Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Power of Kindness (and One Surefire Way to Know If You "Get" Mindfulness)

If you think mindfulness is just about neutral noticing and non-judgement, then something important is missing, says Ed Halliwell
In my last blog, I wrote that I had been experimenting with a slightly adapted working definition of mindfulness—“the awareness and approach to life that arises from paying attention on purpose, fully present, with curiosity and compassion." This is a small shift from the most common modern definition of mindfulness, which describes the practice as ‘non-judgemental.' Misunderstanding of ‘non-judgement’ has, I believe, has led to some unjustified criticisms, which suggest thatmindfulness is ethically groundless or passive.
Mindfulness is just not neutral noticing. There are a clear set of attitudes which underpin the practice, and compassion may be the most important. Mindfulness just isn’t mindfulness without kindfulness. From the very first time we’re invited to come back to attention, we’re reminded to do this gently. Without this emphasis on friendliness, we set ourselves up for an internal battle, making struggle and stress as we try to force focus. Many people do get frustrated when they notice attention wandering, and it’s a key learning when they realize this noticing itself is mindfulness, and that it brings a chance to express care, understanding, patience, and love.
As we train in these attitudes over and over, it begins to affect more than just our relationship with ourselves. As we cultivate the habit of being gentle, loving-kindness percolates outwards. Most practitioners find over time that they’re gentler with others around them, less reactive, less automatically hostile. This makes sense of course—the mind that relates to internal experience also connects to the external world, in which we live and work with others.
This is why I believe that mindfulness—taught and practised properly—is its own self-protection from misuse. As long as we commit ourselves to an ongoing practice of noticing what’s happening with curiosity and friendliness, awareness and compassion tend to follow. Whether taught and practised in friendly environments, or hostile ones in which the prevailing culture is grasping or aggressive, true mindfulness will lead to an increase in kindness, the basis for ethical action.
The key, of course, is reminding ourselves and others that mindfulness is more than just neutral attention training. That’s why I think having clear definitions are important—if mindfulness loses its kindfulness, then we really are lost.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Getting Over the Mindfulness Hype

Critiques against mindfulness tell us more about our over-driven society than the practice itself, says Ed Halliwell

Melanie McDonagh in the Spectator is the latest journalist to take a swipe at the ‘cult of mindfulness.' The Spectator cover story is another interesting moment in the mindfulness media frenzy—for those unacquainted with the magazine, it’s the UK’s largest and most influential political weekly (Boris Johnson, current mayor of London and possible future prime minister, was once its editor). Its coverage of mindfulness is an indication of how far the practice has permeated British culture, including in politics. Around 100 MPs and peers in the Houses of Parliament have taken a mindfulness course, and the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group is in the middle of an inquiry on the benefits of mindfulness to public life.

McDonagh's essay lost me at the start of paragraph five, which begins “So what exactly is mindfulness? On the back of a week of sessions, I can assert with some confidence that…” I’m a journalist myself, and it still amazes me that writers are encouraged to offer guidance on a topic in which their experience is next to zero. Would McDonagh critique the plays of Moliere after a week of French lessons?
Melanie McDonagh in the Spectatoris the latest journalist to take a swipe at the ‘cult of mindfulness.' The Spectator cover story is another interesting moment in the mindfulness media frenzy—for those unacquainted with the magazine, it’s the UK’s largest and most influential political weekly (Boris Johnson, current mayor of London and possible future prime minister, was once its editor). Its coverage of mindfulness is an indication of how far the practice has permeated British culture, including in politics. Around 100 MPs and peers in the Houses of Parliament have taken a mindfulness course, and the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group is in the middle of an inquiry on the benefits of mindfulness to public life.
I also think her main contention is confused—she asserts that mindfulness "quite clearly is a religion," without ever defining what she means by the word. She does say that mindfulness is "non–doctrinal, non-prescriptive, non-demanding," which makes me wonder, what kind of religion is this? She tells us that mindfulness is "squarely based on Buddhism," but then criticizes the approach for "picking bits from it piecemeal." So mindfulness is definitely a religion, despite core elements that suggest the contrary, and yet somehow it’s also not religious enough! Her point about the possible risks of intensive meditation to a fragile psyche is a good one, but it was better made here.
Getting beyond the mindfulness "hype"
However, the piece is worth considering, for a number of reasons. As pointed out bythis graph (thanks to Rohan Gunatillake for tweeting it to me), negative press tends to mark a turning point in the adoption of a technology. Mindfulness hype serves few needs well, and we may be moving out of the initial phase of unbridled (over)-enthusiasm and into a phase of consolidation, reflection, and revision. The other main criticisms made by McDonagh— that its emphasis on non-judgement may preclude appropriate action, and that focus on reflection can seem selfish—are common. They often come up among people who have just taken up mindfulness meditation, who feel guilty for taking the time to practice it. By sitting still and watching my experience, I may feel better, but am I not abdicating some of my responsibilities?
It’s a symptom of how driven many of us are, that even taking a short time out each day can become a stick to beat ourselves. As a way to treat the epidemic of stress, maybe what we need is precisely a chance to let go for a while of the constant need to achieve, do better, strive, and struggle. But aside from the benefits of meditation for stress, which are well-documented, isn’t making time to become familiar with our minds a gift we can give to others? How often do we cause pain by not being aware and not taking care of how we relate to those around us? Aren’t we likely to connect with the world artfully—to exercise wise compassion rather than ‘idiot compassion’—if we ourselves have trained in contemplation, becoming more gentle and skilful through our own practice?
Mindfulness and "non-judgement"
I do think the word ‘non-judgement’ is problematic. It’s not actually one that mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn uses in his classic definition of mindfulness, which talks of "the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally." There’s a subtle and distinct difference between not making judgements, and not being judgemental. The former implies not making decisions that could lead to discerning action, while the latter means dropping harsh, overly-critical ways of thinking and reacting.
Because this is so often misinterpreted, I’ve been experimenting with an adaptation: Mindfulness as “the awareness and approach to life that arises from paying attention on purpose, fully present, with curiosity and compassion." The addition of "approach to life" makes it clear that we aren’t practicing to become better navel-gazers, while "curiosity and compassion" (which I’ve taken from the definition used by the Oxford Mindfulness Centre) may offer more clarity than "non-judgementally." Anyone have other suggestions of how to convey mindfulness succinctly and clearly?

