Just calling something ‘mindful’ does not make it mindful

by Claire Kelly

‘Mindful’ and ‘mindfulness’ are rapidly becoming the words of the moment, a useful shorthand for ‘paying attention’ or even ‘relaxation’, but that isn’t what they mean, and it’s important to know why.

As of August 2020, a simple Google search (from within the UK) for the term ‘mindfulness’ offers 268,000,000 results, indicating the extent to which it has begun to play a role in global discourse. However, even a cursory look at a selective sample of these results shows that the majority are not really talking about mindfulness, but some less informed or even strategically misleading depiction of what it is and what it can do for us.

Why is this an issue?

Firstly, such a broad range of conceptualisations can make any meaningful discourse about mindfulness difficult if we’re all talking about different things.

But perhaps the trickiest issue to navigate is a pervasive offering of mindfulness as something to bring a sense of calm or relaxation. Included in this might be the current trend to use the word ‘mindfulness’ as a prefix to certain activities, including colouring-in, dog-walking or indeed anything done slowly, calmly, or with an intention to relax. One might even hear politicians or others use the term “mindful” to emphasise they are being attentive and considered.

Even the BBC has jumped on board with its own Mindful Mix1, a collection of ‘stress-busting classics’; Retreat: Meditations from a Monastery2; All Aboard!3;  and a new comliation of natural history programmes labelled as Mindful Escapes4, advertised as a chance to ‘Breathe, Release, Restore’.

Why is mindfulness around now?

To be clear, mindfulness is not new. The first clear formal outlines of this thing we now call mindfulness as a state and as a practice can be found in scriptures over two-and-a-half thousand years old, and has been practised across cultures in a variety of forms since then.

However, there are a number of reasons why mindfulness in a secular form may have become so popular over the past few decades. Certainly, an exponential increase in mindfulness- related academic and clinical research over the past 40 years, with more than 1,203 academic journal articles published with the term ‘mindfulness’ in the title in 20195 has something to do with it. Its use in clinical settings, and approval by national clinical bodies, including the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) in the UK, has also convinced some of its potential benefits as a well-researched option for certain forms of mental and physical health, as well as general wellbeing.

The breadth and scale of the explosion of interest in, and applications of, mindfulness to date brings with it a broad range of ways in which the term is used. Bristow (2018)6 suggests that there are ten common ways in which the term ‘mindfulness’ is used. These include a state of awareness with particular qualities, awareness, a practice, a ‘toolbox’ of several practices; a training course or intervention, and a social movement.

What Mindfulness Is Not

So, here’s a revelation, and please read the following carefully:

Mindfulness is CATEGORICALLY NOT intended simply as a form of relaxation!

I know! Mind-blowing (if you’ll forgive the pun), isn’t it?

Nor is mindfulness about emptying the mind, controlling thoughts, floating through life in a state of blissful neutrality, or eating your lunch so slowly that it takes you till dinner time to eat it.

Just to be clear, some aspects of mindfulness practice can result in a feeling of calm or steadiness, and some people find this a great resource, especially when things get stormy of difficult. However, this is not the sole intention of mindfulness.

What Is Mindfulness then?

Jon Kabat Zinn, in the foreword to the Mindful Nation UK report (2015)7, describes mindfulness as,

“… a way of being in wise and purposeful relationship with one’ s experience both inwardly and outwardly. It is cultivated by systematically exercising one’ s capacity for paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, and by learning to inhabit and make use of the clarity, discernment, ethical understanding, and awareness that arises from tapping into one’s own deep and innate interior resources for learning, growing, healing and transformation, available to us across the lifespan by virtue of being human.”

Mindfulness practice provides us with an opportunity to bring awareness to what we are directly experiencing, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral; it involves paying attention to our thoughts, physical sensations and feelings without judging them—without believing there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to think or feel about them.

Mindfulness can bring forth states of ease, joy, relaxation, and a sense of wellbeing, but also unpleasant experiences such as irritation, physical discomfort, sleepiness, or frustration. The revelation is that we do not need to engage with these experiences by trying to push them away, fight with them or ruminate over why they are there at all, and what that tells us about ourselves.

Seeing them arise and pass away is part of the learning process (Williams & Penman, 20118), and can be a liberating experience.

Does it really matter how the term mindfulness is used?

YES! With the rise in popularity comes an explosion of interest in mindfulness apps, taking part in introductory mindfulness courses, and even trying to teach it to their family members or friends. Enter into any form of mindfulness training with expectations of blissful serenity, you may quickly find yourself wanting to give up. A bit like going to the gym, you need to keep doing it to see the benefits, and sessions at the beginning of the course can bring to the fore a sense of just how busy the mind is most of the time.

But, just like going to the gym, or learning any new skill, there are days when it comes easily, and then days when it doesn’t. It’s the days when it is trickier that the real learning happens. For example, while doing my daily mindfulness practice, I might notice how quickly my mind tells me that I must be rubbish at mindfulness because I feel so restless. I can choose to believe it and give up, or I can notice, ‘ooh, there’s some restlessness in the body, and some self-criticism here’, and then make a conscious choice whether it is something I would like to explore, or something that will, like most things, simply pass. With this comes a sense of agency – we don’t have to ‘jump aboard the thought bus’, and get taken for a ride down the familiar routes of doubt, self-criticism etc.

There’s much more to mindfulness

So, while there’s nothing wrong with actively seeking relaxation and calm (goodness knows, we could all do with some at present), it’s prudent to remember that mindfulness offers something much deeper than simply ‘chilling out’, colouring-in or slowing down.

And if anyone out there is promising you a blissful experience as part of their mindfulness offering, they are probably offering something other than mindfulness and it’s time to ask some questions!

Want to know more?

If you have any questions, please do get in touch via enquiries@mindfulnessinschools.org

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06mtsqy
[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09bdzpf
[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05t7kc1
[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2020/mindful-escapes
[5] American Mindfulness Research Association, 2019
[6] https://www.mindful.org/10-ways-to-define-mindfulness/
[7] https://www.themindfulnessinitiative.org/mindful-nation-report
[8] Williams, M., & Penman, D. (2011). Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. Hachette UK.