Mindfulness is best considered an inherent human capacity akin to language acquisition; a capacity that enables people to focus on what they experience in the moment, inside themselves as well as in their environment, with an attitude of openness, curiosity and care. We are all somewhat mindful some of the time, but we can choose to cultivate this faculty and refine it to ever-greater degrees through ‘mindfulness practice’.
Many people are helped by mindfulness practice, in a multitude of ways. But it would be misleading to claim therefore that mindfulness training is a panacea. Every person faces a unique set of circumstances and challenges and, as we might reasonably expect, research has shown from the outset that the effectiveness of mindfulness differs with the individual. Very simply, some people will find the practice helpful - and others will not.
For this reason, mindfulness teachers should be trained to distinguish those for whom there is potential benefit from those who might respond better to a different evidence-based approach, based on knowledge of the individual. The UK's National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines recommend that for patients with depression, MBCT (not MBSR) be considered as treatment only for those who have suffered three prior depressive episodes. Furthermore, UK training good-practice guidelines clearly specify that no one should teach MBCT to depressed patients who is not qualified to do so.
On occasion, participants in meditation groups or retreats report unusual or unexpected experiences. This can prompt a variety of reactions, from curiosity at one end of the scale, to concern or distress at the other. Further research is needed to better understand the origin and frequency of such experiences and how best to respond to them ( e.g. under what circumstances it is appropriate to continue with mindfulness meditation, to change the type of practice, or to pause or stop altogether.) Teachers should be trained to be alert to these experiences, and teacher-training organisations should establish protocols for how best to manage them.
(Drafted in collaboration with the Oxford Mindfulness Centre)