Life can get very complicated. And I’m great at making even the simple stuff difficult. I have a PhD in it — pretty much! So it was really refreshing last night to be reminded of how amazing the simple stuff really is. That we can hear sounds and voices and make sense of them, that we think thoughts without knowing what a thought really is or what the thinker is, that we breathe and that our heart pumps without us noticing it, that we can move our bodies in a hundred different ways, some big and some small but all a miracle in biomechanics.
And all this simple stuff, though easily forgotten (or habitually ignored) is always going on and by cultivating mindfulness, the non-judgemental awareness of everything that’s going on within our experience at any one time, we can ‘drop in to our bodies’ and take notice of this stuff as it’s happening. And why’s that important? Because by becoming more aware of ourselves and all the small stuff going on in our heads and bodies we paradoxically start to become more aware of others and of the big stuff (and big stuff can be as big as you like — think social justice, global poverty, environmental concerns etc.). Plus greater awareness equals greater happiness and sense of fulfilment (perhaps Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his idea of ‘flow‘).
Seriously great oaks from a small acorn, right?
This lesson in simplicity was offered by Jon Kabat-Zinn, at a talk he did in London last night organised by The School of Life and hosted by Ed Halliwell. I joined hundreds of other people who turned out for this on a Saturday night. I guess we were partly lured there by the name: anyone who’s interested in mindfulness knows this man and his work — his books Full Catastrophe Living and Wherever you go, there you are as well as his guided meditations and youtube talks. But surely we were all there for something more than being in company with a meditation-superstar. Perhaps the hope of kindling, or rekindling, our individual mindfulness practices, of being inspired by his wisdom and joy, reminding ourselves of the origins of Western mindfulness.
JK-Z’s talk was as light as it was deep. He laughed a lot and made us laugh, he had some beautiful turns of phrase that conveyed his message perfectly, he recited poetry for us, and he led us in a meditation. He wasn’t worthy or arrogant, he didn’t proselytise, but he offered us some self-evident truths, some deep wisdom, about the nature of being human and of existing within a social and environmental context. I can’t paraphrase what he said, but I was left with a sense of excitement about the possibilities as well as a feeling peace in the current moment. It reminded me very much of the feeling after a yoga class — the combination of satisfaction of a practice well done combined with the liberated open perspective that bathes everything in a new light of limitless potential and ease.
Mindfulness is a contemporary packaging (if you will) of a number of ancient practices derived in particular from Buddhism, and given the cross-fertilsation in early Indian philosophy it’s no surprise that many of the themes he touched on resonated with my practice and experience of yoga: suffering, compassion, concentration, intentionality, ease, contentment, even social activism. And he explicitly gave a shout-out for yoga practice that he described as ‘incorporating’ i.e. being in the body (in the corpus), a way of experiencing our physicality rather than living in our heads. Oh yes!
It’s a sad truth that mindfulness gets something of a bad press these days, as JK-Z acknowledged, not because there isn’t increasingly a lot of good science to support its claims (like Mark Willliams and his crew on treating depression) and not because there isn’t a lot of great work going on (e.g. the Parliamentary review or the incorporation of Mindfulness into the offerings of the UK National Health Service). Perhaps the very simplicity of the message makes it a difficult one to convey well — both by journalists reporting on it in the popular press as well as by those teaching 8 week courses up and down the country.
So there’s another similarity with yoga, a less fortunate one. Each practice has a simplicity at its core that can get swept away by popular (mis)understanding (the yoga as gymnastics line) or diluted by those who don’t really embody the practices they teach. I think this goes beyond simply saying there are multiplicities of practice. So JK-Z acknowledged this difficulty, the McMindfulness phenomenon, but put it firmly to one side. I think his hope is that the wisdom of millennia should be able to stand the test of time, even our highly connected, instantaneous, selfie-obsessed era. If people want to find more, they’ll look deeper.