Somebody suggested to me recently that mindfulness was the flavour of the month. It’s true that references to mindfulness currently seem to be quite common. This isn’t just the case in the counselling environment – I hear it mentioned more in general conversation, it often gets referred to in the media, and there seem to be more mindfulness courses advertised these days.
But ‘flavour of the month’ doesn’t really capture it because it implies something that’s here today, gone tomorrow. In fact mindfulness, being akin to other activities that calmly focus on the here and now (such as meditation and yoga) has its roots in ancient eastern tradition. So what is its relevance and why does it now seem to be more visible and popular?
Inevitably this will have something to do with the increasing intensity of the lifestyles we experience today. It’s true that for many of us standards of living and life choices have improved (or at least increased) considerably over the years. But the pace of life hasn’t slowed. For some it has reached intolerable levels and can feel like being trapped in a lifestyle that is far from fulfilling.
Learning mindfulness techniques can help us detach ourselves from stressful thought patterns, and develop a deep and gentle awareness of our flow of experiencing. Anyone with experience of meditation, yoga or tai chi will be familiar with how the mind can be quietened in this way, with a natural concentration on breathing and a sharpening of the senses. It is common in this state of mind to become more keenly aware of the sights, sounds and smells around you. Tai chi is frequently practiced in quiet open spaces so that awareness can include focus on sounds of the natural environment, such as flowing water or birdsong. For some, such practices allow space for spiritual experiencing too. I have heard mindfulness described as ‘falling awake’, and this captures its unforced nature.
And yet there are so many tempting reasons for not engaging with it: Are we being realistic when we try to persuade ourselves to forget, for a while, all the issues that have been occupying our minds throughout the day or night? Don’t some things just feel too ‘live’ for us to put down, even for a short time? Wouldn’t our time be better spent just getting on with the things we need to do? And how can you just focus on the present outside of its context of the past and the future – don’t we always need to learn from the past and plan for the future?
It’s easy to see how such thoughts can put us off even trying mindfulness techniques. And it does take practice to persuade our minds to behave differently. Mindfulness is a way of finding our own personal space and valuing it. As such it can, at an appropriate time, usefully be introduced as a support during counselling.