Mindfulness was first used therapeutically by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre in the late 1970’s.
The success of his program which treated people suffering from chronic long-term physical health problems was revolutionary and set the mindfulness wheels in motion.
Today mindfulness books crowd out other self-help manuals on the shelves of our bookshops. MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy) is recommended by NICE (National Institute of Clinical Excellence) in the UK for the treatment of recurrent depression and there is a plethora of information on the internet with regard to mindfulness. Despite this, mindfulness is often misunderstood and can be portrayed as a ‘relaxation’ therapy. There are people claiming to lead mindfulness groups who are in fact teaching relaxation techniques, not the wider context of MBCT. Although these groups may be pleasant to attend, they are not mindfulness and can give people a misguided view of what MBCT is. This is disconcerting as these groups are not delivering the clinical aspects of MBCT, so are unlikely to have long-term benefits in the treatment of mental health disorders. The worse thing about this misrepresentation is that people will believe that MBCT cannot help with their mental health problems. In order to deliver MBCT, the facilitator should have a clinical qualification in psychology or psychotherapy, they should also have undergone rigorous training with a recognised training provider, and have a regular, well-established meditation practice themselves.
Mindfulness, as we know it today, is derived from a unique synthesis of East and West – of meditation and yoga with science and mainstream medicine/psychotherapy.
The Eastern origins of the meditative aspects to MBCT are derived from the Satipatthana Sutta (original discourse on the establishment of mindfulness in Theraveda Buddhism). It is important to mention, however, that although mindfulness has adopted meditation techniques from Buddhism, there is no promotion of Buddhism in any way; Buddhism is not mentioned at all in MBCT. The Western scientific/psychological influence in MBCT helps us to understand how mindfulness as a therapeutic tool exerts effects through four mechanisms:
- Attention regulation (learning to pay attention, on purpose to an object of meditation)
- Body awareness (integrating the body into our awareness of being and learning to listen to what it tells us)
- Emotion regulation (learning to respond rather than to react)
- Change in self-perspective (insight and metacognitive awareness)
From a scientific/biological perspective, neuroplasticity changes in the brain can be seen in neuroimaging studies of regular meditators, proving that neurons that fire together wire together. The brain can form new neural pathways in as little as 8 weeks of regular meditation practice (the reason the eight-week MBCT course requires a commitment to regular, daily homework practice).