Mindfulness, though it draws influence from ancient Buddhist tradition, has become part of a range of non-religious psychological therapies now used in Western psychology. The history of mindfulness can be traced back to traditions from the East; particularly in the practice of Buddhist meditation, but mindfulness in itself is not meditation: it is a mental state, and meditation is just one of many ways to cultivate it.
Us human beings spend an inordinate amount of time stuck in our heads. We become attached to remembering what’s gone wrong in the past and predicting how it might go wrong in the future. We believe the answer to happiness lies in seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Mindfulness is not a process of cognition, but rather one of awareness: it encourages us to experience each moment as it happens, rather than becoming tangled in an internal flurry of thoughts and anxieties. Mindfulness and attention awareness training help us to pay attention to the chaotic and multidimensional nature of our minds. Rather than rushing to react hastily to our internal world when we cast our gaze upon it, we are instead encouraged to acknowledge and explore without judgement – even if what we discover in this state is difficult or painful. It gives us an opportunity to learn how to pay attention to the different archetypal forces playing out within us, and rather than passively allowing these archetypal dramas to act through us, we can start to choose how we want to operate in the world. So, mindfulness is a way of paying attention on purpose so that we become much more ‘mind aware’ and therefore are able to choose our behaviour.
It focuses on ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’, and teaches acceptance of the moment as it is experienced now, and therefore acceptance of often long-held feelings and responses. Acceptance involves a wholly different way of engaging with our minds and our bodies, and our own life history. The result can be improved well-being and, crucially, reduced or even absent symptoms of a range of conditions and concerns, including anxiety. Practitioners see mindfulness as a skill which gets better, and more effective, with practice. In therapy, it aims to bring new insights and a deeper wisdom.