With mindfulness growing exponentially of course there will be both assumptions and questions on this ancient practise, but in a recent article in The Guardian Is Mindfulness Making us Ill, the journalist Dawn Foster makes the mistake of assuming that by sitting still and focusing on her breath, she will simply become more relaxed. Unfortunately, she has missed the point.

In the article, mindfulness is described as “the practice of sitting still and focusing on your breath and thoughts.” This is a very limited misinterpretation. As a mindfulness teacher and trainer, I come across and spend a lot of time clarifying this misunderstanding for many of my students. 

Mindfulness is a way of purposefully becoming aware of what’s happening in our present moment experience with a non-judgemental and kind attitude. It includes, but is not limited to, meditation, a practice of sitting or laying down comfortably and bringing our awareness to our direct experience. Depending on the specific meditation practice, this may include the breath, sounds, physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions. The purpose of mindfulness, and the meditations that support it, is to help better understand our experience so that we can make more informed choices about how we respond, particularly when under stress or in pain. 

The problem with thinking mindfulness is just about focusing on our breath and thoughts is that, especially if we are under stress, this can lead to a tightening and further contraction, rather than a relaxing and easing. What I ask class participants to do is to simply notice what is already happening. We are breathing. It’s happening right now as you read this, and its always happening. And when we bring our awareness to our breathing (not over-focusing in a narrow way, but holding it in a broad, open awareness, with kindness) we may notice that its tight, constricted, or shallow. Uncomfortable, but not life threatening. And if we can bring a kindness to how we respond when we find the breath uncomfortable, we may notice that it isn’t always like this, that even if it feels as though we aren’t breathing, there is still something happening, there is an opening somewhere. Can we be curious about that opening? Where do we feel the body moving when we breathe? Can we begin to relax into it those places? Then we can begin to ask deeper questions of ourselves. Why is my breath so constricted? How are the activities of my day to day life effecting the way I breathe? 

The practice continues like this. Our minds are full of thoughts. In our busy lives we are thinking all the time, sometimes multiple thoughts at once. But when we stop to notice our thoughts (again, not focusing in a tight way on the thought, but simply noticing that when we look into our minds, there is a seemingly endless steam of thoughts) we see that they are not as real as we previously imagined, they are not necessarily facts, and they do not make up who we are or the totality of our experience. Then we can begin to make choices about which thoughts we choose to give importance to, and which we can begin to let go of. 

As a mindfulness teacher and trainer, I too am concerned about the quality of teaching that goes on, especially as Mindfulness gains popularity. I work for Breathworks, a founding member of the UK Network for Mindfulness Teacher Training Organisations. Over the past 10 years we’ve developed and disseminated Good Practice Guidelines for mindfulness teachers, requiring in-depth knowledge and experience, ongoing supervision and training, and qualifications or experience working with the client population. We have recently launched a national listing of teachers who can demonstrate that they’ve completed a rigorous teacher training programme and meet the standards set out in the guidelines. 

We are also looking at ethical issues of how mindfulness is used, especially in the workforce, so that it doesn’t simply become another way to increase productivity, without addressing underlying institutional issues, which may also be contributing to employee stress.

Mindfulness, like any mental or physical health intervention, such as prescription anti-depressants, can occasionally lead to adverse effects such as those listed in the article. It is not a catch all, silver bullet solution nor a one size fits all. Additionally, much personal growth leads to some discomfort as we come face to face with our unhelpful habits, and mindfulness is not exempt from that truth. But the reality is that if you are leading a busy life and under a lot of stress, with little to no opportunities to relax, connect with others and re-charge, mindfulness practice is in most cases going to be helpful by giving you a chance to slow down and take stock. By getting to know your own mind, with the aid of a skilled teacher, you can begin to make better choices. It is a practice that takes time, like any other practice. This is the counter-cultural and potentially revolutionary potential of mindfulness. That it asks us to commit our time and energy to taking responsibility for our own lives and happiness.

Those of us leading the way in developing the mindfulness field are responsible for ensuring that it be disseminated and used with the same care as other interventions. My hope is that for those it may not be appropriate for, we find clear ways to determine this early on, before any harm is done, and help them find interventions that can help. 

It is clear that for those who can safely practice mindfulness, it is having enormous life changing benefits. For example, at Breathworks we have helped thousands of people living with long-term conditions and chronic pain to get their lives back through mindfulness. Just yesterday a Health Practitioner told me of a patient who had reduced his pain by about 40% with the aid of mindfulness. I ask everyone to please not throw the baby out with the bath water, unless you want to live in a world where many are unnecessarily drowning in their own sorrows.

Singhashri Gazmuri