It never ceases to amaze me how the Western world of capitalism strives to constantly improve and innovate in order to differentiate itself from the endless competition that the market based environment creates. I guess that this is the purpose of my blog: to share some of my experiences of how I view the combination of the inner world of high-flying corporate and investment banking and more holistic ways of living (see my first blog post: ‘the yogi banker is born’).
Little then to my surprise did I see a “mindfulness” session appear at my local Pilates studio (well, it has actually become more than a Pilates studio, it’s become a haven for all things exercise-related and fashionable, another sign of the times that we live in, where industry strives to create the latest and greatest exercise routine going around….). Mindfulness has become all the rage recently. It seems that it’s a bit of a corporate buzzword these days, a cure for all the modern-day ills. I’ve been on skiing trips where high-flying partners at leading accountancy firms with an assured and confident look on their face, have casually dropped in conversation that they are starting a “mindfulness course” next week as if this were the next panacea hoping to resolve all our problems. What then is this mindfulness thing all about?
Mindfulness actually has its roots 25 centuries ago in the teaching of the Buddha who lived and taught in the Northeast of India in the fifth century BC. The Buddha offered his teaching (called the “Dharma”) in order to provide humans with a systematic method in their quest for happiness and to be free from suffering. This spread throughout southeast Asia, along with Buddhism, where various lines of meditation developed and continue to this present day in many monasteries around the world.
What happened next seems to be a common story about how the West was introduced to the next greatest thing that the oriental world has to offer. So, the story goes something like this (I’ve heard this countless times, I forget how many enlightened ones I have encountered so far on my journey which all share a similar story): as the world becomes more accessible because of the age of cheaper jet travel, some yogi, guru, Buddha (or whatever you want to call him) gets on plane in the 1960’s or 70’s and lands in New York, London or wherever and starts teaching his or her venerable methods to us all. Eager western disciples travel to far away lands to learn more about these practices, embrace this way of life and then on return to their homeland, eagerly begin to share what they have learnt with their fellow people. Suddenly, we are all enlightened and a path forward is found, freeing us from the endless misery that the western world has created. Isn’t that all ironic? With all the wealth and abundance that we in the West have, we are more anxious and depressed than ever…!
In fairness to mindfulness though, it has seemed to set off a bit of a bonfire of excitement amongst the medical community where “mindfulness based stress reduction” courses have been developed by leading practitioners such as Jon Kabat-Zinn which have brought relief and hope to many poor afflicted souls. It has also resulted in studies showing that mindfulness can “re-wire your brain”, eliminate anxiety, depression, improve sleep, weight loss?! etc……I don’t know… the lists of claims being made relating to its benefits seem to be endless.
Well then, this is all great for us in the West who are burdened by consumerist driven minds, but as mentioned earlier, mindfulness based meditation is actually a core part of the Buddha’s teachings. In a commentary I have read, mindfulness is described as follows:
“And what, monks, is right mindfulness? Here, a monk dwells contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed covetousness and displeasure in regard to the world. He dwells contemplating feelings in feelings… contemplating mind in mind… contemplating phenomena in phenomena, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed covetousness and displeasure in regard to the world. This is called right mindfulness”
What does mindfulness really mean? A canonical perspective Bhikkhu Bodi Contemporary Buddhism, volume 12, issue 1 (may 2011), pp. 19-39. Taken from a collection of essays in “Mindfulness, Diverse Perspectives on its Meaning, Origins and Applications” edited by J. Mark G. Williams and Jon Kabat-Zinn, 2013.
While it may be difficult for the average mind to distil and understand its meaning, it is clear that its intention is not merely to provide a method to alleviate and provide relief from the modern ailments that are ever-present in today’s world. This is merely the first step. It goes well beyond that, to something about the impermanence of the world we inhabit and our relationship to it. I wonder if people, if they truly knew this, would look at their daily mindfulness meditation practice in a different way.
However, that is not to say that the modern methods that the West has developed are not credible or therapeutic (to the contrary, they clearly are). My point is that the modern methods that we all engage in today have their roots in ancient practices of which these said methods only scratch the surface. My therapist (who incidentally, is also the teacher of this class at my local studio!) was kind enough to suggest to me the other day to “forget about that” [i.e. practising Western style mindfulness meditation] and go deeper with my meditation practice. Since then, my daily practice has certainly taken a different meaning and I am slowly starting to realise why they all say that it’s all about finding that inner peace, or “heaven within” (I’m sure I’ve said that phrase in one of my earlier blogs :)) rather than simply being “mindful” e.g. labelling thoughts as simply “thoughts”, bodily feelings as just “sensations”, being “mindful” whilst tasting the “sultana in my mouth”….
So in all, the corporate world has clearly taken hold of the “mindfulness” thing and is offering it in association with other more traditional forms of exercise. I think we can expect more of this as the world evolves, especially as stress levels continue to rise. I think it’s a perfectly acceptable method for anyone new to meditation to discover what it’s all about. I actually bumped into my therapist in the City the other day. She commented upon her class and the emerging trend for busy professionals to fit in holistic practices in their work day. There are apps too which offer this stuff like “Headspace” and all that.
All this is great, I wonder though what the Buddha would make of it all if he were around today? The original story of mindfulness is all there for those who wish to seek and enquire. But the adaptation of his original methods seem to be helping people today, which can only be a good thing too, irrespective of whether people really know what the story is all about.