Does mindfulness increase wellbeing?
Clinical Director and Research Co-ordinator,
Breast Cancer Haven
Summary Since the 1960s interest in mindfulness and its practice in the west has been steadily growing. Mindfulness programmes such as Jon Kabat-Zinn devised 30 years ago have supported the introduction of mindfulness practice into healthcare, education and society.
As people search out ways for preventing illness and improving their health and wellbeing, the need for such non-doctrinebased programmes has never been greater.
The increasing number of health professionals providing mindfulness programmes reflects this, as does the recent burst of healthrelated research in the area, which this paper overviews.
Ever since I was old enough to wonder about it, I have been seeking understanding of the purpose of life and exploring ways to reach enlightenment.
This has taken me on a number of paths. In 1991 I was ‘accidentally’ introduced to mindfulness.This has become my daily personal meditation practice and a way of living that I apply to my life in combination with a strong yoga practice.
The combination of these two approaches enable me to live a happy and fulfilling life and enable me to share what I have learned to help others. In 2009, I completed my PhD evaluating mindfulness in women with breast cancer who attended Breast Cancer Haven. Results from this study will be published soon.
What is mindfulness and where does it come from?
Mindfulness is about living the full experience of our lives as it is happening. ‘Mindfulness or awareness does not mean that you should think and be conscious ‘I am doing this’ or ‘I am doing that’. No, just the contrary. The moment you think ‘I am doing this’, you become self-conscious, and you do not live in the action, but you live in the idea ‘I am’, and consequently your work too is spoilt. You should forget yourself completely, and lose yourself in what you do’1 Baer et al 2 describe mindfulness as ‘bringing one’s complete attention to the experience occurring in the present moment, in a non-judgemental or accepting way’.
Mindfulness practice is most obvious in the Buddhist tradition, for its cross-cutting concept of being fully present is central to Buddhist philosophy. But mindfulness is a core concept shared with many traditions and philosophies including the yogic traditions, Greek philosophy, Christianity, phenomenology, existentialism and modern day works on spiritual enlightenment.3, 4, 5 Buddhism describes mindfulness as a way of being in the world that relieves suffering through knowing, shaping and liberating the mind.6 Nonetheless, mindfulness is a practice that can be learnt without becoming a Buddhist through programmes developed in the western world such as mindfulnessbased stress reduction (MBSR).
What is mindfulnessbased stress reduction Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a structured eight-week course developed by Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn and described in his book Full catastrophe living.7 MBSR proposes that the cultivation of awareness of the present moment and acceptance of whatever arises in each moment, can help calm the mind and body (and enable us be more in touch with our essential nature as human beings). Kabat-Zinn – a molecular biologist with a strong personal practice of mindfulness – saw, while on a mindfulness retreat, how this practice could benefit the wider community. He felt it might be particularly relevant for people with health problems, and in University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979 he began the programme that subsequently became known as MBSR. (www.mindfullivingprograms.com) MBSR courses teach techniques that enhance awareness of the present moment.
They also emphasise living mindfully as a way of life, as a generic approach to dealing with stress rather than a technique for coping with specific conditions such as cancer, pain or mental illness. Once learned, MBSR requires daily practice of sitting or lying mindfulness meditation, and mindful physical exercises such as yoga or Qi Gong.
Among their theories put forward by psychologists to help us understand what happens in the body and mind during stressful situations is the notion of experiential avoidance. This attempt at avoiding distress in its many guises is a core mechanism in the development and maintenance of psychological distress.
Siegal explains that mindfulness practice is generically beneficial because it effectively antidotes experiential avoidance.8 Santorelli suggests that mindfulness can also help bring about insight, so that rather than being reactively driven by fear, habit or training, a person becomes freer to choose more appropriate responses to a situation.