Wednesday 23 January 2019

The revolution in your head

Her mind is well able to flit from work to Twitter, from work to email, and from celebrity websites to the demands of her kids, says Emily Hourican, but she worries about her diminishing concentration span and her ability to slow down and focus her mind.

‘Karl Marx hated religion because it was opium for people who should have been jumping up and demanding better. Mindfulness may be the same’ — Emily Hourican
‘Karl Marx hated religion because it was opium for people who should have been jumping up and demanding better. Mindfulness may be the same’ — Emily Hourican
‘Once upon a time, it was Buddhist, part of ancient meditation practices and breathing exercises used to combat mental suffering, but now mindfulness has been secularised, repackaged and celebrity-endorsed’ — Emily Hourican tries getting mindful

Emily Hourican

And she's not alone. Increasingly, the fast-moving world is turning to mindfulness and she gives it a try, letting her mind drift out of anxiety and into thoughts of peace and quiet. And burritos.

'Just observe the breath as it goes in and out . . . Find the point at which the incoming breath becomes outgoing, and allow yourself to be aware of that . . . Let the mind consider that point for a moment . . ." The voice is as you would expect: slow, measured, sonorous; unhurriedly talking us through the stages of the meditation process.

I am carefully doing exactly as I'm told, following the breath in and out, in and out, considering the changeover point. I am also thinking about the amount of salt I put on the aubergines, did the eldest make football training on time, why is that man across the room breathing so loudly, do I still need to make that phone call in the morning? And burritos. There is a burrito bar across the road, a good one, and, throughout my meditation, thoughts of these come unbidden, but regularly.

The feeling in my shoulders as I breathe in and out . . . the feeling in my feet as they touch the floor . . . the sounds around me . . . burritos . . . And so on.

But that's OK. Because this is mindfulness, where anything goes.

My last experience of mass relaxation was back in college, when a friend forced me along to a TM (Transcendental Meditation) session held in a room off Dawson Street that stank of feet and was so full we were packed in like sardines. At the point at which our guide, or spirit leader, or whatever he was, introduced himself by saying, "Good evening, my name is Sanga Pura," in a broad Glaswegian accent, silly little me started to giggle and couldn't stop.

And so it was with more than average mistrust that I pitched up to a drop-in mindfulness session at a city centre spot one Monday evening recently. I have – like half the world, it seems – been following for a while now a 10-minute daily programme via a trendy app I downloaded, but taking it to the next level? That seemed a mighty step.

The room was full of strangers, about 20 of them, evenly split between men and women, aged late 20s to late 50s at a guess. Brown hairy carpet, dim light and a faint smell of garlic. Chairs in a roughly semi-circular shape. Noisy inside – people breathing, coughing, sniffing, moving. And outside – wet city, buses thundering past, bottles being emptied, cars honking.

My first thought was relief that there was no one there I knew, which showed me that, although we might all be talking about mindfulness these days, there must still be a teeny bit of stigma attached to actually going somewhere to practise it. In my mind anyway. My second thought? Why is there always a faint smell of garlic?

I took a rug from the pile, the last cushion, and what seemed the warmest spot in the room, between two heaters, which made me worry that I was being selfish and not very mindful. I looked around for somebody older or sniffier than me to offer it to, but eye contact was being studiously avoided throughout; we might have been about to be mindful, but we weren't mad enough to go looking for human connections and camaraderie in a neutral public space.

The first 25 minutes was a guided meditation, during which we considered first our breathing, then the physical sensations in our bodies, then the sounds inside and outside the room, then our thoughts, then our emotions.

"Kindness", "tolerance", "awareness" – these are the buzzwords of mindfulness. It's not about forcing a state of relaxation by deep, controlled breathing, or focusing on positive thoughts, or sending "white light" to the parts of your body and mind that feel discomfort.

With mindfulness, you simply note the feeling, good or bad, and acknowledge it. You don't try to change it, you just "make space for it", and then move on.

There is no chanting, no mantras, no whale sounds to distract. Just the mind, going where it goes, as we try to learn to observe it, notice the thoughts, positive and negative, without engaging with them, gently bring our attention back when we realise it has wandered, to contemplating the feeling in our knee or the base of our skull.


‘Once upon a time, it was Buddhist, part of ancient meditation practices and breathing exercises used to combat mental suffering, but now mindfulness has been secularised, repackaged and celebrity-endorsed’ — Emily Hourican tries getting mindful

Basically, you follow your mind around, like a patient mother with an inquisitive toddler, not interfering or directing, just observing. And so you get boredom, anxiety, flashes of peace, discomfort, painful and pleasant recollections, football training, aubergines and burritos, all jumbled in together.

The second part of the session was more interactive. People spoke about their reasons for coming. "Why do we sit?" was the question. The answers were: "To feel happy," "To feel OK about being unhappy," "To make time for mind myself," "To accept uncertainty," and, "To be with myself, and my feelings of unworthiness and fear."

It was, as the kids would say, awkward! But it was also very human. Very honest. Very 21st Century. These are the concerns and questions of the age, and the answer, increasingly, is mindfulness.

