Mindfulness: From “woo-woo” to mainstream in three decades.

It is quite remarkable to see the growing enthusiasm for mindfulness in the last five years (Australia is a little behind the UK and US). This embrace has been in no small part due to one particular program – the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program. The MBSR was developed at the Medical School of the University of Massachusetts. The birthplace of this well-crafted eight-week program (originally designed as a public health measure) was important, providing initial credibility. The subsequent research has cemented its credibility. You can see from the graph below that mindfulness is now an established area of research. As a result of consistent results showing reductions in medical and psychological symptoms across a wide range of diagnoses, the MBSR has been included in the US National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices. Not easily achieved.

Graph of Mindfulness Research

It wasn’t always thus. When my Mum invited me along to a meditation group at the Armadale Community Health Centre in 1991, it was seen by most people as some weird Eastern practice for hippies.  Later, in 2006–7, I was working at Deakin University as a lecturer in the School of Education. As a long-term meditator, I was keen to offer the students an experience of mindfulness meditation. Primarily, I was wanting to support them develop their resilience for the sometimes stressful life of a school teacher. But I was also hoping that they might see the potential in the future to bring mindfulness meditation into their own classrooms. As any good academic would do, I thought that teaching pre-service teachers mindfulness meditation would make a good research project. Unfortunately, I was about five years too early and the ethics committee of the University did not approve the research proposal. Nonetheless, I did offer the students an experience of mindfulness meditation, and encouraged them to explore it further for themselves. What a difference those 10 years make! Mindfulness is now being offered through the WA Department of Education to Principals and is present in many schools.

The uptake of mindfulness meditation by high profile sports people (Justin Langer and Brett Kirk), business people (Steve Jobs) and celebrities (Emma Watson and Oprah Winfrey) has acted as an additional support for mindfulness meditation to become mainstream. Those not interested in the research may look up to Brett Kirk as he stays calm and focused on the footy field in high stress situations. How good to be able to do that.

Mindfulness is now changing psychology, addiction treatment, schools, corporate leadership, sport and even politics. To the western educated psyche, mindfulness makes sense. Mindfulness practice doesn’t ask you to accept any particular beliefs or dogma. Everything is to be investigated for oneself. This scientific method of inner enquiry values evidence and investigation.

People come to the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program for a wide variety of reasons. Some are wanting to develop skills and the capacity to deal with what feels like an overwhelming life. They don’t want to feel anxious all the time. Others have particular health issues such as chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome or cancer. And still others are taking a pro-active approach to looking after their mental and physical health.

One of the tensions that arises importing mindfulness into a 21st Century western context is that most people are time-poor and mindfulness requires commitment. Like exercise or learning another language or a musical instrument, mindfulness take time, effort and discipline. To change old reactive habits and engage with ruminating thoughts in a more skilful way takes perseverance. And we feel that we don’t have time for that. We want the quick fix. We really want to believe those stories that tell us that mindfulness can be acquired in three breaths, or by installing an App. If only… The bad news is that there is no research showing that the stress reducing benefits of mindfulness can be established and maintained in the absence of ongoing practice. So beware any claims that are hard to believe. Claims that mindfulness can be cultivated without ongoing commitment are as reliable as Trump’s tweets.

Interested in what all the hoo haa is about? Come and see for yourself.

Kathryn Choules (PhD)

Kathryn is qualified through the University of Massachusetts as an instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and offers the MBSR to the public throughout the year.

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