On 28th March, I joined a staggering 1000 other people at the Friend’s House on the Euston Road for An evening with John Kabat-Zinn. Famed for bringing Mindfulness to the West, 35 years ago, the evening was a celebration and further investigation into this practice: ‘an adventure into the art of conscious living’. The event was run by Action for Happiness, and introduced by their chair, Mark Williamson, an organisation whose prime concern is to take action to try and create a happier world. They do this by looking both outside – calling on political leaders and those with the power to change policy – and inside at the self, in an endeavour to maximise human wellbeing.
Photo: Sarah Lines
JKZ (as I shall call him, for ease) was welcomed to the stage by Lord Richard Layard, the economist – and Labour peer – who made the economic case for IAPT (Improving Access for Psychological Therapy) to the Labour government in 2006. I was thrilled to hear Layard had not only been involved in JKZ’s mindfulness course for parliamentarians (I wish they’d make it compulsory in Whitehall!), but will also be involved in a pilot study to reform PSHE (Personal, Social, Health Education) in schools, including adding mindfulness to the curriculum. But, rather than going off on a tangential rant about the need for cohesive, consistent and relevant emotional and social education in our schools (a matter close to my heart), I shall try and stick to JKZ and mindfulness for the moment – and mindfulness is all about the moment!
Mindfulness – a practice rather than a technique, as it is something you cannot simply learn and store away somewhere, but more a way of living in the world, ideally a way of living that is practised and observed daily – is drawn from the principles of Buddhist meditation, and is essentially the act of being with our experience as it is unfolding, moment by moment. JKZ described it as ‘the awareness that arises intentionally, in the present moment, non-judgementally’. Or something like that – it was quite hard to be in the moment, listen, and frantically scribble notes all at the same time! But breaking it down into its necessary components, it is:
Awareness: This is not ‘doing nothing’, but ‘non-doing’: waking up to the world around us; being present without an agenda.
Intentional: Interestingly, he described it as ‘a radical act to wake up early and take your seat every morning’, particularly in a world where distractions seem everywhere; intentionally being in the moment, rather than the past or future.
Present: Right now, this very moment.
Non-judgemental: He talked about the importance of cultivating an ‘affectionate attention’; ‘putting the welcome mat out for things as they are’.
Mindfulness is essentially being fully mindful, physically, emotionally, mentally of the now; my favourite thing he said was ‘Now is the now. Check your watch – it’s now again’. As a group of over 1000 individuals we all came together in a moment of formal meditation, quite early on in the evening, which JKZ instigated by rolling his sleeves up and saying, ‘Let’s arrive’. Mindfulness is complex in its simplicity and very hard to explain in a few paragraphs or pages, and thus actually doing it was important to the discussion. I found myself repeatedly trying to explain it in my head throughout the evening, knowing my partner would ask when I go home what it had been about. And, pre-emptive of her questioning, trying to answer: But what purpose does it serve? And, as I was trying to be mindful, my thoughts were going: Yes, it’s all very nice to have some quiet time, to reflect, but… although, hang on, we’re in the now, aren’t we? So, we’re not reflecting, we’re….what are we doing again? Oh yes, trying not to think. Eek, I’ve ruined it: I’m thinking. And now I’m worrying about thinking. Which is even worse! Arghhh, I’m really bad at this! So goes the mind chatter.
JKZ says: ‘We need to get out of our own way, to the silence underneath and between every sound’. But, as a relative novice, it’s hard not to want to shout: ‘How?!!’ Yet – and as an educationalist, this is something I hold true for many things – he says we should covet a beginner’s mind, the place where we see things newly, freshly, and non-judgmentally. He also repeatedly reinforced that you can’t develop muscles without resistance, so the fact that trying to be a human being, rather than a human doing, is hard is part of the process. And part of why this is a practice, rather than a technique. He used the analogy of thoughts as weather patterns in the mind, drifting across, which is a metaphor I find really helpful, and will certainly use to calm my chattering mind.
I worried that it could be seen as ego-centric and self-absorbed to dedicate that much time to yourself (which is indicative of both my own hang ups regarding guilt over self-compassion, and that I find any talk of ‘cultivating the garden of the heart’ flips my sceptical switch on). But – and really there doesn’t need to be a ‘but’ to justify it, but I’ll slip one in for other sceptics out there – mindfulness looks out as well as in, and is also about ‘being in wise relationship with the suffering and happiness around us’, learning self-compassion and compassion for others. JKZ also highlighted the urgency of it: destruction is woven into our human nature, and we need to take action – radical, sitting down in silence action it may be – to transform the world we live it. And although he told us, ‘You’re fine the way you are’, none of us would be worse for being mindful of the world in which we live, at this moment, exactly as it is and we are. Interestingly, in all Asian languages the word for heart and mind is the same thing; mindfulness is also heartfulness.
If you need more convincing to take a quiet seat every morning and attune yourself to the cosmos, there is also some amazing sciencey stuff to do with epi-genetics, biochemistry, enzymes and things, which I’m probably not clever enough to explain, so you might want to google. Although the crux of it was that daily practice of mindfulness leads to greater emotional balance, caused by more left than right brain activation in the pre-frontal cortex, and greater anti-body production.
If mindfulness is therefore an ‘act of love, sanity and self-compassion’, which has a positive impact on not just my emotional but also my physical wellbeing, and which also builds compassion for others, then I’m sold. And you can do it sitting down – brilliant!