It seems everybody wants mindfulness, and they want it NOW. They’ve heard or read that people who practice mindfulness and meditation report being healthier and happier, that they’re less stressed, less anxious, less depressed, or at least, as Dan Harris wrote, they’re “10% Happier.” Hey, there must be something to this mindfulness stuff if it can make Dan Harris a happier person!
I have been teaching mindfulness meditation for several years now, in a variety of formats: individual instruction for some of my patients as part of their psychotherapy; classes that are modeled after Jon-Kabat Zinn’s MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) program, which are usually 8 weeks long; small groups focusing on MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy) for depression or anxiety, or MBRP (Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention) which are also 8 weeks; as well as some shorter classes and workshops in a variety of venues: community colleges, high-tech companies, public libraries. For the latter, I’ve developed a Powerpoint presentation, and focus on teaching an assortment of 3- and 5-minute practices.
At a recent meditation session and “dharma talk” that I attended at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, led by one of its founders, I heard him offer a mildly disparaging remark about “mindfulness teachers” as people who aren’t really teaching true mindfulness, or meditation as it is intended to be taught, but rather something like “mindfulness lite.”
As I sat there, I chuckled to myself – yup, I’m one of them! I agreed with his characterization; however I also think that I’m providing something of value to people, particularly those who might never set foot inside a meditation center. If I can help them become 10% less reactive, and perhaps develop an interested curiosity about the workings of their mind-body, then I’ve done my job.
But I keep hearing from people who want to learn mindfulness meditation, and they want to know “how long will it take?” (Can you teach it to me today? How many sessions will I need to have? Can we offer it as a learn-at-lunch program for our staff?)
The latest request arrived in my inbox today, from someone at a county agency seeking mindfulness training for their customers, “as part of our Empowerment Series. The series, which we started three years ago, provides free drop-in presentations to the public, focusing on available resources to enrich their lives and encouraging them to find creative ways to tackle everyday challenges.” She then went on to say they would like to schedule a one-hour presentation.
One hour! What can be learned about mindfulness in one hour? Perhaps I could teach these folks to become aware of their breath, and to practice using the breath as an anchor for their awareness. But would that enrich their lives? Perhaps I could simply do the Raisin Exercise. In fact, there are many simple and brief exercises and practices that can be taught in under an hour, but can people really learn them in a way that they can then apply them to tackling life challenges?
I tell my students, “mindfulness is simple, but it’s not easy.” It’s simple to grasp the concepts that underlie mindfulness, and learn the basics of how to meditate. But as every student of meditation has discovered, it is not easy to keep the attention focused on the breath, moment after moment. It’s not easy to be awake and aware, fully present, all day long. And it’s definitely not easy to stick with the practice of meditation for long enough to begin to reap any benefits. Like most things in life that are worth having or doing, mindfulness meditation takes practice, which takes self-discipline, and consistent effort over time. This is the only way – at least until they develop the mindfulness pill.