moment-by-moment awareness. We humans put so much time and energy into creating a false sense of selfhood – it turns out we even recruit different brain networks to do it!
This coming together of what we might call the inner and the outer sciences has to be one of the hallmarks of our time: a time which begins to recognize the unity of the One, not only interiorly, but also exteriorly.
Mark Williams comments:
“The world can only benefit from such a convergence and intermixing of streams, as long as the highest standards of rigor and empiricism native to each stream are respected and followed. The promise of deepened insights and novel approaches to theoretical and practical issues is great when different lenses can be held up to old and intractable issues.”
And the future?
Just as any individual may progress towards greater realization of their original purpose, so the same is true for humankind as a collective. The Fusus, for example, deals with both individual realization and the progress of humankind towards perfectibility, because both an individual human and the collective humanity are images of the One Single Nafs. And the movement of existence is towards ever greater, ever more universal realization of that. Now there is the possibility for any of us, whatever our belief and whether we consider ourselves spiritual or not, to return to awareness of the pure, compassionate being who is present as ourselves, and who loves to be known by and through us.
I’d like to end with something Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote recently:
“The author sees the current interest in mindfulness and its applications as signaling a multi-dimensional emergence of great transformative and liberative promise, one which, if cared for and tended, may give rise to a flourishing on this planet akin to a second, and this time global, Renaissance, for the benefit of all sentient beings and our world.”
May it be so.