The Examined Life
Waking Up to Mindfulness
Ten years ago last March, I decided to seek help for my mind. It was near the beginning of a third (and most crippling) episode of anxiety and depression, and I realized that whatever the outer circumstances behind my despair, resolution had to come from within.
Swamped by distressing thoughts and feelings, I felt there must be a way to manage this inner turmoil. The question was, how? Normally, I would use my mind to solve problems in life—but now my mind was the problem in life. Something different was needed, but I'd no real idea what that something might be.
I found myself embarking on a self-help odyssey. In psychotherapy, I explored why my mind was how it was, and gained useful insights into some habitual patterns and tendencies. But I remained acutely depressed and tense, nowhere near discovering how to manage the unrelenting onslaught of negativity and emotional pain. I read a mountain of psychology books, and went to support groups, alternative therapists, and even a psychic—each to little or no avail. Having tried antidepressants, increasingly desperate visits to the GP were also proving fruitless.
It was about two years into this journey that my therapist suggested learning to meditate. It took me several months to act on this advice, but doing so changed my life. I discovered a meditation center five minutes' walk from my home, and the instructors there were kind and helpful. Too strung-out to sit for long periods, I was advised to begin with "mindful tea-drinking" (just sit and notice the experience of lifting the cup, tasting the tea, putting the cup down again), and perhaps five minutes a day of focusing on the breath. This felt torturous at first—suddenly there was no distraction from my raging mind and body—but at the same time, I sensed some magic happening. I started to notice a part of me that wasn't consumed by depression and fear, and that there was a way to sit still—even peacefully—through deep difficulty. So began a love affair with meditation that continues to this day—I've discovered no better way to work with life than this gentle, precise, liberating practice.
A lot has changed in the last decade. Here in the UK, around 70% of family doctors believe mindfulness meditation would be helpful for their patients, and some even have government-funded courses they can refer people to. Mindfulness-based stress reduction is available in most areas, and newspapers regularly report on meditation's effectiveness for conditions such as depression, chronic pain and addiction. Scientific literature on the subject has exploded: until 2003 there were less than 50 mindfulness research studies a year, while in 2010 this had mushroomed to more than three hundred and fifty. We are learning more and more how meditation practice can be beneficial for the brain, help with illness, and enable us to reach our human potential.
Mindfulness programs are thriving in schools, workplaces, and most other settings where people congregate. Major health charities and government agencies are recommending mindfulness, dozens of books on the subject are published each year, and people who might never have previously encountered meditation are beginning to seek out instruction as a way to manage lives that often seem frenetic or out of control.
The world seems to be waking up to mindfulness. For those of us who believe meditation can bring healing to many of our individual and social wounds, these are exciting times. I'll do my best to chronicle this fledgling process of awakening here, however it continues to emerge. I'll report on the burgeoning science and practice of mindfulness in our 21st century culture—how it grows, develops and transforms. I'll try to highlight areas of interest and concern to practitioners, and warmly invite you to offer your comments too. And because mindfulness requires engagement as well as observation, I hope you'll indulge me if I say some more about my own experience of meditation—some of the joys and obstacles that are part of what seems to be an ever-unfolding practice. I'd be delighted if you shared your stories too...
Please note that in this space, you will also see pieces I’ve written before the blog started, which have been placed here to make it possible to see the work I’ve done that’s already appeared in Mindful.