Mindfulness is the ability to stay psychologically present in the here and now of your life. It is a skill and, like any other skill, you can improve with practice.
Just as the psychological sciences are starting to really flesh out the benefits of mindfulness, mindfulness has broken into popular culture and the mindfulness craze has spread. In some circles, mindfulness is sold as a cure-all, overblown claims are made, and mindfulness is marketed separated from a scientific understanding of the human condition, a complete psychological therapeutic approach or even from the full spiritual path in which mindfulness has traditionally been practised for thousands of years. Mindfulness may even be presented as an end unto itself. This is deeply worrying.
Mindfulness can be beneficial to psychological health, we have growing evidence for that, but mindfulness is not a panacea and it is not an end unto itself. In fact, mindfulness alone, practised without a complete psychological approach informed by a scientific understanding of the human condition, could be harmful. This is one of the many reasons that I love Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a therapeutic approach that incorporates mindfulness alongside other elements (for example values, defusion, and committed action) and is grounded in a scientific approach.
For over 2,000 years, mindfulness has formed an important part of the Buddhist spiritual path. But it is not the only ingredient, or even the most important ingredient. The Buddhist spiritual path is built on three key pillars:
- Meditation (including mindfulness)
- Ethics – for example, compassion, generosity and refraining from lying
- Wisdom – seeing the world as it actually is, for example, understanding the principle of impermanence
Of the three pillars, do you know what the recommended starting point is?
Clue: it isn’t meditation.
It is ethics.
In fact, Buddhist history is rife with examples of how mindfulness, without a grounding in ethics, can go horribly wrong. For example, Zen Buddhist support for Japanese militarism and actions in World War II.
Being psychologically present can improve your performance and psychological health, even if the actions you are performing are grossly unethical and deeply unwise. I cannot help but think of this when I hear about mindfulness being applied in competitive capitalist contexts.
From an ACT perspective, mindfulness must be grounded in a clear and flexible understanding of our values. Being psychologically present is useful, to the extent that it helps us to move closer to living the life we what to live and to being the person we want to be. However, if you don’t know the direction in which you want to travel, then adding mindfulness into your life could simply lead to you striding all the faster in entirely the wrong direction.
Apply it in your life: Can you practise mindfulness as part of living the life you want to live, grounding yourself in your values?