Mindfulness has become increasingly popular as a mental health treatment in Western countries over the past couple of decades. It has its roots in Buddhist meditation techniques which are designed to train the mind to be able to focus its attention away from thoughts and onto our present-moment experience, in particular our physical sensations such as breathing.
One of the primary goals of meditation in Buddhist spiritual practice is to overcome the suffering caused by craving or ‘attachment’. This arises from an understanding of human suffering as arising from our attachment to pleasurable experiences and sensations, and our aversion to painful or negative experiences. The goal of meditation practice is to therefore cultivate an attitude of non-attachment, a non-judgemental, non-reactive awareness of whatever is arising in our present-moment experience. The term used for this non-reactive attitude is ‘equanimity’.
Re-stated in psychological terms, this can be thought of as our mind’s letting go of the desire or need for things to be other than what they are. It involves a form of what Tara Brach calls ‘radical acceptance’, in which we come to terms with our inability to control what happens to us and how our mind and bodies respond to events. In regard to mental health, this has been recognised as an effective tool for treating anxiety, as it speaks to a core feature of anxious rumination which is an attempt by our mind to gain control over perceived threats through over-thinking. The practice of mindfulness can therefore help to draw our mind’s attention away from the negative thoughts (which will be in turn activating negative emotions and physical threat responses), and into our bodies. This not only brings our attention out of the past and future and into the present, but cultivating equanimity and non-reactive awareness of points of tension and pain in our body can help interrupt the internal feedback loop between our mind and body which keeps us in a state of high anxiety.
However, it’s worth noting that mindfulness and meditation do not always result in increased calmness, at least not initially. It can also draw our attention to emotional and physical pain that we may have dissociated or distracted ourselves from, bringing something into our conscious awareness which has been blocked out for being too painful or overwhelming. Whilst this can have many benefits, it may be too destabilising for some people to practice on their own without the support of a therapist. It’s also worth remembering that mindfulness is not a panacea, and should only be promoted as an additional helpful tool alongside other mental health treatments.