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This thing called ‘mindfulness’

Prof Chris Goto-Jones discusses the concept of Mindfulness and our reasons to be in this course.
So hello and welcome. Since you’ve made it this far, that’s into the first session of the first module of this course, you’ve already made the series of momentous decisions and choices. Most importantly, for whatever reason, you’ve decided that you want to know a little bit more about what this thing called mindfulness actually is. And you’ve even decided, whether you’re fully aware of this or not, that you’d like to experiment on yourself a little in order to explore what this thing called mindfulness feels like for you. In fact, one of the things that’s really exciting for me is that you’re here because you want to be here.
Now, you could be doing all kinds of other things with your time but, you’re doing this. So, I’m guessing that you’re not being forced to do this although maybe you are and probably you haven’t been prescribed this by your doctor or that maybe you have. So, there’s something about this thing called mindfulness that has caught your interest and made you think that this might be a good way to spend some of your very precious time. As it happens, taking some time to think about why we’re here is actually a pretty good place to start. The reasons why people become interested in mindfulness can be fascinating in themselves. Not only, but also because it’s not immediately obvious to most people.
Or perhaps even to anyone, what this thing called mindfulness actually means.
What is this thing called Mindfulness, and why are you interested in it? As you might expect, I’ve asked this question of quite a few people in the past, some of them students at university, some of them colleagues at conferences, and some of them participants in stress reduction in our cognitive therapy courses that I’ve taught in various contexts. The answers have been myriad. Indeed, the answers to this question are so interesting, that entire research projects have been run in order to survey and catalogue the various reasons.
You’ll get the chance to explain your reasons to your classmates and to me during this module, but I’d like to spend a little time today talking about some of the reasons that seem to emerge most often. Perhaps, you will recognize some of them. It’s interesting to see what we can learn about the representation of mindfulness today from these reasons. Recent studies have asked participants on mindfulness courses to explain their motivations for attendance. In most cases, participants are given a list of options that the researchers have pre-selected as reasons that they think should explain the motivations of participants in formal mindfulness interventions.
In general, the results suggests that the vast majority of people who take up mindfulness do so because they feel that it will help them to reduce negative experiences. In fact, about 95% of people recognize this as their motivation for participation. This category also includes the aspiration to be calmer to regulate their emotion more effectively and so on. About 30% of people hope that mindfulness will allow them to enhance their sense of well-being which also includes aspects such as feeling happier, being more fulfilled, being more self-aware. And perhaps, even having better concentration and focus.
And indeed a similar proportion of people really become involved because somebody else has told them that they might like it, or they might enjoy it, it might interest them in some way. And a minority of people, about 6%, take up mindfulness because they associate it with religious or spiritual cultivation and in particular with Buddhism. These general responses by people who are taking formally approved and accredited mindfulness courses like Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, its MBSR, or Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy or MBCT do capture quite a few of the most important ways that mindfulness is represented today.
In fact, perhaps you already have a sense of mindfulness as a technique or technology that might help you to cope with or deal with various negative aspects of your life. And in fact, it might also help you to enhance various positive aspects of your life. And given how pervasive and popular mindfulness has become in recent years, it’s quite likely that you already know people who have told you about their experiences of mindfulness in these terms. But one result from these formal studies that surprises me is the relatively small proportion of people who apparently come to mindfulness for reasons associated with spirituality or religion.
Given the amount of mindfulness taught in Buddhist contexts including so-called secular Buddhist contexts, including vipasana or insight meditation centers. This is especially surprising. There are lots of popular reasons for this, which include, for instance, the fact that data like this is usually drawn from populations who attending formal eight week secular mindfulness programs of the kinds that we’ll discuss in module two of this course. So the population is at these to some extent preselected based on their instrumental motivations that is people learning Buddhist mindfulness are effectively excluded from the data. Another possible reason is the vagueness of the terms spiritual and religious.