We are in the middle of a kind of mindfulness revolution. Peak mindfulness, you might call it. There are now endless books on it as applied to every aspect of life, including diet, exercise, sex, work, driving, gardening, shopping, politics, consuming, and raising our children, and the word is part of the constant babble of our lives. "I must be mindful not to miss the post office," a woman at the school gates said to me this morning. "Sink mindfully into the stretch," says my Pilates instructor.

Once upon a time, it was Buddhist, part of ancient meditation practices and breathing exercises used to combat mental suffering, but now mindfulness has been secularised, repackaged and celebrity-endorsed. Goldie Hawn has a whole foundation devoted to it, while Meg Ryan believes that "by simply refocusing our awareness, we reshape our experience." Arianna Huffington, Time magazine and even Bill Clinton are on board, and the evidence is stacking up that mindfulness actually "works".

Just one example is a recent study in the American journal, Archives of General Psychiatry, which found that Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) was as effective as the use of antidepressants among a controlled group in remission from major depression. In the UK, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) adopted it in its guidelines for treating chronic depression.

Other recent studies have shown that it boosts the immune system and encourages left-field brain activity, the side that produces feelings of wellbeing. Get rid of the religious overtones, the saffron robes, quinoa-eating and incense-burning, and mindfulness flourishes right at the heart of the mainstream health system in the US, the UK and Ireland. GPs are recommending it, public hospitals are prescribing it, and the psychiatric services are relying on it.

The real question is, why? Why now? Why us? Why this? As the world moves faster, and drags us along in its speeded-up train, we are all starting to feel disconnected.

It is no accident that the rise in mindfulness popularity exactly mirrors the rise in communications technology – a slow, steady upward curve of growth from the 1970s, moving into a sharp peak over the last 10 years. This is exactly the time frame during which we all got hooked on mobile technology, and embraced the double-edged sword of remote working ("You don't have to be in the office – yay!" "You can never be out of contact – boo!")

The combination of those two things means that, for most of us, not being connected to and not checking our devices, is impossible. We switch frantically between whatever we are doing – talking, working, cooking, walking, resting, painting the bathroom – and "just quickly checking" our emails, texts, Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Most of us do it 110 times a day, and up to every six seconds in the evening. We check last thing at night and first thing in the morning, and feel a constant, gnawing fear in between.

I didn't contribute to the group discussion around "why we sit", but, if I had, I might have mentioned my fear of diminishing concentration. The feeling of never doing anything with a complete mind because I switch so quickly between work and email, work and Twitter, work and checking celebrity websites, so that, sometimes, my brain seems to only operate in 30-second bursts before it goes looking for distraction. And my even greater fear that whatever patience and tolerance I have as a parent is being eroded because of this fractured concentration.

As our lives rush past at top speed, it is no wonder we are becoming hooked on something that promises to slow us down, force us to consider the moment, to connect with our feelings, but maintain distance from them. Mindfulness promises to do these things, and it promises to make us feel better, sleep better and, crucially, perform better. Because we might want to slow things down a bit, feel that we are actually experiencing the moments before they pass on, but we don't want to step off the train entirely. We still want in, but now we want to be better at being in.

Mindfulness is the perfect modern antidote to modern malaise, because it doesn't force a rejection of it. You incorporate mindfulness into your life and it works from within to improve it, like a benign Trojan horse, or that glue you squeeze into wall cracks that expands as it dries, getting into every cranny and keeping the wall rock-solid.

It doesn't require you to renounce things or reject things, or make any drastic changes. Mindfulness does not encourage you to chuck up your life and grow hemp on a mountainside using only traditional methods. No, mindfulness offers to translate and mute modern life, not change it. Instead of changing the world, you change yourself, from within. You don't challenge the status quo, you learn to manage it better.

"I have seen a huge increase in interest in the last two years," confirms Josephine Lynch of So who are the people who are coming to her? "All sorts. Quite a few have been sent by their doctors because they are suffering panic attacks. One guy who came had physical symptoms so bad that he thought it was a tumour. Actually, it was panic."

This ties in with my observations of the drop-in session. The people around me are perfectly "normal". Not one of them would stand out in a bus queue, a restaurant or the school gates. They do not seem sick (bar the general coughing), neurotic or overwrought.

Whatever they are looking for, they have succeeded in hiding their need for it very efficiently. Either that, or we now all have similar needs.

Stressed executives, frustrated jobseekers, exhausted stay-at-home mothers, the anxious, depressed, sleepless, even bipolar, are all deriving benefit from focusing their awareness on, say, a raisin. Examining the texture, the shape, the colour, minutely. Observing the way in which the raisin relates to its surroundings, the place in which it lies. Putting the raisin in their mouth, focusing on the feel, the size, all before even considering the taste. And so on. They want a reason to continue; they get a raisin.

That mindfulness works is immensely good news for the health system, because depression and anxiety-related disorders cost billions each year. In 2006, it is estsimated that €3bn was spent in Ireland on mental-health issues and the WHO reckons that, by 2030, these issues will form the biggest burden on healthcare resources. Mindfulness is cheap – an eight-week course costs around €350.

