Many people who learn mindfulness on courses such as MBCT and MBSR derive sufficient benefits to continue practising long after their basic training. Some go more deeply into phenomenological enquiry through meditation. Some channel mindfulness into creative and compassionate engagement with the world. Some do both. But others do neither, instead getting stuck in cul-de-sacs of aloof passivity and self-absorption.
The story of Headspace is analogous to the story of secular mindfulness. Both sprouted in the Nineties, budded in the Noughties and blossomed in the Tens. Both took their cue from the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn et al. and Buddhist source materials. Both achieved a rapid advance in popularity. Both have not always dealt gracefully with their fame and, at times, have suffered from a kind of identity crisis.
Not so long ago, if you sought instruction in the ancient craft of mindfulness you would need to invest time and energy. Perhaps you would do an intensive eight-week course or join a residential retreat. Perhaps you would humbly request bespoke guidance from a geographically accessible meditation master, who might try to discourage you if they intuited you’d get flaky once the novelty of meditating wore off (let’s be honest, that’s true for most of us). Whichever way you went about it, there was a definite starting point to your endeavour and a clear commitment made – by you, to others.
Such is the subtlety of mindfulness that it’s easy to get muddled about its what’s, how’s and why’s. A common confusion is to divorce, often unintentionally, the cultivation of present-moment awareness from a warm-hearted embrace of the world. If your mindfulness isn’t umbilically connected to your heartfulness, it’s not mindfulness fully bloomed. By contrast, if your mindfulness is allowing you to be more awake to the world around you so that you might respond skilfully, then your practice is in good shape.
A couple of hours after I heard that the Buddhist monk, peace activist and poet Thich Nhat Hanh (aka Thay) had died in January, I received mail in the post with the words “Mindful eating changes everything“ emblazoned across its front. There was something marvellous about the synchronicity of these two events. As I scooped the mail from the letterbox on that cold winter’s morning, still absorbing the news of Thay’s death, the world of mindfulness split neatly in two.