I was surprised recently when a debate about religion in Britain on Sky News suggested that mindfulness was an 'alternative' religious practice. This really shocked me and although it may have just been one person’s opinion, I was worried that this type of thinking may put people off learning about it.
Although it’s natural to associate meditation with Eastern religions, I think it’s important to remember that it’s also a clinical technique.
I have personal experience with this, as my more spiritual introduction to the subject put me off and kept me way from it for many years. Before I tell my story though, It's probably best to explain a few things.
I think the main thing people need to consider is that it has purely physical, rather than spiritual, applications. You don't need to wear robes and there's nothing extraordinary involved with this process. Doctors also prescribe it as a treatment based on clear scientific evidence.
To many, mediation is simply a matter of sitting still, focussing on the present moment and observing, rather than reacting to your thoughts. Mindfulness is even more straightforward, as it's essentially the act of focussing on the present moment.
I think it would be a great shame if someone dismissed the clear benefits of mindfulness and meditation because they considered it a religious, or even supernatural, practice. I don't think it would cause offence if I suggested that it was more of a component of some religions spiritual practices, rather than a core aspect of them, either.
I have some personal experience with this, as my introduction to mindfulness came from a more spiritual source and it really put me off it for a number of years.
In 2003, I came across a book in a Borders store called The Power of Now. Its author, Eckart Tolle described a spiritual transformation he'd experienced and went on to share his insights into the incredible power of the present moment.
While it wasn't associated directly with any religion, the book focussed on the spiritual aspects of the subject and suggested that there was a divine nature to the present moment.
I'm not here to play the role of the materialist skeptic though, as I do like to keep an open mind. The problem for me was that I personally couldn't accept a lot of these ideas and in some ways, this closed me off to the core teachings about mindfulness.
That said, I was able to benefit from the book in many ways. As I was on holiday at the time, I was able to take long walks on beautiful beaches and really connect with the present moment.
It felt amazing, but it soon slipped away when I returned to the 'material world'.
There was nothing supernatural about this though, because I now realise that I'd simply learned about mindfulness. The problem for me is that it had been presented as a spiritual process where something external was making it happen.
As I grew more skeptical, I moved away from it all as I simply couldn't accept a lot of the teachings and I was worried what people would think if I discussed it.
This was until I was introduced to the book Mindfulness by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. This clinical introduction to mindfulness quickly showed me that everything I had been doing has more of a basis in psychology than spirituality. Rightly or wrongly, it made it something I could accept and speak about with others.
The most important thing was that I realised it was a simple process, that didn't require me to unlock anything in my mind.
I'd really like to point out though that all of this is just my opinion and I'm not criticising Eckart Tolle, or saying that he's wrong in any way. I still believe his intentions are good and I'm sure that anyone could benefit from most of the teachings in his books, regardless of whether they believe them.
All I'm saying is that I personally can't accept it all and that I wish I had found a more practical introduction to the subject. That said, this experience hasn't put me off of adopting a balanced view of the subject now, particularly as I'm less concerned about how people may judge me.
While I essentially promote the practice as purely a clinical technique, I am still open to some of the more spiritual aspects. If anything, I think these teachings can make the physical practice more effective at times and you don’t have to accept everything you read as a definitive statement.
I think it’s also important to be open-minded and follow what you think is likely, rather than what other people tell you is possible.
Over time, I’ll be introducing some books and teachings on this blog regarding mindfulness that some people may not be entirely comfortable with at first. I think it’s important to consider all points of view though and although I don’t necessarily believe it, I am interested in it.
I'll be making it clear that people should start with a practical introduction though.
I think the blurred lines between the physical and spiritual aspects of the subject will always cause confusion. Because of this, I think it's important to make sure people get a practical introduction. They are then free to take their journey wherever it leads them and I think that both directions can be equally rewarding.
This confusion may be why people are increasingly referring to meditation as mindfulness now and it was one of the reasons I named the section of the site that introduced it 'Clear Mind & Focus'.
Based on my previous experience, I wanted to move away from preconceptions and get straight into what it essentially is. I can't think of any reason why anyone wouldn't want to try it as there are such clear benefits and it can seriously change your life, regardless of how you approach it.
In closing, I have one more example from my own life that may be useful.
Years ago, I studied Kung Fu and took part in weekly classes in a church hall. One evening, the local vicar arrived with a concerned member of her congregation as they were worried about the hall being used for 'unchristian' activities.
With respect to the lady who made the complaint, it was based on a complete misunderstanding of the subject and a lot of preconceptions. I also got the impression that it was the vicar's decision to discuss it with us after receiving a request to simply restrict our access to the hall.
After a long discussion, where our teacher explained that this was a physical martial art, we were allowed to continue. While Kung Fu had some distant historical groundings in Eastern philosophy, there certainly weren't any theological aspects to what we were doing and it wasn't that much different from an aerobics class.
I just wonder how many people take this approach to things they don't understand?
How hard is it to do a little bit of research into another religion if you have concerns as well? I actually think this probably relates more to other people's cultures rather than their actual religious practices.
Would it really hurt us if were were more open to other ideas?
I hope this has been useful and more importantly, I hope it's either helped you to understand mindfulness or given you some ideas to influence other people. Mindfulness is something we simply can't ignore, regardless of what we use it for.