The Examined Life
We can do better than a "bit of mindfulness"
Last month I spent a rich and rewarding week on a training retreat for teachers, run by Bangor University’s dedicated mindfulness centre. Glorious Welsh mountains provided the backdrop for our practice (not hard to find inspiration for embodying stillness, steadiness and strength here), while sharing in the wisdom of so many experienced guides made for a fertile learning environment. I felt a deep sense of commitment in the group to offering, as best we can, skillful spaces for people to experience the magic of mindfulness.
A phrase that struck me during the retreat—and it is one I’ve heard many times as meditation-based approaches have spread across the helping professions —is "a bit of mindfulness." People reading "a bit of mindfulness." Therapists using "a bit of mindfulness." Businesses bringing in "a bit of mindfulness" for their staff. Of course, it’s wonderful that practicing meditation is widely respected these days, rather than an implicit admission of borderline insanity, but there’s something about this phrase, and what it implies, that leaves me uneasy.
"A bit of mindfulness" suggests that mindfulness can be separated off, like a plaster to be applied when situations require calm, concentration, or a checking-in with our internal barometer. (And which, by extension, can then be forgotten about, as we get on with the rest of our lives.) While it's true that studies suggest there is value in meditating for a short period of time, over just a few days, I still sense that "a bit of mindfulness" is just what it says—a very small part of something much wider, deeper and potentially transformative.
In his most recent book Minding Closely, the scholar and scientist Alan Wallace offers a view of mindfulness so vast that it could take many lifetimes just to scratch its surface. It’s the most comprehensive book on the subject I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, although with its patient exploration of traditional Buddhist teachings, intertwined with insights from western psychology and physics, it probably isn’t for everyone, at least not as a starting point. What it points to, and what could be missed in a rush to throw "mindfulness" at anything and everything, is there’s a well-plumbed depth to these practices that we’d be wise to attend to, and learn from.
One of the reasons why mindfulness is having such an impact through the world is that it is both simple and revolutionary. It offers so much, and yet it isn’t complicated (although it is challenging). However, if it is to permeate the fabric of our society, rather than just spill on its surface, we can’t take the easy route of presenting meditation as a mere technique, a quick fix for speed and distraction. If we do, its benefits will probably be marginal.
This is a tricky road to navigate: we can come across like the mindfulness police, or a child whose toy is being stolen and broken by the other kids. That won’t do either—it really is wonderful that so many people are learning how to open up to the present moment, with all the joys and difficulties that brings. The task of mindfulness teachers, somehow, is to gently uphold the integrity of the practices with which we are entrusted, to open ourselves to a continual deepening of our own embodiment of them, and to cultivate the conditions in which others can enjoy that same opportunity. That way, our own "bit of mindfulness" can gradually grow into our own "life of mindfulness." Then those we come into contact with might get a glimpse or more of how this journey can unfold.
A week of unfolding in the Welsh hills has expanded my "bit": by calling me back into a regular running practice, helping me cultivate the confidence to be more spacious and inquiring in my teaching, and leading me into closer community with amazing people who are making this their life’s work. For that, I’m enormously grateful.