I first came to meditation years ago via a circuitous route of a church school education, O-level Religious Studies (I was that person), training in the sphere of complementary therapies, having a Wiccan best friend and, of course, through yoga.
Meditation is incredibly easy. All you have to do is sit every day and do nothing. Simple.
Ha, ha, ha, HAH! In these times of long working hours, unbroken connectivity and hyper-stimulation, our Western mind has been conditioned to do anything but switch off. When first trying to meditate, it often feels futile, frustrating, boring ... Within seconds, we've done the week's shopping list, calculated pi to 22 places, and remembered EXACTLY why we hate Sharon from Admin, the duplicitous bitch. Sometimes we'll leave our cushion or chair feeling worse than when we started. And because of this, we tend to quit too soon before any change has had a chance to take place. We abandon our seat in exchange for the comforting familiarity of alcohol, tobacco, screen-scrolling and Facebook stalking, Sharon.
This is where mindfulness comes in. I always think of mindfulness as 'meditation-lite'. This is no way a disparaging term; it removes some of the weird-shit stigma associated with a 'spiritual' practice. It makes it more for 'normal' people and less for monks, nuns and mystics. By secularizing the Buddhist practice of mindfulness meditation, by cleansing it of any spiritual or religious overtones, the chance of gaining an equable mind, a lighter heart and a calmer way of being becomes accessible to all.
This was the reasoning by the man widely regarded as the father of modern mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn studied meditation with Zen Buddhist monks before adapting and developing the mindfulness teachings into the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Programme back in the late 70s . This and its many derivations ~ in the UK, think the Mindfulness Based Living Course offered by the Mindfulness Association ~ has since blossomed into a global, billion pound industry.
And this is where I start to twitch, this commodification of mindfulness. Mindfulness businesses have mushroomed almost over night. Like yoga, the market is saturated yet still more and more people scramble to qualify as mindfulness teachers. Like yoga, the majority will be well intentioned. But let's not be coy ~ others will be in it for the money and guru status.
Because the market is so crowded, tactics are becoming more bullish. Indeed, I've had some personal experience of this. A recently qualified teacher is seeking to build a mindfulness empire across the Borders and they're doing this by deploying strong-armed marketing strategies. Another newcomer to the arena believes they have exclusive rights to certain 'territories'. Another feels that I shouldn't be involved in this arena at all as I don't possess the right piece of paper which, to their mind, trumps 20 years of meditating experience and philosophical study. All of this is done without any sense of self-awareness or recognition of irony, rather an evangelical sense of entitlement.
This lack of awareness signals that the practice has not been assimilated. In fact, it demonstrates a complete lack of mindfulness. A course can be delivered, the theory has been learnt, but the practice hasn't been absorbed. It is simply a means to an end, an opportunity to hitch a lift on a bandwagon pulled along by competition, jealously and fear and all the other elements that drive capitalist enterprise.
This is highly depressing because meditation offers the chance of deep transformation.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, ever cognisant and respectful of his source material, recognises that mindfulness teachers should practise it themselves to familiarise themselves with the full scope of its potential:
"... otherwise attempts at mindfulness-based intervention run the risk of becoming caricatures of mindfulness, missing the radical, transformational essence and becoming caught perhaps by important but not necessarily fundamental and often only superficial similarities between mindfulness practices and relaxation strategies, cognitive-behavioral exercises, and self-monitoring tasks."
There's a rather apt analogy that likens the application of secular mindfulness to learning to play the piano to improve hand/eye coordination or reading poetry for the purpose of improving vocabulary. In both instances, the bigger picture is missed. The side effects have become the goal. This happens in yoga too, where practitioners focus only on how flexible and strong they are becoming, pushing ever harder to achieve more, and therefore missing the point entirely.
Secular mindfulness is touted as a cure-all for the stresses and strains of contemporary living. But we are doing ourselves a disservice by trying to expunge its historical spiritual and religious foundations? After all, most people in one form or other bring to their practice some sort of spiritual/religious acculturation, whether they're aware of it or not. In fact, there is some evidence that suggests a mindfulness practice with spiritual/religious reference is more effective than a purely secular practice.
This makes sense. It's who we essentially are, who we feel ourselves to be whether only unconsciously formulated. To deny this context is to deny the possibility of meaningful transformation above and beyond the relaxing effects of a body scan.
Secular mindfulness has a valuable role in introducing the ideas of meditation and contemplation to the Western mind. Yet tread carefully when finding a teacher. Check their background. For example, did they have a longstanding meditation practice before training in mindfulness? Did they have prior knowledge of Eastern philosophies? How do they market themselves? Do you feel that your idea of spirituality would be supported by what they offer? This may mean that your preferred teacher doesn't have an "official" piece of paper by an "official" body. Don't fall prey to the sales patter that promises higher productivity ~ do you actually want to work harder? Great for a corporation's bottom line, not so great for the employees putting in longer hours to increase output.
True mindfulness is a way of being that isn't separate from the self. It's not something that can be learnt in a couple of weekends. It's an ongoing exploration, and the greatest guides you can have on the journey are those who trod the path many, many years before. Through the teachings of these sages, yogis and bodhisattvas the full picture of our potential may be revealed in all its many, mind-blowing colours.
Sticking plaster or lasting change? It's our call. Choose mindfully.