The new buzz-word is 'mindfulness'. You might be forgiven for thinking this is some brand-new psychological construct, but it isn't – mindfulness is one of the central practices of Buddhism, and has been around for as long as people have asked the fundamental question of philosophy: 'what am I?' As has so often happened, something profound and practical has been hijacked by psychobabblers, and has been completely misinterpreted along the way.
For most people, the answer to what 'I am' is limited to being this body or mind that I appear to be. How can you be what you observe? A better question is what observes? The observer is what the Buddha said 'I am' is. What I am not is the conditioned idea I have about myself which, fuelled by emotion, turns into attachments. The sum of these attachments is what ego is, and ego is another idea distorted by psychobabble. Psychologists argue that we need to have a balanced ego; Buddhism – and indeed all of the familiar teachings – says ego needs to be dispensed with altogether. Don't take my word for it. Here's a quote from perhaps one of the greatest Buddhist teachers of the last century:
'When suffering arises, we attach to the suffering and thereby must really suffer. In the same way, when happiness arises, we attach to the happiness and consequently experience pleasure. Attachment to these feelings gives rise to the concept of self or ego, and thoughts of 'we and 'they' continually manifest. Here is where it all begins, and then it carries us around in its never-ending cycle.' (Ajahn Chah – Food For the Heart)
Ajahn Chah is describing what Shakespeare called the tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. Here's another description of ego from one of the great teachers of the Vedic tradition, Ramana Maharshi, who was asked what ego is and why it gives us so much trouble:
'The ego-self does not exist at all. To whom is the trouble? The trouble is also imagined. Trouble and pleasure are only for the ego'. (Be As You Are: The Teachings Of Ramana Maharshi)
If you are suffering from feelings of low self-worth, anger, fear, or any other emotional state, we might describe that as being psychologically 'below the line'. Therapy and counselling can certainly help to get you to or even above the line, and you might well feel much happier. Whether that happens and how long it might last is a moot point, and very much questioned by the evidence, but if you're going to try to commandeer a Buddhist idea like mindfulness you can't stop there. Happiness is no more desirable than unhappiness. Ajahn Chah again:
"Even though you may be unhappy, it doesn't matter. Is that unhappiness your 'self'? Is there any substance to it? Is it real? Unhappiness is a mere flash of feeling that appears and then vanishes. Happiness is the same. Is there any consistency to happiness? Is it truly an entity? It's simply a feeling that flashes suddenly and is gone. Where is the consistency in love, hate, resentment? The Buddha knew that because both happiness and unhappiness are unsatisfactory, they have the same value. Once born, they die." (Ajahn Chah – Food For The Heart)
The purpose of mindfulness is not to make you happy, it is to transcend becoming attached to either happiness or unhappiness. This is enlightenment, and no-one ever became enlightened through therapy. Happier maybe, enlightened, no. You don't consult a psychologist for wisdom. What does mindfulness actually mean? That your mind is full. To be miserable, fill it with unhappy thoughts. If you want to be happy, fill it with happy thoughts. If you want to be truly mindful, fill it with consciousness. That's what mindful means: being in the now, attending to everything with detachment (or using Buddhist terminology, non-attachment).
Unfortunately, 'consciousness' provokes much empty philosophical debate. Since it is what observes, it can't be observed. It is also described as absolute, which we can't really comprehend with ordinary thinking. We need to be more practical if it's to be of any use. The Challenge of Change Resilience programme is about mindfulness, adapted so that people who have no interest in Buddhism can relate to it and use it practically. It is also couched in familiar language: consciousness can be known and used practically as attention, and the first two steps in the training programme are to wake up out of the dream world of what we call 'waking sleep' – lights on, nobody at home – and to maintain control of attention, which you can then give intentionally to what's there. Waking sleep is attention snatched away.
Giving your attention intentionally to the past or future, drawing on experience and making plans, we call reflection, and you're awake when you do it. If you add negative emotion to waking sleep, that's all that stress is: ruminating about emotional upset. Once awake and controlling attention, you can become detached, which we describe as keeping perspective: knowing that the ruminative thoughts are just thoughts, what Mark Twain called the worst things in his life that never happened. You can then let go of those thoughts, surrender them, coming back into the present by connecting with your senses. This is presence of mind (your mind in the present) by literally coming to your senses.
I'm not a Buddhist, but my personal view is that Buddhism isn't a religion, just a very practical way of living your life. The principles of the training came from the research, asking ordinary people to talk about how they would think, act and feel in a series of pressured scenarios, and the simple English terms we use reflect exactly those of Buddhism but placed into a contemporary way of life: waking up, controlling attention, becoming detached and letting go. This is what mindfulness is.