The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention,
over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character and will…
An education, which should improve this faculty
would be the education par excellence.
(James 1890, quoted in Kabat-Zinn 2005, p.115)
The foundations of mindfulness based interventions rest in the wisdom teachings of the buddhist tradition. Siddhartha Gotama, a human being like the rest of us, lived over 2, 600 years ago in India, Born into privilege, he found himself discontented with his life as it was. As a result he courageously entered into a process of enquiry around the causes of his discontent and the possibility of its ending. Sound familiar, privilege and discontent?
We could call Siddhartha an ancient psychologist. Like Freud, Jung and others, he was interested in the territory of the human mind. He studied, and mapped his findings. His findings, his data – in contemporary parlance, were so transformative and powerful that he was given the title ‘buddha’, which means awakened one. He had woken up to the innate resources and capacities for awareness within him. Capacities that freed him from unnecessary stress and suffering. A potential latent in all of us. I say it again and again, mindfulness is not about getting anything, it’s about developing skills and understanding for accessing what’s already here.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, forty plus years ago, recognised that the meditative practices and psychological mapping described by Siddhartha, could be hugely supportive to a modern population. He also understood in our post-religious, almost anti religious world, the term buddha, or buddhism would close people down. Along with colleagues Jon developed an eight-week course, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, drawing on the wisdom of the meditative tradition, but entirely secular in presentation. Forty years on, the MBSR course is a thoroughly researched, and firmly evidenced based intervention.
‘One might think of the historical Buddha as, among other things, a born scientist and physician who had nothing in the way of instrumentation other than his own mind and body and experience, yet managed to use these native resources to great effect to delve into the nature of suffering and the human condition. What emerged from this arduous and single-minded contemplative investigation was a series of profound insights, a comprehensive view of human nature, and a formal “medicine” for treating its fundamental “dis-ease,”typically characterised as the three “poisons”: greed, hatred (aversion), and ignorance/ delusion (unawareness).
Of course, the Buddha himself was not a Buddhist. One might think of dharma as a sort of universal generative grammar (Chomsky, 1965), an innate set of empirically testable rules that govern and describe the generation of the inward, first-person experiences of suffering and happiness in human beings. (Rabat-Zinn, 2003)
The eight-week MBSR course provides a structured and methodical system for studying ones own heart, body and mind. In developing the capacity to know oneself and ones experience more clearly, we develop a greater range of choice around how to be. and what to do, in our lives. We can identify the ways in which we inadvertently contribute to our own stress and suffering, and to the stress and suffering of others. Most importantly, we recognise and develop resources to do something about it.