From Fad to Native
Mindfulness has become very popular in the last decade or so. The beginning of this process might be traced to the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s, when spiritual seekers such as Ram Dass (born Richard Alpert and once a Stanford-trained psychologist) and Joseph Goldstein (founder of Insight Meditation Society) looked to Hinduism and Buddhism in the East for fresh insights to spiritual and psychological questions.
Yoga, which was considered esoteric and “New Age” back then, is now found in every health club and fitness center and no longer considered alternative.
However, it was the literal marriage of East and West through the neuroscientific measurements in the brain of meditators that captured the modern world’s imagination and created what Malcolm Gladwell would easily call a tipping point in public consciousness, a sea change in modern culture.
If the change continues, we might look back to this phase in human history and view it as an era as important to the West as the Age of Enlightenment or the Reformation in Europe, or the beginning of the Christian era.
While it was the Buddha in 500 BCE that first taught about mindfulness and its power to liberate the human mind from suffering, it would be a mistake to think that mindfulness is a “Buddhist” thing or an “Eastern thing.”
The famous Sermon on the Mount of Jesus is a teaching about compassion, arguably the most famous speech about compassion ever given — yet no one would think that you have to call yourself Christian to experience compassion.
Rather, mindfulness, like compassion, is not itself a fad, or a new thing, but actually an inborn human capacity. Like logic, or creativity, or language, mindfulness is a part of the human package — an especially profound one which can be cultivated to improve almost everything a person does.
Practitioners, teachers, and scholars of mindfulness struggle to define it — the way that we can define music with words, but the actual experience cannot be captured conceptually.
In fact it is important to let go of concepts in the practice of mindfulness, as it is in the practice of psychotherapy. That is partly because with mindfulness we are bringing a new quality of attention to the very processes of mind which can be the source of difficulty and mental suffering, such as repetitive thoughts, painful emotions, and drivers of unwanted behavior.
Mindfulness then is a quality of attention or awareness. A critical aspect of mindfulness is a kind of mental poise or equanimity or nonjudgment, a kind of watchfulness or capacity to observe without getting pulled into, or reacting against, what is observed.
However observation or awareness itself is not sufficient to be called mindfulness — and in psychotherapy also it certainly is not enough to just dispassionately observe our suffering. I have never heard of a successful therapeutic action in an emotionally sterile environment. A goal of psychotherapy and mindfulness then is the cultivation of quality of compassion and kindness — without which transformation and healing could not occur.
Compassion, empathy, mindful awareness — are all higher order ego capacities that are not formed on demand. It’s not as if you can attend a 6-week course and come out of it a different and better person. Yet the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn in creating courses on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Zindel Segal on Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) has demonstrated that it is possible to train the mind to get a good running start — sufficient that changes are detected in brain imaging.
Cultivation of mindfulness, whether you do it in the context of a meditation course, MBSR, or psychoanalysis, consist of learning to regulate attention, increasing awareness of perceptions and sensations, including bodily awareness, learning to regulate emotion, inhibit reactivity, and shift perspectives or understanding of the self.
Mindfulness and psychotherapy (especially psychoanalytic psychotherapy) converge in many ways. It is the intentional effort to expand a space to hold what is difficult, unknown, irrational, intolerable, or out of control. In psychotherapy of course, we aim to create that space together.