I spent over five straight minutes in my Theory and Practice I class Wednesday night with my eyes closed, breathing deeply. No, I hadn’t fallen asleep in the middle of a lecture – I was practicing mindfulness with the 21 other students in the class. If you had walked past the classroom, you might have wondered what kind of learning was going on in that class. We were focusing alertly (well, mostly alert – some may have nodded off briefly) on the sounds around us, on our breathing in and out, on the aches and pains in our bodies, on our thoughts drifting past our consciousness like clouds on a bright June day.
Being a good student at Warner means you will (hopefully) become a good counselor. According to one study, promoting mindfulness among psychotherapists in training had a positive impact on the treatment results of their patients, implying that practicing mindfulness has the potential to make therapists better at their jobs (Grepmair et al 2007). In class, Professor Doug Guiffrida discussed how it is a way to focus attention on the present moment in a nonjudgmental way; a manner of “being” and not “doing”. If counselors raise their level of awareness, of their surroundings and themselves, and subsequently bring that into a counseling session, they may be better able to be present with their clients and listen to the clients with their full attention.
In class, I did not raise my hand in answer to the question, “Who practices mindfulness on a regular basis?” I didn’t think I did. But I do practice yoga daily, and I tend to be very mindful during yoga. I often spend a few minutes at the end of yoga meditating, which may also be considered being mindful. So why didn’t I answer the question with a yes?
It could be an issue of wording – by creating an academic term with a slightly unique definition for this practice, do we create a central meeting space, with paths approaching from many different directions (academic, religious, medical)? Can it then be applied to other areas of academia, of life? Or does it instead create distance across disciplines, religions, lifestyles, with its unique definition and empirical application?
Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as “the art of conscious living,” stating that it does not require a Buddhist perspective although it does share Buddhist qualities (2005). By maintaining that “mindfulness” is discrete from religion, and by keeping certain language at bay, researchers maintain a scientific approach and may alienate the practices that are in fact very similar. Some people may participate in these practices but do not recognize them as such. For example, if someone were to call this “prayer,” would it be as accepted in research for its positive effects in the same way? In order to be scientific, must the practice be devoid of any connection to religion, politics or other potentially controversial relations? It seems the need for an untethered word may invariably alienate the potential for an interdisciplinary application. On a basic level, it could mean that the student who practices yoga does not know that she is also practicing being mindful at the same time. How can we, as researchers, practitioners, and consumers of scientific material, best label new approaches that bring together various disciplines and practices in a way that is accessible, without alienating those same disciplines and practices?
Grepmair, L. et al. (2007). Promoting Mindfulness in Psychotherapists in Training Influences the Treatment Results of Their Patients: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Controlled Study. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics 76: 332-338.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York, NY: Hyperion.