Being Mindful of Mindfulness

Over the last few years 'Mindfulness' has become an extremely popular way for people to treat what they might describe as stress in their lives. Mindfulness is based in a tradition of meditation practice to slow down one's engagement with the world and reflect on the immediate thoughts and sensations that one experiences. A key reason for many engaging in Mindfulness is this break with the demands of busy lives and a focus on the immediate experience of breathing, acknowledging thoughts as they arise without getting caught up in problem solving. Many who practice Mindfulness find it relaxing and regenerative and it can be a great aid to creating balance to the demands of a busy life.

I suggest that some other factors that have led to its increased popularity are the lack of specialised or expensive equipment and that it is something one can practice on one's own anywhere, but most likely somewhere quiet. There may be no additional financial costs as might be associated with related practices like yoga or pilates, which many people prefer to attend paid classes for. Indeed there are many videos on YouTube and other websites introducing people to Mindfulness, a huge volume of new books on the subject and app.s for phones and other electronic devices. Mindfulness is readily accessible.

Some people begin practicing Mindfulness as a way to improve their mental health or to treat a specific mental health concern that they have. Taking time out from a hectic life can give someone increased energy to tackle their concerns with more focus, and many people similarly engage in physical exercise for this reason. Such a practice may reduce symptoms of distress – such as tiredness, insomnia, general irritability or anything else that may have provoked them to begin Mindfulness – but it cannot address the causes of distress. Mindfulness may be one way to lessen the pressure of symptoms, and that may be enough for someone to begin to gain some breathing space from their immediate concerns, but as a psychoanalyst I believe that symptoms must be read as provoked by underlying causes.

From a psychoanalytic perspective symptoms are dense knots of significance that we have unconsciously repressed so as to defend ourselves against their causes, which we perceive as overwhelming. Psychoanalysis gives someone the space to let their symptoms speak. In contrast, any treatment or practice that intends to reduce or remove symptoms without questioning their causes provides no insight that may prevent their recurrence. Some people want to treat their symptoms and avoid their sources altogether, believing that addressing the sources of the symptom would be more difficult than avoiding them, but I would argue that if such an approach works for a while, symptoms will return or return in other forms if they aren't analysed.

I'm not arguing that anyone should stop engaging in Mindfulness, or that the benefits they may be gaining from it aren't to be valued. Everyone may gain from practicing Mindfulness, just as physical exercise and a good diet help us remain resilient to the pressures of daily lives. I do argue however that it is not a substitute for a more in-depth engagement with the causes of distress, as may be facilitated with psychotherapeutic or psychoanalytic treatment. It is a question for each person engaged in Mindfulness as to what they seek from their practice, and only they can answer that question.