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Meditate With Intentions, Not Goals

It's only when we meditate for its own sake—rather than trying to get something from it—that we find the results we're after, says Ed Halliwell

I often see the same thing now in beginning practitioners. Many people come to mindfulness with a desire to be relieved of stress and difficulty, but only when they drop into meditation for its own sake, rather than trying to get something from it, do they find the results they were after. This makes the question of effort a little tricky. There
 is something to do—in order to make a discovery about the power of letting go, we have to show up, be prepared to learn, listen, and engage with the attitudes and practices suggested. But it’s easy to turn this effort into ‘struggling to meditate,' or conversely, to interpret the guidance on letting go as ‘not really caring’—just hang out, let your mind wander, whatever you fancy.I came to meditation after years of trying to improve my life. I’d been stuck in depression for a long time, and meditation was the latest in a long line of wheezes meant to relieve the gloom. However, something curious happened when I followed the instructions given—I discovered it was impossible to meditate and struggle at the same time. Struggle still happened, for sure, but this was when I was ‘trying to meditate,' adding my own expectations or goals to the practice, or ‘not bothering to meditate,' just letting my habits of mind take over. When I actually meditated (staying present, opening to experience, coming back when the mind wandered), the sense of trying, hoping, wanting things to be different, or of giving in to despondency, hopelessness and fear—all this began to fall away. Instead came glimpses of the peace I had been desperately searching for.
Goals vs. Intentions
I’ve found it helpful to distinguish here between intentions and goals. When we make mindfulness a goal, we have—by definition—moved out of the moment. We have created a discrepancy between what we’re experiencing now and what we would like to happen. This inevitably leads to tension—we might begin judging our current experience (or ourselves) as ‘not good enough,’ ‘unacceptable,’ or ‘to be got rid of.' This judgement can put us off—as the caption for one of my favourite cartoons puts it: “I know I’ve only been practising for two minutes, but meditation is not bringing me the peace of mind I was promised.” When we make goals and measure our moments against them, we are virtually guaranteed disappointment.
Making mindfulness an intention is different. Intentions are found (and re-found) in the present, so just by making one, you have already accomplished what you set out to do (well done, you!). An intention cannot fail, because it happens right now. With an intention, there is no required result—we are simply connecting to our chosen course“I’m just going to practise, and see what happens.” Therefore we invite curiosity, a sense of experimentation: “Well, this is interesting, I wonder what’s going to happen now?” Intention has strength, as its rooted in reality, but also suppleness—holding to an intention doesn’t mean our actions can’t change, based on what we discover.
Intentions come from inside, whereas goals are external. In connecting to an intention, we don’t have to look elsewhere for satisfaction—what we desire is already here as a seed within us. We may need some guidance and training to cultivate that seed, but relief comes when we realize we don’t need to try and be something we’re not.
It’s likely that some benefits of mindfulness come just from following a course we trust will be helpful. In other words, by choosing to practise, we already feel we’re on a path to well-being. When we make mindfulness a goal, however, we turn it into a commodity, the benefits conditional on our having to ‘get it’. The implication being that we don’t currently have what we need—there is something missing, and wemight miss out. This is a recipe for tension.
It is true that the traditional goal of practice is to relieve suffering. It is helpful to know this, otherwise we might not be inspired to begin, and or know we’re off course when we start thinking the goal is something else (lots of money, for example, or to be better than everyone else at paying attention). But we get in the way when we struggle to attain this goal directly, rather than through creating the conditions for it to happen through grace. It’s a bit like trying to fall asleep—it helps if you ready your bed and turn the lights down, but if you keep trying to drop off, it just won’t happen. At some point, you have to trust and let go. If you try to relieve your stress, you will have the experience of trying to relieve your stress.
Giving ourselves over to practising awareness and compassion, opening to, working with, and learning from what happens as best we can—these are helpful intentions in mindfulness practice. We can let these intentions carry us when it seems like nothing much is happening, or we aren’t getting what we’d like from our practice. Well-being comes from letting go of struggle—that’s the way to reach the goal.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

