Bollywood has always loved the idea. Countless songs and movies, sometimes melodically and often melodramatically (think Anand, Kal Ho Na Ho), have instructed us all to live in the moment and enjoy the present — what millennials fancifully call mindfulness.
Mindfulness, it seems, is not just in the mind but is simply everywhere. You cannot escape it. It is headlining bestselling books, peeking out of newspapers (this one included), appearing on television and taking over social media feeds. Every second friend and their aunt appears to be either practising it or wanting to do so. Or simply talking about it. In fact, so ubiquitous has the concept become that you start suspecting it to be one of those lah-di-dah super fads that everyone wants to take up, and suddenly, one day you discover no one cares anymore.
But is mindful living an exception to this inevitable graph trends follow? Considering how stressful our lives are today and the near-epidemic of anxiety and depression in modern societies’ world over, is it here to stay?
Harvard professor Ellen Langer often called the ‘mother of mindfulness’ because of her four-decade-long research on the concept, says unlike most fads that come and go, mindfulness improves lives greatly and is actually enlivening. It is tempting to dismiss the cult that has grown around it, but don’t throw the baby with the bathwater, she cautions in her blog.
Mindfulness is not quitting
Mindfulness coach and author of Discover Your Free Mind, C G Mayya agrees with Langer. An MBA by profession, Mayya was working in Singapore in the mid-90s when he increasingly began to suffer from stress-related headaches and back pains. “Business schools don’t teach you about internal coping mechanisms,” he says wryly. Self-help books didn’t help him and the books on meditation that were available then were not exactly secular.
While he struggled to cope with the frenetic pace of his life, he happened to attend a session by a Buddhist monk who introduced him to simple exercises such as watching his breath and being simply aware of his own body. “I was attracted to his practices because it was more scientific than religious — he was like a psychologist talking about managing emotions.” So effective were the results that Mayya quit his job and trained in mindfulness techniques from several Eastern traditions by living in monasteries and ashrams for more than 15 years. “Of course, I don’t advise people to quit everything and go to a monastery; neither is it necessary,” he quickly clarifies. Mayya went on to work with neuroscientists whose many experiments have strongly indicated positive changes in people who are mindful in their everyday life.
Mindfulness has garnered great attention in the scientific community in recent years with trials jumping from one or two in the nineties to more than 200 in 2015. In fact, American researcher Benjamin Shapero and his team recently initiated trials to treat clinically depressed patients with mindfulness techniques.
Old wine in a new bottle or a new drug?
Yoga therapist and PhD scholar Manasa Rao says though the credit for the ‘modern’ version of mindful living must go to Buddhist practices, mindfulness has been an essential part of ancient yogic traditions. “Sage Patanjali called yoga a mastery over chitta...since there isn’t an exact word to describe chitta, it can be referred to as mind. Mindfulness is so interwoven with every limb of every asana. For me to ‘hold’ an asana is to be aware of my breath. The mind follows automatically,” she says.
Not a monastery-goer, Manasa is a mother to a precocious six-year-old son and mindfulness for her is not esoteric but practical. “For example, there is a difference between constantly being on the social media and knowing that you are constantly on the social media. This ‘knowing’ is being ‘awake’ to every moment,” she says. For her, slowing down, whether it is being conscious of what she eats or paying attention to how she plays with her son is part of everyday mindfulness. “It is a way of life; it is being a witness to life’s events without getting drawn too much into its drama. Easier said than done, yes, but nevertheless achievable,” she feels.
For CEOs & mothers alike
Apparently, so achievable that practitioners like Delhi-based Dr Badri Bajaj conduct mindfulness coaching for busy corporates. Dr Bajaj was part of a ‘Mindful Leadership Summit’ held in New Delhi in September last year that explored the ‘mindful alternative’ to the traditional top-down leadership approach. “A CEO can become a better leader by living mindfully. He can learn to notice his colleagues more, be less judgemental and genuinely empathetic,” he says. “To be mindful is to simply tune in. In my classes, I nudge people along in their journey of self-discovery.” As Mayya says, mindfulness can be practised anywhere — whether you are out shopping or just sipping a cup of coffee.
Fathima Khader, a parent consultant and mindfulness educator uses the techniques of the concept in group therapies for parents and children. Through her company EvolveED, Fathima helps children and their guardians deal with feelings of shame, negative memories and self-criticism. “Sadly enough, these are common emotions modern parents and children are struggling with; I did too. Juggling parenthood and work had made me prone to anxiety and panic attacks, and worse, I never saw it coming,” she narrates.
“Some think mindfulness is a quick-fix to their problems or a feel-good stress reliever (like a spa massage). It then becomes a challenge to convince them that mindfulness requires patience, practice and commitment,” she says. Being fully present to the moment as opposed to multitasking or operating with divided attention has liberated her, she states. “Mindfulness feels so ordinary, it becomes difficult to comprehend its extraordinariness.” Now that sounds like something Javed Akhtar might write for a Karan Johar movie on living in the moment.