BBC Radio 4 broadcast a programme the other evening, maybe you heard it, "Mindfulness: Panacea or Fad?" I won't go into all the issues I have with it - and I have many - but let's just stay with the title for now. I know there has been a tendency to hype it quite a bit and this is extremely unhelpful but I know of no-one who teaches or practices mindfulness who would ever describe it any as sort of "panacea". Neither is it quite accurate to describe a practice with a 2,600 year (at least) history, as a "fad". The programme was presented by someone who is also women's editor of the Daily Telegraph. She interviewed a lot of high-profile mindfulness teachers and also engaged in a bit of mindfulness training herself. In the end, this seemed to consist of a few days of listening to a guided practice, late at night, for 5 minutes. "It didn't work." she concluded. "If I want to relax, I prefer a gin and tonic." Oh dear. And this isn't a unique instance. Since mindfulness has become more mainstream, the backlash has started to increase in intensity. The Guardian columnist, Suzanne Moore, referred to it as "another quick fix" that is designed to distance practitioners from the harsh realities of the world. And I have variously heard it described as trying to turn the population into "happy cows" or a bunch of mindless zombies. Some people clearly don't like the idea of mindfulness. It's just a shame that so many of the critics don't appear to know what the reality is. I don't have an issue with there being a debate about the place of mindfulness in the modern world. I just wish the debate was sometimes a little bit more.... informed. This, by the way, applies to both sides in the debate. The hype can be just as misleading and damaging.
If anyone out there is considering doing a mindfulness course or at least beginning some form of contemplative practice, my advice is quite simple. In fact, this isn't my advice, it was first given by the Buddha 2,600 years ago. It's this: Don't take anything on trust. Don't accept any form of authority except your own experience - and that means your teachers, your friends, the books you read, newspapers and TV shows, bloggers and Facebook pages. Don't accept what I say either. Don't accept any of it. Unless it accords with what you find out for yourself, it is just so much noise. But at least make the effort to find out. If you are required to practice, then do it - every day and at every opportunity. Give it your best shot. Above all don't prejudge things. We know that a lot of what we teach appears downright flakey at first. We can't help it, it just is. But we also know that the benefits are there if you are open to finding them. Scepticism and doubt are healthy attributes to bring with you when you train in mindfulness. Very healthy. But cynicism and negativity are not. One of the foundational principles we invite people to embrace when starting out on a course, is "beginners mind". This is the quality of innocence and openness to experience that we tend to lose when we enter adulthood. But just think of what wonders you might discover if you were no longer blinkered by your judgements and opinions and approached each and every opportunity in life as if for the very first time.
As for mindfulness being represented as a panacea or a fad, let's just say it's neither. It's actually a very silly question. Mindfulness isn't supposed to cure everything and as a practice it's got an awful lot of history behind it. Can there be any argument that the lives of every single person on this planet could be improved immeasurably just by being able to stop for a moment or slow down in the midst of the craziness of the world? Isn't that just what we need? To pause from time to time in order to really see what's going on?