The article reproduced below was originally written by Aida Askry, Ph.D. in May 2019.
The month of May has been observed as the month of mental health awareness in the United States since 1949. I would love to celebrate this month with my yoga and meditation practitioners and mental health awareness advocates around the world.
Thank you for making our world a better place by becoming the best of you each and every day!
While I personally use mindfulness as a tool to increase mental health in my own personal and professional life, I find it important that mindfulness is understood and applied properly in our everyday lives rather than being viewed as the ultimate answer to our problems.
Why mindfulness is not the answer
Understanding and practicing mindfulness in a balanced learning environment is not an easy task. In a well-rounded mindfulness program, one would hope to receive scientific explanations along with philosophical insight to flourish his or her wellbeing. However, what is not so mindful about mindfulness is that most mindfulness modalities and schools of thought tend to separate the science and philosophy of wellbeing. On one hand, the scientific society rolls their eyes on the idea of even the possibility of the nature of the mind and reality being originated beyond the chemical interactions of the human brain. On the other hand, the most authentic mindfulness teachings refer to the fundamental logical inquiries of practitioners as the “useless questions of the mind”. It is hard to believe that one must fully commit his or her ideology, heart and soul to nothing but what our ever-evolving scientific society has to offer during his or her lifetime. It is also not realistic to completely let go of the mind and amerce the intellect for the sake of a temporally ego-shattering experience.
To make the matter worse, mindfulness has become one of the most fashionable and marketable products (or service?) available to the general public often with no in-depth explanation of when, why and how it should be used.
Without a doubt, it is heartwarming to see the growth of mindfulness in schools, the workplace, and counseling firms as a part of our health care and human performance curricula. However, it seems that mindfulness has been often prematurely presented to the general public without a proper introduction or appropriate training. Unfortunately, this trendily popular mindfulness fever all over our society will have its own predictable and unpredictable consequences.
The origin of mindfulness
Mindfulness, as we know it in western culture, has been around since 1910. It was a translated word for a fairly un-translatable concept originated in the eastern cultural practice of countries such as India, Japan, and China. The British scholar, Thomas Rhys Davids has coined the term mindfulness to explain the original word Sati from Sanskrit, the ancient language of India. The same concept has been referred to the word Nen in Japanese and the word Nian in Chinese to define and demonstrate an ancient practice, what we call mindfulness. When mindfulness practice first was introduced to the western culture, it was practiced and taught only by experts who not only studied and learned but also practiced sati, nen, or nian under direct guidance and supervision of authentic teachers in India, Japan, or China. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) method and clinic (founded in 1979) is a well-known scholar and a great example of what mindfulness can offer to our physical and mental wellbeing when provided by well-educated/experienced individuals.
What went wrong?
Mindfulness is certainly a great technique to cultivate mental clarity and promote wellbeing. Even in correlational research studies from the field of positive psychology (founded in 1998 by Martin Seligman), mindfulness is known to enhance physical health, cognitive flexibility, neuroplasticity, and mental strength.
Unfortunately, mindfulness and positive psychology both have been misunderstood by the general public since both methods are fairly new to our society. Perhaps it didn’t help that we decided to combine the Americanized version of yoga practice (mainly asanas taught by yoga instructors often with not enough education or experience grounded in the science and philosophy of sati) with bits of mindfulness to represent the wonderful “quick and easy” benefits of this ancient practice.
In reality, this lack of knowledge and experience of the true meaning of mindfulness and positive psychology not only has misrepresented both fields but also has created distrust in the minds of many individuals and organizations. Positive psychology is not the same as positive thinking, mindfulness is not the answer to our broken relationships, severe depression, insomnia, or employees’ lack of productivity and cash flow. Mindfulness is not a product that can be ordered on Amazon Prime and delivered to your front door in the next couple of days. It is a skill that you can develop with practice that takes time, energy, and effort just like anything else of value you’ve earned in your life.
The new light on mindfulness
An accurate meaning for sati is constantly maintaining a level of awareness that is developed through the observation of the mind (intellect) and the heart (emotional intelligence) during the formation of any intention, action, and words. What you can expect from mindfulness (when practiced with professional guidance from experts) is increased self-awareness.
Mindfulness practice is not the final answer to our everyday difficulties. It cannot be seen as the product easily bought and sold to the market to solve our personal and organizational development problems.
What you can expect from a continuous practice in mindfulness and positive psychology is a realistic gradual improvement in cognitive thinking, emotional intelligence, resilience, and productivity. A well-rounded mindfulness practice should be able to cover most of the common grounds in both the philosophy and the science of the practice without causing a battle between your heart (belief) and your mind (perception of self and reality).
What mindfulness can offer is to bring us to the point of awareness to comprehensively observe the state of mind and heart in every situation and finding the most appropriate solution to our personal life and work-related problems.
I hope that you find this article helpful and as always, it is my honor and pleasure to be a part of your journey within. I'm looking forward to spending more time with you through the Book of Present and available services.
Happy May and happy month of mental health awareness to all.
Aida Askry, PhD