This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week focuses on mindfulness. What’s the connection between an ancient Buddhist practice and modern mental health needs?
Thought for the Day 9/5/2015
In this election, for the first time, we heard calls from a mainstream party to place mental health provision on a par with physical health. I think that’s a sign a taboo is shifting and it’s becoming a little easier to speak openly about problems that have long been stigmatized. So perhaps it’s fitting that Monday sees the start of Mental Health Awareness Week.
The theme this year is mindfulness, and it’s been surprising for people like me, who have practised meditation and mindfulness in Buddhist settings for many years, that they’ve proved so relevant in mainstream settings like mental health. Mindfulness is widely used in the NHS to avoid relapse into depression. Yet the practices were originally intended for Buddhist monks and nuns, and others intent on following the Buddha’s spiritual path.
The connection is that both settings require people to engage with their minds. I sometimes think we treat our minds rather like our cars: most of us only consider how the engine works when it goes wrong. But when stress, anxiety or depression take hold we can no longer take our minds for granted. We learn that our mental state is fundamental to everything we experience. Depression, for example, creates a veil that affects how we see the world, bleaching out colour and pointing our thoughts in unhelpful directions.
So how can we access more helpful states and encourage more helpful thoughts? The organisers of Mental Health Awareness week value mindfulness because it helps people look after themselves and their own mental wellbeing in just that way.
But facing difficulties is a universal challenge. The election has raised some people up in a wave of euphoria, and cast others down, stripping away their positions and status, and dashing their plans for political change. All of us face times of great excitement and times of loss and suffering.
Buddhism suggests that these experiences challenge us to know our minds better. That’s an ethical as well as a psychological task – perhaps a spiritual one as well; and it can open up a different way to live. For Buddhists, the awareness mindfulness brings is the core of the Eightfold path that touches every aspect of our experience.
It’s encouraging to learn that our minds, which can lead us into such distress, also contain the resources we need to manage our difficulties. The seeds of resilience, kindness and wisdom are all there if only we can find them, nourish them and let them grow.