Psychologist Henry Grayson says his book, “Mindful Loving,” might not have been a bestseller if his publisher had stuck to a title he’d suggested: “The New Physics of Love.”
Three months ago, Body & Soul magazine added the phrase, “The Natural Guide to Mindful Living” to its cover. Mindfulness — living consciously in the moment — has become “just that significant” in American culture, said editor-in-chief Seth Bauer.
Mindfulness books and tapes are frequent bestsellers. Mindfulness training is a staple at seminars, retreats and spas. Hospitals and psychologists are teaching mindfulness as a means to handle everything from chronic illness and addiction to stress and depression.
“There’s a sense that what is missing in our lives is a real connection to what we do, what we think, how we relate to people and how we take care of ourselves,” said Bauer. “Mindfulness brings all of those things together.”
Even corporate America is on board. Some businesses now offer mindfulness workshops to improve concentration, employee relations and ethics. Last year, Spirituality & Health magazine featured an article titled, “Lessons from Mindful Corporations.”
Spiritual trend watchers say mindfulness has become to the 2000s what angels were to the 1990s. Maybe bigger, though there may never be a TV show called “Touched by a Mindful Person.”
“Most of the time, we’re just going, going, going — operating on autopilot,” said Gary Stuard of Dallas, a former Buddhist monk who teaches mindfulness meditation at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration.
“Mindfulness is about paying attention so you don’t go about life absentmindedly,” he said.
Experts say mindfulness is cultivated. The most common way is by sitting in quiet meditation and observing one’s breath. Some people count breaths as they inhale and exhale. Others follow the rising and falling of the breath or some other variation.
“The point of mindfulness meditation is not to zone out but to tune in,” Stuard said.
The challenge comes when the mind drifts. Each time that happens, people are told to take notice, then return to their breath without judging their thoughts and emotions.
“Your breath draws you into the here and now,” said Grayson, the Mindful Loving author. “People are realizing that they spend so much of their lives worrying about the past or thinking about the future that they miss out on the present.”
The point is to bring awareness to all aspects of life.
Whether practiced for spiritual, health or other reasons, mindfulness is all about conscious living. (If you’ve ever mindlessly stuffed yourself while watching TV, you know something about unconscious living.)
Bonnie Arkus, executive director of the Women’s Heart Foundation in West Trenton, N.J., said she dropped 10 pounds in a month by combining the South Beach diet with “mindfulness eating.”
“You’re not just watching what goes into your mouth,” she said. “You actually taste the food because you stop to enjoy it. You’re not just inhaling it on the run, so you tend to eat less.”
Mindfulness is integral to Buddhism, an ancient religion that has enjoyed waves of popularity in America.
In the 1960s, the influence of the Beat writers, such as Allen Ginsberg, became widespread.
The 1970s celebrated Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”
In the 1990s, Hollywood stepped forward with “Kundun” and “Seven Years in Tibet.”
And now, whenever the Dalai Lama visits, he’s greeted by crowds befitting a rock star.
Many say the seeds for the current mindfulness craze were largely planted by the 1975 book, “The Miracle of Mindfulness” by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk once nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King Jr.
“Mindfulness is the miracle by which we master and restore ourselves,” wrote the monk, who lives in France.
Some Buddhists are troubled that mindfulness in the American mainstream is being commercialized in ways that have nothing to do with spirituality.
“It’s not just mental training or a self-improvement technique,” said Sharon Salzberg, a well-known Buddhist teacher, author of spiritual books and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass.
For Buddhists, mindfulness is embedded in ethics and compassion.
In spiritual circles, mindfulness is a path to inner awakening. In the medical community, it’s seen as a path to better health.
More than 200 U.S. hospitals and clinics use mindfulness training to promote mental and physical health.
Austin family physician Paul Keinarth, on the verge of burnout, turned to mindfulness meditation four years ago. Racing thoughts, worries and stress plagued him. He had difficulty sleeping. He was emotionally distant from his family.
“The change has been dramatic,” said Keinarth, who now teaches mindfulness courses. “I’m living my own life as it unfolds now instead of living a lot of stories about what happened to me or to other people. My relationships to my family and to my patients have vastly improved.”
Dr. James Ruiz, a radiologist from Baton Rouge, La., said his interest in mindfulness began when his 6-year-old son was an infant. When the baby would cry in the middle of the night, he would hold him while doing a walking mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness has changed the way he parents, he said.
“Being up in the middle of the night with a child in distress is not what drives you to madness,” he said. “What drives you crazy is that you want to be back in bed. Mindfulness is letting go of that, accepting the reality and attending to what’s in front of you.”
The Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School uses many techniques to teach mindfulness. One exercise involves taking 20 minutes to eat two raisins. Participants notice how the raisins look and smell. They feel the texture. And finally, they taste.
Mindfulness isn’t alternative medicine, but complements traditional medicine, said Saki Santorelli, the center’s director.
“This approach which used mindfulness was pretty radical when the program started,” he said. “But we showed the medical community that it wasn’t taking advantage of its greatest ally — the patients themselves.
The link to Buddhism isn’t emphasized, he said.
“People who come to our clinic don’t care about Buddhism or any -ism,” he said. “They’re suffering and want relief. Mindfulness helps them tap inner resources.”
But some in the medical community say more scientific studies are needed.
“Given the potential benefits and increasing popularity of mindfulness training, it seems critically important,” Ruth Baer of the University of Kentucky’s psychology department, wrote last year in a scholarly paper.
Being disciplined about meditating is the hardest challenge, many people say.
At the Maria Kannon Zen Center in Dallas, people gather every day to meditate. Executive Director Helen Cortes said 200 students may pass through in a year, but only a few will stick with it.
“Not everybody likes sitting still for 25 minutes or an hour,” she said. “But there are other choices. People need to follow their own temperament to develop mindfulness.”
She said sweeping the floor, mowing the lawn, washing dishes and even cleaning toilets can serve as mindfulness meditations.
“We remind people you wash dishes not in order to get them clean, but rather to simply wash the dishes,” she said. “You feel the water, smell the soap, be aware of your body when you put the dishes away.”
Scholars say concepts similar to mindfulness are found in other religions — the daily cycle of prayers said by Christian monks, Orthodox Jews and Muslims. These observances are ways of paying attention to the presence of God in all things.
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