And it may be good news for the public, too. Mindfulness taps into our growing mistrust of medication, as well as a desire to see mental and stress-related ailments treated holistically, rather than in isolation, not to mention a kind of general frisson around ancient – preferably Eastern practices – a sort of 'Oh la la, it's 5,000 years old, man' type of thing. It also puts the onus back on the patient. The health service very grandly calls this "putting the patient at the centre of their own recovery" – and that is, of course, highly desirable. But it also means that patients can be held responsible for the success or failure of their treatment. "Did you follow the courses? Did you do your practice? If not, well, hey, you've got no one to blame but yourself!"

So, mindfulness is great. I can see that. The problem is, it isn't quite as great as the claims. It is not a panacea, just as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) wasn't, nor Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), nor Prozac before that. Just as nothing ever is. There are no quick-fixes, no five easy steps. The experts understand this, but, at this point of peak mindfulness, the PR suggests that there is, and this is it.

"Mindfulness is not about never being anxious, depressed or angry," Josephine Lynch explains. "It is not magical thinking or positive affirmations. Nor is it a quick fix. It is hard work," she insists. "Brain imagery shows changes to the frontal cortex – the part of the brain that helps you to feel happy and centred – with mindfulness practice. But making new neural pathways takes effort; the changes are lasting – as long as you keep practising." Equally, it is not, in fact, for everyone. Paul Gilligan, clinical psychologist and CEO of St Patrick's Mental Health Services, where mindfulness is an official part of the recovery model, explains, "Mindfulness plays a key role in our approach, but it is rarely effective in isolation, and it doesn't suit everyone."

He goes on to say that timing is everything. "Someone experiencing an episode of acute mental health difficulty will not benefit from mindfulness, because they are not in a place to do that. If they begin it at the wrong time, or it simply doesn't suit that person, there is a real danger that they will experience a sense of failure, and that will be a setback. Once they start to recover, and, if it suits them, then mindfulness will have a good preventative effect."

But there is another problem with it that has nothing to do with whether it "works" or not. Respected UK chartered clinical psychologist and author of They F*** You Up and Affluenza, Oliver James, is a long-term CBT sceptic. So what does he make of mindfulness? "It's a hell of a lot more useful than CBT, if it is done in a way that is not too CBT-ish," he says. "Almost anybody, whether they are schizophrenic or a stressed mother, will benefit from practising a mindfulness-based awareness. If you just sit still and relax every day, you will be better. But you can't possibly say that mindfulness is a panacea, and some of the claims for it are pretty outrageous. What has really been shown to work for psychiatric and psychological illness is a long-term therapeutic approach directed towards childhood causes.

"One of the evil things about CBT is that it prohibits any discussion of these childhood causes, in favour of a cheap, quick-fix. Mindfulness is being used in a similar way. It is not as superficial as CBT, but it is being oversold. The trick being used is to claim that these things – CBT, mindfulness – are scientifically-based, whereas, what the scientific evidence actually shows is that only by looking at the background, the childhood, and doing work around that, can patients really benefit."

The root problem, according to James, is that "professionals themselves don't know what to do. In the case of psychology, they have been failing for decades, and, in the case of psychiatry, for a century. So now they are looking for ways to boot the problem into touch, and place responsibility for their mental health back onto patients.

"The bottom line is, we need a radical change to our whole society, not 20 minutes of mindful meditation every day. We are six months to five years away from the next huge economic crisis, which will be much worse than the last one. The whole system is going to come unstuck, and we have done nothing to change selfish capitalism or affluenza. Nothing has been fixed. Treatment for mental illness is the same as always, scratching at the surface."

Karl Marx hated religion because it was opium for people who should have been jumping up and demanding better. Mindfulness may be the same, because it keeps people ticking over in an ambient status quo, who might otherwise insist on a better deal. This is most obvious when you look at mindfulness in the corporate world.

Intel, AOL Time Warner, Apple, Deutsche Bank, eBay, Google, IBM, and scores more, have all incorporated mindfulness into the workplace. Which might be very pleasant for employees, but what does it actually mean? The grotesque efficiency of the capitalist system – surely the next thing to a cockroach in terms of survival and adaptability – will ensure that only those aspects of mindfulness that play to the system will make it through.

And so the danger is that mindfulness gets used as a kind of placating method and becomes part of what has been called Cow Psychology, because docile cows give more milk. Big corporations have been guilty of adopting this; like building in opportunities for employees to discuss their concerns, even though nothing is ever done to tackle them, but, hey, they feel better for talking.

Buddhists, who, after all, invented the thing, distinguish between "right" mindfulness and "wrong" mindfulness, and the distinction is whether the quality of awareness is characterised by good intentions and positive mental qualities that lead to a better world for all humankind, not just oneself. "Right" mindfulness is not just about stress reduction and better sleep; it's about improving conditions for everyone.

Sadly, that bit – along with the religious references and saffron robes – sometimes gets lost along the way.

Back in the dimly-lit room, we are told to open our eyes "in our own time". As we gather our belongings and put our shoes back on, the lady next to me smiles. She's the one who said she wanted to "feel OK with being unhappy". I smile back. I hope she gets more than that.


Photographed at the Morgan Hotel by Kip Carroll

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