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Breda O’Brien: Mindfulness not the cure for all that ails us

Practice in danger of becoming another self-focused response that prevents us challenging skewed values

Over the past while, I have been thinking about a Christmas years ago when my American friend Wendy came to spend Christmas with my parents and siblings in Waterford.

She was mad keen to get back to Dublin on Stephen’s Day, and my mother was more than a little put out to see her daughter disappear back to the Big Smoke with such unseemly haste.

When we got to Dublin, Wendy was stunned to discover that nowhere was open. No shops, no sales, nothing. In fact, we had grave difficulty even finding somewhere to eat. I think we ended up in Jury’s Coffee Dock.

Wendy was used to a culture where the day after Christmas Day, normal life resumed. Most people were back in work or if not, were busy bargain-hunting.


All those years ago, I felt a little bit sorry for Wendy, with her strange longing for shops on Stephen’s Day. Even if I did not let on to my mother, I also felt a bit sorry for myself that I was not wandering down to the cove to skim stones across slate grey wavelets and coming back to eat Christmas pudding, instead of accompanying a disconsolate and disbelieving Yank around shuttered streets.

Most of us are American now, at least in our discomfort with silence and our constant need of stimulation.

Many people admit to being bored on Christmas Day, a bit stir-crazy because of being stuck with the relatives with no escape except the remote control, and even the possession of that cherished object can sometimes be difficult to achieve.

Constant stimulation

The desire for constant stimulation is not a new phenomenon, of course.

Blaise Pascal in the 17th century warned us that "Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries".

Pascal’s cure was simple, but difficult. Do not seek distraction from weariness (sometimes translated as boredom) because in our weariness, we will begin to reflect and perhaps find a “more solid means of escaping from it”.

Unlike Pascal’s time, it is socially acceptable to live in a chronic state of over-stimulation, our nerves skinned and raw and our eyes bleary from being always connected to a pixelated world.

It is rare to hear a conversation on a bus any more, unless it is one conducted loudly on a phone. It is yet another manifestation of the constant search for novelty that we seem to prefer the virtual company of a disembodied voice to the real people sitting around us.

Similarly, in our work lives, the allegedly time-saving computers that were designed to serve us instead function as tyrants, creating more and more ways in which we must be available and responsive at all hours.

I am as bad as anyone else, not so much in being addicted to a smartphone, but in getting sucked into the endless stream of information that the internet produces.

The proposed modern cure to all this frenetic connectedness is mindfulness; a practice based on Eastern spiritual traditions, which involves returning one’s attention to the present moment without judgment of events, feelings or thoughts.

I may as well join my friends Mary Kenny and Prof Patricia Casey out on yet another unfashionable limb by suggesting that mindfulness, or at least our Western version of it, may be part of the problem.

Kenny wrote in the Irish Catholic about an admittedly small study of prisoners by George Mason University, which showed that mindfulness had little positive effect but instead led prisoners to "avoid responsibility for their actions".

Kenny, reasonable as always, was not extrapolating that all mindfulness training has that effect, but just wondering whether more research might be in order before promoting mindfulness as a cure for all ills.

Prof Patricia Casey cited articles in the December 2016 issue of The Bulletin, a journal published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London. One of the authors, Miguel Farias, suggested that: "The replacement of orange-robed gurus by white-collared academics who speak of the benefits of being in the present moment is a powerful social phenomenon which is probably rooted in our culture's desire for quick fixes and its attraction to spiritual ideas divested of supernatural elements".

The problem is not that mindfulness originated with Buddhism – it is that modern, Western mindfulness does not take Buddhism seriously enough. Buddhism, as I understand it, preaches that the root of all suffering is attachment and desire.

Most Westerners just want to manage their stress and function a bit better. In short, they want to have their attachments and their mindfulness, too.

Mindfulness in its current incarnation (pardon the pun) can become just another distraction, a way of managing our discomforts rather than challenging the fundamentals we live by.

Facing the fact that life is full of uncertainty, ceasing to see managing our stress levels as being more important than challenging inequalities and skewed cultural values: this requires a more challenging spirituality, and skills that are less fashionable but ultimately, much more sustaining.

Still, anything that challenges our culture of constant stimulation is to be welcomed. Mindfulness, if pursued sincerely, can also be a step to seeing that just living more comfortably in the world is not the ultimate goal.