Have We Gone Mindfulness Mad?

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
It’s 8am and already I should have spent 10 minutes meditating via my wellness app, mindfully brushed my teeth and mindfully eaten my porridge, savouring every single bite. Yep, it’s 2017 and if you’re not doing things ‘mindfully’ then who even are you? We’re a nation that’s well and truly obsessed.
For me, the straw that broke the camel's back was opening my inbox to find details of the first ever ‘mindful drinking festival’. It seems we’re running out of things that can be enjoyed without also being mindful and, frankly, I’m sick of it.
A flick through any magazine might suggest otherwise but mindfulness is actually nothing new. Buddhists have been on the bandwagon since, oh, about the fifth century but, perhaps because the idea of sitting in the lotus position for hours on end doesn't exactly appeal to modern sensibilities, the concept has been repackaged.
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Mindfulness in its latest iteration is completely secular and simply focuses on the idea of ‘being’ in the present moment and allowing the mind to be still, which is often attempted through a series of breathing or visualisation exercises. Unlike meditation, which takes years to learn, mindfulness can be ‘taught’ in as little as 10 minutes. Even better, it can be easily slotted into your day, whether you're in bed, on a crowded Tube or in an office toilet cubicle. When it comes to improving mental health, its benefits are undisputed. Numerous scientific studies have verified its validity, it's recommended by the NHS for anxiety and depression, and corporate companies up and down the country now offer mindfulness practice as a staff perk.
However, what began as a simple tool for coping with the stresses of modern life has become a billion-dollar industry. A quick peruse of Amazon brings up 26,026 books on the subject, there are over 1,000 mobile apps that serve up a helping of zen (the most popular, Headspace, is now worth $250 million, according to Forbes), and it doesn’t stop there – there’s mindful journaling, mindful colouring books, mindful tea, mindful candles, mindful brunching (really) and more. So how did we get here?
When I speak to psychologist Fiona Markham, she tells me she thinks that because of our constant 24-hour digital world, we are now desperate to find any way to quieten our minds. “With the internet and smartphones we are so distracted all the time, we are constantly being taken out of the moment by this addiction to the digital world. Now we are conscious of this more and more, people will do anything to escape from it,” she explains.
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No longer recognisable as the practice that began in the mountains of India, mindfulness has become a marketer's dream and another cog in the giant wheel of our ever-expanding wellness industry. Much like hygge – the art of cosiness – it started with good intentions. I'm all up for snuggling up on the sofa to get through winter but not when it involves a £155 sheepskin cushion and a 12-step recipe for cinnamon buns. The same applies with mindfulness – thanks to its modern millennial-approved makeover, it has become both diluted and elitist. It’s all well and good taking a few moments to focus your mind; far less appealing is shelling out hundreds of pounds on a mindfulness course, or being locked into a direct debit for an app which guilt-trips you daily via passive-aggressive notifications reminding you that you haven’t been mindful.
And it’s not as if our lives aren’t already full enough. Not only do we have to have a career, keep our relationships intact, work out regularly, eat healthily, listen to podcasts, finish that dreaded colouring book and watch 58 new shows on Netflix – we now have to ensure we are mindful in the process. It’s exhausting. And more worryingly, it’s an added pressure that many of us just don’t need. “Stress can often be a result of a tendency towards perfectionism and a fear of failure. If we start to use our ability to be mindful throughout the day as another way of gauging our success as a human, we could be setting ourselves up for more criticism and self-loathing,” psychologist Dr. Kate Potter explains.
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Part of the problem lies in the fact we are sold the idea that taking part in these mindful activities – whether that’s an app, class or product – will instantly improve our lives when, in reality, there is no fast track to optimum wellbeing. “Mindfulness is described as the one solution to solve all your problems and become more balanced. And we are always looking for quick fixes. But there aren’t any quick fixes, be it mindfulness or something else,” explains David Brudö, founder of wellness app, Remente. Likewise, as we have learnt with 'clean eating', committing to anything on an obsessive level is not positive, and placing such emphasis on one thing as the ultimate panacea is never healthy.
The biggest irony of all is that we often feel the benefits of being mindful without specifically partaking in a practice or product labelled as such. Overthinking it, or obsessively trying to make activities mindful, is often where the joy and relaxation can be lost. “Constantly focusing on the smallest things, like getting dressed or showering and digesting your reactions to your surroundings all the time can leave you feeling tired, overwhelmed and even stressed, which is contrary to the whole principle of mindfulness,” Brudö tells me.
In fact, you’re probably already behaving mindfully and reaping the benefits without even realising it. Whether that’s going for a run, phone-free dinners with friends, having a bath, dancing all night or cooking dinner, mindfulness needn’t be the complicated (or expensive) thing that the hype makes out.
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