The mindfulness movements show that, in our speedy, stressed out society ancient wisdom traditions are more relevant than ever
The former Speaker, Bernard Weatherill once told a friend of mine that when the Commons was in uproar he groaned inwardly and then turned to his long-standing meditation practice. I like the image of the Speaker, sitting quietly amid the Westminster hullabaloo, noticing his breath and feeling his feet on the floor. It’s a long way from the notion that you need to be halfway up a mountain before you can find calm. And as BBC News reported this week, many MPs and Lords are taking mindfulness courses – learning to ground their attention, especially by focusing on the breath and the body.
It’s heartening for someone like me, who’s long practised mindfulness in a Buddhist context, to see the recent cover of Time magazine featuring a meditating beauty and the headline, ‘The Mindfulness Revolution’. This ancient practice now appears to be the latest thing! Bodies like the NHS believe they can offer mindfulness because it can be tested scientifically and makes sense in a purely secular setting.
I think the reason is that mindfulness practices directly address the distinctive challenges of a world where things keep on speeding up and we face ever-more demands. More than ever we need ways to manage our attention. Buddhism teaches that the mind is malleable and the way we respond to the world around us shapes our experience of it. As the Buddha said, ‘Experiences are preceded by mind, led by mind and produced by mind.’ Mindfulness is the capacity to pay attention in a calm, open way to whatever’s happening, even if it’s difficult. Longer periods of meditation are also important because they give you the space to become deeply absorbed, and thankfully it isn’t essential to sit with your legs wrapped up like a pretzel.
The demand for mindfulness has taken my own teaching activity out of Buddhist centres and into workplaces and probation hostels; and politicians are exploring if it can be offered much more widely in the Health Service, education and criminal justice, which are dealing with the mental health consequences of our speedy, stressed out society.
The mindfulness movement may seem a surprising marriage of the secular and the religious. But the growing incidence of stress, anxiety and depression means that mental wellbeing can no longer be taken for granted. It has become a priority for us to understand our minds better and to look after ourselves mentally, just as we do physically. The wisdom of ancient traditions, for which the mind has long been a central concern, is turning out to be more relevant than ever.