On the fad for mindfulness – with rancour


I struggle with many of the workplace fads that affect the work of counselling and more broadly the world of work; particularly mindfulness.

I have lost count of the different ‘best practices’ that have been inflicted on many workplaces, including counselling. Managers, consultants, the popular press and it must be admitted therapists (some responding to the demands of their clients) are quick to try and find the latest quick fix, that will resolve all their problems. The shocking news is, as you dear reader, are more than aware – they won’t.

The present deification of mindfulness is one such fad. Deification is a big word, but the enthusiasm with which people seem to adopt mindfulness reminds me of the enthusiasm that is often found in recent religious converts – or worse still someone who has recently stopped smoking or managed to hit their target weight. Everyone needs to know how good it is.

In this series of ad hoc posts, I will explain why I think that our current enthusiasm is misplaced. It’s not that I am against mindfulness as such, more that I am against the way mindfulness is being sold to us a cure-all, a bit like the snake oil salesman of the Wild West.

Let’s try and get a few things straight before I begin to rant too much. Mindfulness is not a new word in English. The first recorded use of mindfulness was in 1530, and was used to described how we can be intentionally attentive, in other words it described a process; a way of being (Keep hold of this distinction, it is really important to my argument but also to how I work with my clients and live my life).

Over the centuries, the meaning began to change, moving away from developing an understanding (the process) – to focus on, or acknowledge, our emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations (the output). In 1889, the purpose of mindfulness was described as a process by which people could rid of themselves of lust, craving and desire, and the cessation of suffering. Once the snake oil sales team gets involved, the purpose of mindfulness (as described in 2011) is dumbed down to become a relaxation technique that reduces stress and blood pressure.

This change in focus reflects a movement from process to technique. For 2,500 years old Buddhist’s (and, it must be said, other religions including Christianity) taught us techniques to liberate us from what holds us back in life (what might be called ‘right mindfulness’). About 30 years ago, all this changed, and we were offered a target driven, ‘business’ solution in the form of Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) model (which is often referred to as ‘mindfulness’), from which most current forms of mindfulness have their origin.

It may go without saying, but for me, the approach we need to have is that of ‘right mindfulness’ as has been tested, and proven to work, for millennia and not just the last 30 years. It is in this tradition that we can see the real value of mindfulness, not as a stand-alone commercial object, but as part of a process of living, which connects right mindfulness with right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right concentration in an ethical relationship with our fellow human persons which can only be achieved by being intentionally attentive!