(This is an open letter to the journalist Eva Wiseman following the publication of her article on Mindfulness in the Observer newspaper in the UK. Read the original article at https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/sep/13/mindblowing-expense-of-mindfulness-eva-wiseman).
I was struck, when writing this response, how difficult it was to clearly articulate how alarmed I was at the suggestions made in your article “The Mind-blowing Expense of Mindfulness” (Observer 13 Sept 2015). I found it difficult because – as you will know – writing is a skill. It is to be learned, honed, practised and perfected. The same, you might be surprised to discover, is true of mindfulness.
As a Clinical Psychologist, Mindfulness is a part of some of the psychological therapies I use in my clinical work (with not a colouring book in sight!). Mindfulness is a component of a number of types of evidence-based psychological therapies. It is recommended by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) as treatment for recurrent depression as it cuts relapse rates in half; it is regularly used in the NHS for a range of difficulties as diverse as chronic pain, dealing with difficult emotions, recurrent depression and coping with physical health conditions. As evidence supporting Mindfulness based therapies has grown, the benefits of mindfulness for general well-being have also been established (unsurprisingly, as mental health problems are on a continuum with well-being).
I mention this evidence and application to well-being as I was concerned and non-plussed to see the practice of mindfulness put into the same bracket as hipsters munching Coco Pops. As with any trend, there is a danger that mindfulness, as it gains in popularity, becomes co-opted, a watered down ‘buzz word’ used to sell products which are not rooted in science. In such a situation, it is yet more important for people to be informed about what mindfulness really is. This is one of the reasons that I am so concerned about the misconceptions in this article, as, at the same time as decrying the popularisation of mindfulness, it feeds in to the myths about mindfulness that render it a meaningless buzz word, and the reduction of its concepts and adherents into jaded stereotypes.
The article is full of misconceptions about mindfulness.
Practising mindfulness is not to ‘stop thinking’. At its heart, mindfulness is about paying attention in the present moment, on purpose, in a non-judgemental way. it is about developing a different relationship with our thoughts, stepping back from our thoughts and realising that we are not our thoughts. Mindfulness is about observing our patterns of thought-response, and recognising our thoughts for what they are – mental events.
Mindfulness is not a means for us to ‘buy inner peace’, just as a gym membership doesn’t buy you a six pack. Mindfulness is a skill and a practice that can be learned and practised and has a wide range of benefits. Like exercise.
Mindfulness is not ‘paid-for passivity’, neither is it a retreat to an infantile world. Mindfulness is the opposite of this, it is about engaging with the world, right now, in the present moment, which is the only moment we’ve got. It is about engaging with the world and our experience directly, instead of getting caught up, as we do so easily, in the flotsam and jetsam of thoughts and feelings. The nature of the mind is such that our thoughts tend to take centre stage; the mind jumps, like a monkey, from one thought to another, a ceaseless merry go round which distracts us from the present moment. Mindfulness helps us to be in the present moment, to ‘switch on’ rather than ‘switch off’.
The idea that mindfulness is something one can just pick up ‘working out the method from the word’ is misguided. Can we write well because we understand the concept of writing? We cannot. Many people are fooled into the idea that Mindfulness is easy – it is not. It is, at heart, a simple idea, but it is not easy. Thousands of years of religious traditions, in addition to scientific study and research, recognises that Mindfulness practice is something that needs to be learned, practised, and maintained.
Finally, to the title of the article – you refer to the ‘mind-blowing expense’ of mindfulness. At £7.95 a month, I think the Headspace app is excellent value, and significantly less outlay than a month’s worth of The Observer. Mindfulness based therapies as part of NHS treatment are, like all talking therapies, delivered free at the point of access.
But Mindfulness is something that really has to be experienced to be understood. I would like to invite you to our next taster session of Mindfulness for well-being. No crayons necessary. Just an open mind, or one willing to be opened.
For further details see www.mindsurgerylondon.co.uk
Dr S Yap
Chartered Clinical Psychologist