Over the weekend of the fourth to the sixth of October, Glenn Wallis (Roshi, of Dunedin, not the translator) and I, Jim Hegarty, ran a mindfulness training course for health professionals in Auckland.
Buddhism’s most obvious recent manifestation in the west has been within the field of psychology, and the growth of what has been termed the “mindfulness based therapies.” These “mindfulness” interventions have been found to be helpful in reducing distress due to a number of causes, and in some well designed studies seen to significantly reduce anxiety, depression, substance use, conviction for criminal behaviour, and a number of other problems. There are even some studies that indicate that mindfulness type practice by trainee therapists results in better outcome for their clients.
This sounds like mindfulness is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and is a general cure all. There are, however, a number of problems with this view from a psychological perspective. More, and better designed studies are not only needed to provide good evidence, but “mindfulness” is not well understood from a scientific perspective.
For example, there is no single agreed upon definition of mindfulness. Different therapies apply mindfulness in different ways, and the therapies with the most effective outcomes seem to add components to their treatments in addition to straightforward mindfulness interventions. There are also no universally agreed upon measures of mindfulness, something that a modern scientific approach requires. Those that do exist suffer from several conceptual problems, not least of which is the varying definitions of what constitutes mindfulness.
There has also been criticism from some Buddhist practitioners that the blanket, variable, and poorly understood application of a number of techniques termed “mindfulness” is watering down traditional practices, and falsely representing Buddhist, or at least mindfulness practice.
Despite these problems, therapists and their clients are drawn to mindfulness based practices. Some do this from within the context of therapies they have been trained in, others form their own personal interest. Yet many therapists have not had the opportunity to actually experience mindfulness practice in any depth, or to seek advice from an experienced, and fully trained teacher in the area.
A problem I have found with an experiential practice such as mindfulness is that your innate, and often unexamined definition of what that practice comprises will determine how you practice, and how you present it to others. One of my roles is to review the work of other therapists, and in my experience it is not unusual that “mindfulness” is regularly used in therapy by therapists who have only had a passing experience of the practice (regardless of definition), if at all. This results in a plethora of mindfulnesses being presented within therapeutic contexts which are certainly not grounded in an evidence based practice.
It is against this background that Glenn and I decided to offer health practitioners the opportunity to develop a basic grounding in mindfulness practice. In this instance this included the practice of both directed and undirected awareness of present experience. The aim was to provide something that could serve as a basis for their personal practice. Instead of offering a number of techniques to apply to others we decided to focus on the experience of practice itself.
As one participant said “this is not like any mindfulness training I have been to before”. This appeared to be a positive comment. It was also largely consistent with many of my own experiences in the world of psychology driven mindfulness training.
As part of the training I provided a very brief introduction to the western scientific understanding of mindfulness, and Glenn briefly described the nature of traditional practices of mindful awareness. We also both touched on the nature of the self, the construction of the self concept, and the relationship of this to practice, and to our being in the world. However, our plan was to keep things as experiential as possible and not get bogged down in ideas about practice at the expense of experiencing what is, and developing the trust to fully engage with that experience. With that in mind most of our time was spent in seated practice, and walking, interspersed with some questions and discussions.
Our small group of enthusiastic participants reported finding the training useful, despite some of the physical challenges involved in sitting for repeated periods throughout the day. Our hope was that they would become more aware of, and trusting of simply being, and that this would translate into their lives and of course to interactions with others. One of our underlying assumptions was that mindfulness practice begins and ends with you, and through you to your life as it is lived every day.
Hopefully our time practising together helped stimulate an inquiry into the nature of “mindfulness” and perhaps into the nature of experience itself. Or, as Glenn phrased it “what it is that looks out your eyes as you.”