There's Peace From the Purveyors of Corporate Mindfulness

With all good intentions, Ed Halliwell writes, a bit of mindfulness in institutions whose activities and attitudes contribute to the world's pain may not amount to much. But it is a good start—toward a mindful culture. 
Along with last week’s Wisdom 2.0 conference in Dublin came some more critical commentary on the adoption of mindfulness in mainstream settings—especially by corporate giants like GoogleA consistent theme has emerged in many such critiques: an apparent discrepancy between the settings in which much mindfulness training takes place, and the professed attitudes and intentions of the practices themselves.Along with last week’s Wisdom 2.0 conference in Dublin came some more critical commentary on the adoption of mindfulness in mainstream settings—especially by corporate giants like Google.
So, the conference at Google Headquarters in Dublin seemed suspect to some, because Google’s sponsoring of mindfulness looks at odds with its place as an immensely wealthy corporate tech giant. Doesn’t it perpetuate a spewing of information which leads to frazzling brains rather than training them in steady, discerning attention? Mindfulness in the military similarly appears strange because there’s an assumed culture of aggression at the core of life in the forces—where is the gentleness of mindfulness here? Even in healthcare, the apparent placing of responsibility on the sick individual to ‘become more mindful’ may seem to encourage a sense of over-responsibility for their condition, when there are biological, familial, environmental, and systemic stressors which may contribute towards symptoms, and which may need a wider kind of treatment.
As I’ve suggested before, there may be a kernel of insight to some of these observations, if mindfulness is practised purely as a form of self-help, or stress reduction. If our motivations remain small, then so will be the outcomes, limited to a form of personal, pragmatic accommodation to a world in which greed, aggression, and delusion continue to run riot. With all good intentions, a bit of mindfulness in institutions whose main activities and attitudes contribute to the world’s pain may not amount to much, although, I would argue, it is a good start.
Meditation can ease the stress of daily life. But awareness takes mindfulness practice beyond self-help and self-enhancement.
As mindfulness becomes a less radical concept and more widespread, I think we’re reaching a point of great opportunity, and some risk. With the rapid adoption of mindfulness, there is the amazing possibility that as we practise becoming more aware of our patterns as individuals, we may also become more aware of the patterns around us that reinforce not just our stress, but that of the wider world. Awareness is the first step to change, because with awareness we can become inspired and empowered to make lifestyle shifts, and these can ripple out into social systems.
But even with meditation practice, it is difficult to really see the cultures in which we’re embedded. As has been said, “We don’t know who discovered water, but it probably wasn’t a fish.” Even, we might add, a mindful fish. So while it’s true that with nothing being said about ethics and morals, mindfulness training can start to connect us to a deeper sense of heartfelt values, and a realisation that materialism doesn’t lead to lasting happiness, it might also be helpful if we’re explicit about the environmental conditions and systems that are conducive to collective well-being. This is, after all, is how we might define a mindful culture—a world in which everyone’s happiness is paramount.
Mindfulness practitioners need to take the conversation beyond the individual benefits of mindfulness. 
Without compromising a basic commitment to allowing space for compassionate awareness to arise, through the practice of curiosity and gentleness, perhaps mindfulness practitioners could be less shy of pointing out the implications of fully embracing this way of being on the structures of society—the creation and sustaining of businesses, governments, local communities, and other institutions whose genuine purpose (and actual activity) focuses on the good of all. And might it not also be helpful to highlight systems and institutions where that may not currently be the case, (and how bringing mindfulness to that culture, not just to individuals within that culture, might be beneficial). This isn’t finger-wagging or an imposition of values, simply a recognition that there is good scientific evidence that certain practices, attitudes and behaviours (such as compassion, connection, generosity, and mindful awareness) lead to greater contentment, and that there are known methods for cultivating and opening up to these wise ways of being.
What would a mindful culture look like? 
Having a conversation about what a culture of mindfulness might mean (leaving, of course, plenty of room for discussion, disagreement and revision), might be a sensible and honest way to respond to the repeatedly arising objections to mindfulness in public and private institutions, as well as outlining a path which can facilitate not just the spread of mindfulness widely, but deeply. Maybe you could help this conversation get started –my intention is to return to this theme in future blogs, and I’d value your reflections. What constitutes a mindful culture? And how does it get created? Please post comments below.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

