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Contemplating Mindfulness

This weekend I’ve been listening in via the internet to a conference titled Creating a Mindful Society. The conference was in New York, but delegates came from many locations, and the internet broadcast reached around the world.

The concept of mindfulness has been drawn out of Buddhist practice and applied to western psychology, most notably by Jon Kabat-Zinn in his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programs. Many other researchers and practitioners in various fields have been studying the effects of mindfulness practices as well as looking at how the brain itself is changed through prolonged use of those practices. The evidence is mounting that the benefits are significant.

But mindfulness is not new, not exotic, and doesn’t require any special abilities. Mindfulness is about paying attention, and about paying attention to how and what we pay attention to. As a music teacher, I saw what could be labelled as mindfulness at work in my young students as they learned to focus their attention on the small details of posture, hand position, physical co-ordination, sound, etc. when learning to read music and play piano. The label didn’t matter at all – they were learning to be fully present with themselves and to create something that allowed them to communicate and connect with others – something every human being has the capacity for at some level. There are, of course, many other activities that help foster this ability. It seems that other things inherent in being human also pull us away from paying attention at this deeper level, and the current call of mindfulness in western psychology (this conference as an example) echoes what ancient contemplative practices encouraged.

Though the roots of mindfulness practice today are in Buddhism, virtually all contemplative practices from the major faith traditions teach similar concepts of attending to the breath, learning to acknowledge and release thoughts and emotions, and developing capacity for compassion for self and others. They promote self-awareness, acceptance, and a sense of connectedness that leads outward to positive action in the world.

My own research looked at contemplative practices held by people in helping professions, and how their personal practice shaped their spiritual journey – and by extension, influenced their work. For many of the research participants, rooting their practice in the meta-narrative of the Christian story helped them recognize and heal from life crises and transitions by recognizing a divine healing presence in the world. This recognition of the divine in their own lives allowed a freedom in professional practice that could include being open to acting as agents of this divine presence. In other words, it allowed for mystery and the intangible alongside skillful therapeutic technique and method – without having to grab tightly onto concepts of “success” or “failure”.

For those who identify themselves as spiritual but not religious, the basic work of mindfulness and other contemplative practices is accessible and rewarding. I also think that it helps to show the common threads between those who claim Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, other traditions, or no particular tradition at all, as their own. Maybe this is the most important concept at the root of religion – communicate, connect, love, and recognize the mystery at the heart of our ability to do these things.
As a footnote, here are a few links to people who spoke at the conference. These people are applying their personal practice to their work in the world, and creating change in their communities and disciplines.

Holistic Life Foundation – Ali Smith & Atman Smith with Andres Gonzalez

Rhonda Magee, JD – Mindful – Living with Awareness and Compassion

Kristi Nelson – Mindful Money

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