How do you see mindfulness? As a scientifically valid set of techniques? As a spiritual path? Or more akin to martial arts? Or a way to get high without drugs? Or a delusion aimed at making you passive and unquestioning? What’s your mental image of a mindfulness practitioner?
I’ve been enjoying the first week of an online course on the Coursera platform called De-Mystifying Mindfulness. It’s got off to a great start by looking at what brings people to mindfulness training. What are they looking for? What attracts them? What do they want to avoid? The course author, Chris Goto-Jones of Leiden University, demonstrates that the image some people have of mindfulness will attract them but repulse others. Not only that but some people are attracted and put off by the same things. When we look at how mindfulness courses market themselves, the divisions are clear. Some, for example, draw on Buddhist images like lotuses and seated Buddhas. Some deliberately avoid these and instead use the imagery of the brain and language drawn from neuroscience. For everyone attracted by one approach, there will be others for whom that approach will be repulsive. Chris shows that everyone approaching mindfulness does so with their own preconceptions of what it is, both positive and negative. He then uses some playful stereotypes to spell out some of these preconceptions. While they’re very broad-brush, I think it’s worth looking at our own assumptions of what mindfulness is and how these might influence the kind of courses we enrol on, the kind of articles we read and how we talk to others about mindfulness.
Some would use this range of preconception as a stick with which to beat mindfulness as a ‘trendy thing’. They’d say there’s no agreed definition of mindfulness and that shows it’s nonsense. I don’t accept that – how many definitions of democracy do people adhere to? How many definitions of discrimination? How many definitions of equality? That doesn’t mark these things as not worth discussing. I’d sooner have a debate about what mindfulness is than accept an orthodoxy that decrees ‘it is what Jon Kabat-Zinn says it is’.
Chris Goto-Jones draws out five images people have of mindfulness, and shows how they are formed by unresolved questions about the nature of mindfulness:
- the Scientist: can mindfulness be separated from its cultural background in religion and be respected as a branch of psychology?
- the Monk: is mindfulness more than therapy, a path to a transcendent experience?
- the Ninja: is mindfulness a warrior-like discipline achievable only at the cost of sacrifice and heroic dedication?
- the Zombie: is mindfulness likely to remove our ability to make plans and decisions, and fight for justice, sending us instead into a world of self-centred introspection?
- the Hippie: is mindfulness a bunch of vacuous platitudes or the beginning of a new religion for a liberal, enlightened New Age?
You might already be identifying with one or another, or even one or more of these stances, and you might recognise them in people you’ve discussed mindfulness with.