What My Three-Year-Old Taught Me About Self-Criticism

If it takes months of coaxing to help my three-year-old son unhook from the effects of one negative comment, writes Ed Halliwell, is it surprising that we can't change our habitual ways of being hard on ourselves with a bit of positive self-talk?
For the last year or so, I’ve been taking my eldest son—just turned three—to soccer classes. It’s a light and playful introduction to kicking a ball, and as someone who still enjoys 5-a-side games once or twice a week, it’s a pleasure to discover if this might be a sport for him too.
He enjoys the sessions, so I’ve felt comfortable that I’m not just forcing him to follow in my footsteps, recognizing the possibility that he may decide in time that it’s not something he wants to continue. But I hadn't expected what happened three month ago: just when the weekly lesson began, he suddenly stopped and said: “I’m not very good at soccer, Daddy.”
Where had that come from? I’ve always given him positive feedback as he played, so this sudden self-criticism, accompanied by an unwillingness to put the ball at his feet, left me stumped. Then I remembered back to a few weeks before, when during a development review at his nursery, one of the teachers said—without any sense of negative judgement—that my son was not as strong at ball-kicking as some of his contemporaries. Had he somehow picked up this message? From one of the other children? From the teacher? From me, even if not in words?
It wasn’t a one-off. Over the next several weeks, while he continued to look forward to his ‘Little Kickers’ classes, when it came to getting the balls out, he would tend to move from willingness to sheepishness and occasionally refusal, repeating by way of explanation: “I’m not very good at soccer.”
I wasn’t sure how to handle this. I didn’t want to ignore his feelings, and just keep on encouraging him as if nothing had been said, but at the same time, giving up playing with the ball might leave him with a negative view of his skills confirmed.
Uncomfortable with feeling either like a pushy parent or colluding with the story, I tried gently to respond with something like: “You’re excellent at soccer, I’ve watched you and played with you and you’re doing really well. But it’s okay if you don’t want to kick the ball right now, we can just throw it to each other if you like.”
Sometimes he’d be happy with throwing, sometimes he asked to watch me kick the ball, and occasionally he’d gingerly go back to kicking it himself. I kept reminding him how well he was doing. At the same time, I was noticing and watching my own mental stories—Am I making things worse? Maybe he really doesn't like soccer and I’m projecting my desires onto him?
For a couple of months, the pattern continued, sometimes more often during one session than another. He never seemed upset about attending the classes as a whole, so I continued to engage with him as best I could, taking every opportunity to remind him how capable he is and how proud I am of him, no matter what happened when (or whether) he kicked any balls.
Gradually, his expressions of inadequacy diminished, and a contentment with the ball at his feet visibly grew. Then, a couple of weeks ago, as he ran towards the goal, he turned to me with a broad smile and said triumphantly: “I’m really good at soccer, Daddy!” and kicked a ball without fear into the net. As I saw his joy, I felt a warmth spread out from my chest.
Of course, I don’t really know what happened here – what caused this drop and then return of confidence in my little boy. But it reminds me of what most of us are working with in our mindfulness practice—the voices in our heads that tell us we’re not good enough, and that sap our vitality, increase our anxiety, and lead us to avoid new territories.
Perhaps these voices are not really ours, but based on the opinions of others, and installed in our minds when we were too young to evaluate what’s true? They are likely reinforced by the adaptive (but unhappiness-fuelling) bias in our psyches that makes us super-sensitive to, and disproportionately believing of, critical opinions from others.
If it takes three months of coaxing to help a three-year-old unhook from the effect of what may have been one negative comment or thought, is it surprising that we can’t change our habitual ways of being hard on ourselves with a bit of positive self-talk? Nevertheless, by repeatedly bringing awareness to the voices in our head, approaching them in meditation with gentleness and acceptance (rather than just an aggressive desire to get rid), we are patiently training ourselves to be freed from their grasp.
In time, with a lot of repetition, we may come to view self-critical thoughts, and the uncomfortable body sensations that tend to come with them, as just the remnants of old and unhelpful messages that we don’t need to buy into anymore. They are thoughts, not facts, as the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) mantra has it. Offering ourselves the kindness and acceptance that comes with meditation practice, we are already undoing (maybe even replacing) the wirings that got tangledwhen we weren’t always treated well earlier in life.