Which can mean all kinds of things positively and negatively to different people, and it’s not always clear how or whether these differ from concepts like self cultivation, for instance, which might in turn seem very similar to something like the cultivation of well-being and so on. Something that is clear from my own experience is that this last question of spirituality is quite often unresolved in the minds of mindfulness practitioners and everyone else. When I say that it’s unresolved, I mean something like this. Some people come to mindfulness precisely because they’ve been convinced that it has nothing to do with spirituality. But at the same time fearing that it might have something to do with spirituality.
For these people, the idea of spirituality signifies something like the absence of scientific reason. So while their motivation is not about spirituality per se, spirituality is one of their unresolved concerns about mindfulness. Their fear is that contemporary Mindfulness is somehow in denial about its relationship with spirituality, that it both isn’t and is a spiritual discipline at the same time. In fact, this kind of lack of resolution is also present in quite a lot of the scholarship about mindfulness which often navigates uncertainly and nervously around questions of Buddhism and Buddhist psychology. As though talking too much about what is sometimes called the B word might undermined the scientific credibility of the work being done.
Underlying this view is a deep seated cultural scepticism in Western societies that forms of knowledge that have originated anywhere other than Europe are unscientific and ultimately muddle-headed. It’s at least partially because of this that practitioners and scholars remain slightly anxious about what kind of knowledge we’re interested in when we’re interested in mindfulness. But this is also one of the reasons why mindfulness is so cutting edge, and so exciting. It relies on and builds bridges between different traditions of thinking about and experimenting on human consciousness. Today, mindfulness emerges as the real child of a global modernity, bringing together knowledge, theory, and method from multiple disciplines, and many regions from around the world.
In other words, when we talk about spirituality and the context of modern mindfulness, we need not to be talking about new ages and all the hippie movement but then we might be. And we might also be talking about a scientist fear of association with this. We need not be talking about something that opposes scientific method reason or tool. Instead, we could be talking about the idea that mindfulness is a kind of consciousness discipline that exists in the intersection of myriad forms of knowledge and inquiry rooted in the creativity and openness of contemporary science. In other words, our anxiety about the tension between scientific rationality and spirituality is one of the ways in which mindfulness remains rather mysterious and provocative today.
So even if you’re not someone who worries about this personally, the chances are good that you live in a society in which this is a general concern of modernity. It might be worth actually pausing at this point to ask yourself about your motivation for studying this course. In particular, why not check in with yourself right now before we really get started and see how you feel about the possibilities. That, for instance, this journey might be an entirely scientific one. Or that it might also involve elements of the spiritual journey, however we might define that. Or that it might also be both of these things at once. How do you feel about that?
The rest of this first module, we’re going to take a brief look at some sketches of what mindfulness means to different people. We’re going to do this in the form of exploring three big archetypes or ideal types that represent popular preconceptions about mindfulness. Including some fears, some prejudices, but also some romances about it. And then in the rest of this course, we’re going to slowly and systematically work out which elements of these preconceptions stand up to scrutiny. And which are simply misconceptions or fantasies. We’re going to look at the figures of the monk, the ninja, and the zombie. And today we’ve already considered some of the preconceptions of the scientist, our fourth model.
These sketches which are sometimes ridiculous also provide us with a way into the big question. What the heck is this thing called mindfulness? At the very least, these preconceptions reveal that there are a number of different and sometimes competing understandings of and associations with mindfulness today. Which can leave us confused or even mystified about what it actually is or even whether it’s actually anything at all. So, having explored some of these terrain. The rest of the course aims to map out and demystified the landscape explaining what this mindfulness thing really looks like today and how we can sensibly talk about it in different ways and in different senses.

You have made your first decision. You have decided that you want to know what this thing called ‘mindfulness’ actually is. In this first content video of the course, I reflect on why we are here.

Lets Discuss

Purpose: consider and analyze your own preconceptions about Mindfulness.

Task: Think carefully about the kinds of images of Mindfulness you have encountered in the press, in literature, or in person. Reflect on your own experiences and expectations.

Respond: Write a comment that sets out your preliminary views about the meaning and dimensions of Mindfulness today. What does it mean to you and what do you think about people who engage with it?

Time: 5-10 minutes to write an original comment, and then 10 minutes to respond to 2 other comments. You can also like other people’s comments.

Leiden University

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Demystifying Mindfulness

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