We describe mindfulness as an innate human capacity – like language acquisition. A capacity that enables people to focus on what they experience in the moment, internally as well as in their environment, with an attitude of openness, curiosity and care.


We are all somewhat mindful some of the time, but we can choose to develop this faculty through practice. Being mindful does not necessarily involve meditation, but for most people, this form of mind-training is required to strengthen the intention to stay present and cultivate an open and allowing quality of mind.  “Mindfulness”, therefore, commonly refers to a practice that individuals and groups can do on a day-to-day basis. It is an integrative, mind-body based training that enables people to change the way they think and feel about their experiences, especially stressful experiences. It sounds and is simple, but it is also hard to do, especially in our modern task-focused lives.

Secular methods of cultivating mindfulness have been available since the development of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) programmes for treating physical pain and poor mental health in the 1980s and 1990s. These clinical interventions generally entail eight weekly classes of up to two and a half hours each, however, a great deal of innovation over the last decade has led to a proliferation of programmes with varying lengths, intensities and delivery styles developed for very different audiences. It is thought that the deeper fruits of practice are only available through courses of at least six weeks, allowing participants to start encountering and working through their own resistance and reactivity in relation to practice, although this claim has not yet been proven through research.

Although it is not owned by any group, the cultivation of mindfulness can be found in many ancient contemplative traditions and the most comprehensive approach is found in Buddhist teachings. However leading mindfulness researchers note that to say that mindfulness is Buddhist is akin to saying that gravity is Newtonian(1).

 

(1) Brown, K. W., Ryan, R. M., Loverich, T. M., Biegel, G. M., & West, A. M. (2011). Out of the armchair and into the streets: Measuring mindfulness advances knowledge and improves interventions: Reply to Grossman (2011). Psychological Assessment, 23, 1041–1046.


Is it for everyone?

While much clinical evidence for mindfulness practice focuses on its effectiveness in addressing recurrent depression, mindfulness should not simply be understood as a treatment: many people are helped by mindfulness practice, in a multitude of ways. But it would be misleading to claim therefore that mindfulness training is a panacea. Every person faces a unique set of circumstances and challenges and, as we might reasonably expect, research has shown from the outset that the effectiveness of mindfulness differs with the individual. Very simply, some people will find the practice helpful - and others will not.

For this reason, mindfulness teachers should be trained to distinguish those for whom there is a potential benefit from those who might respond better to a different evidence-based approach, based on knowledge of the individual. The UK's National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines recommend that for patients with depression, MBCT (not MBSR) be considered as a treatment only for those who have suffered three prior depressive episodes. Furthermore, UK training good-practice guidelines clearly specify that no one should teach MBCT to depressed patients who is not qualified to do so.

On occasion, participants in meditation groups or retreats report unusual or unexpected experiences. This can prompt a variety of reactions, from curiosity at one end of the scale, to concern or distress at the other. Further research is needed to better understand the origin and frequency of such experiences and how best to respond to them (e.g. under what circumstances it is appropriate to continue with mindfulness meditation, to change the type of practice, or to pause or stop altogether.) Teachers should be trained to be alert to these experiences, and teacher-training organisations should establish protocols for how best to manage them.

(Drafted in collaboration with the Oxford Mindfulness Centre.)


Ways of learning mindfulness

Jon Kabat-Zinn began teaching his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course (MBSR) to patients at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the late 1970s. Participants were introduced to a range of core mindfulness practices – sitting meditation, body-scanning, and mindful movement exercises – as a way to help them manage the pain and stress of their medical conditions. They were also asked to commit to a daily practice using audio guides at home. The class-based MBSR curriculum, of eight two-hour weekly sessions, remains at the core of several programmes that have been further adapted to deal with different clinical conditions and contexts.

Most significant among these adaptations has been the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) course which was developed by three scientists in the 1990s, as a way to help patients prone to depression by building resilience. MBCT includes basic education about depression and a number of exercises derived from cognitive therapy that demonstrate the links between thinking and feeling, and how best participants can care for themselves when they notice their mood changing or a crisis threatening to overwhelm them.

 

Access to mindfulness-based interventions

MBCT is available for the treatment of recurrent depression through the NHS, so if you have suffered from three or more episodes of depression you may be able to access mindfulness training through your GP. Another way to find MBSR or MBCT eight-week courses, or other face-to-face training, is to visit the BeMindful teacher listing or Eventlist.com, which has a listing of mindfulness retreats, workshops and courses.

A number of digital resources are also available, including bemindfulonline.com and headspace.com.