It's a crisp autumn evening in Kelburn Wellington and I am one of 12 strangers who file into the bright, cosy lounge of George Packard, a mindfulness and meditation teacher.
I'm here because I want to take a break from the constant chatter inside my head. I'm always thinking about what is going to happen next, I struggle to live in the moment, and life is whizzing by faster than I can keep up with. Each of us gathered have our own reasons for wanting to silence the chatter in our minds.
Over the next six weeks, we meet every Wednesday evening in a ritual to develop the practice of mindfulness. We're encouraged to share our experiences with the strangers beside us and our meetings bare many similarities to bible study groups I attended as a teenager. Many talk of suffering from high levels of stress or anxiety and one of our group has even been referred by their doctor.
Packard, who has been practicing meditation and mindfulness for 34 years, can relate to this. At the time he first started meditating he was prone to panic attacks.
"I first got into it [mindfulness] because I wanted to be happier, I wanted to feel less anxious and so I started meditating, and what I found in doing this was a very useful bag of tricks. Over 34 years my understanding of the practice has grown significantly and my feelings of security, calmness and peace have also increased significantly."
An Auckland-based HR professional, and mother of two, speaks of how she used mindfulness to take herself off antidepressant medication prescribed by her Doctor to treat anxiety and mild depression. The woman, who did not want to be named took medication for three years and has now been free of antidepressants for two and a half years. "Mindfulness has helped me get through the really tough times. I am now able to be aware of the negative voice in my head and can better recognise stress signals as they appear."
On the course, I am told, 'we are not our thoughts'. This is a profound revelation because up until now I have felt – at least subconsciously - like my thoughts are who I am. Through mindful practice I become aware of their constant stream filtering through my mind. Some are good, some are not, many are complete nonsense. By being consciously aware of this, they somehow lose their supremacy. It gives me a freedom to accept them simply for what they are – thoughts – and to understand they don't define me.
A core principle we are taught is the practice of grounding. This is the very simple concept that even if our thoughts or emotions are not present – they can be caught up in the future or the past – our bodies are present and by shifting our attention to our body we are better able to experience the current moment. It's a straightforward enough concept and I noticed the benefits immediately but like exercise, it requires constant practice.
Throughout the week we are encouraged to take 30 seconds out of our day at regular intervals to pause, ground ourselves and focus on the moment by focusing on how our body feels. Helpfully, Packard sends us texts messages at random intervals reminding us to 'ground'.
At first I find it unnatural, distracting even, to find time to ground myself. Often I ignore the texts from Packard but as I persist it becomes easier and I glimpse the potential power of the practice. By focusing on how my body feels, I am able to take a break for a second, check in properly with myself and experience the moment. On one occasion this was a simple as savouring the feel of the sun on my face while having a cup of tea in the garden. A small, brief pleasure but one that would previously have gone unnoticed in my haste.
Rose Patterson, a research analyst from Wellington, first did one of Packard's mindfulness and mediation courses five years ago.
"When I did my first course I was going through a really rough time with a relationship break-up and it was exactly what I needed to get out of my head and into my body."
In the years since doing her first course, Patterson says mindfulness has taught her to appreciate the here and now. "If we are constantly thinking ahead about the next thing we have to do, we are basically running towards our graves. Life is now. It's easy to think, 'once I'm earning a bit more money' or 'once I've got a house', 'then I'll be happy'."
As Grant Rix, operations manager at Mindful Aotearoa - a Mental Health Foundation initiative - describes it, mindfulness is "paying attention to what is currently occurring with kindness and interest".
Rix says that with 40 years of scientific evidence on the positive benefits that come from mindfulness, the Mental Health Foundation now recognises the practice as one of five daily actions that can be used to improve wellbeing.
The foundation has teamed up with Auckland University of Technology (AUT) to study the impact of mindfulness in primary schools. In 2013, they ran an eight week mindfulness programme for 126 primary school children aged 6 – 11 across five different schools around the country. The results were so positive they have since run three further studies in other primary schools, as well as a high school.
"What we have measured is significant increases in wellbeing, and increases in the ability to self-calm, pay attention and focus, in those students who have participated in our programme," Rix says.
In a remarkable finding from the latest study of year 5 and 6 students, 80 per cent of those who participated said they practiced mindfulness outside of the classroom. This speaks volumes for how valuable children exposed to the practice find it, Rix says.
Children who have completed one of Rix's courses often say they find mindfulness a helpful tool for regulating their emotions. "A child might be in the playground and witness an altercation, and they can feel themselves getting hot with anger. Having been introduced to mindfulness they start to recognise that emotion in their body. They notice how they are feeling and they then have another strategy to be able to respond to that emotion rather than giving into it and just lashing out."
I discover that while mindfulness can be a very useful tool for improved personal wellbeing, it can also be misappropriated to serve a particular agenda, often with negative consequences.
Take the weight loss industry for example. Dr Andrew Dickson, a health sociologist with Massey University's School of Management in Palmerston North, says mindfulness is a concept the industry has grabbed hold of with gusto over the past five to seven years. "The weight loss industry has an ability to pick up anything and turn it into how you can lose weight and reform yourself into a proper human, from not a proper one."
He says that when the weight-loss industry puts forward mindful eating as the new best thing for controlling weight, it is an absurd misappropriation. Accepting oneself with kindness and curiosity is a core tenant of mindfulness practice, yet this doesn't work in relation to dieting.
"Within the context of a weight-loss programme, arguing that you should accept yourself is paradoxical. If you are practicing mindful eating for the purpose of weight loss you are not accepting yourself, you are purposefully trying to change yourself to fit a norm that you think is better. It doesn't fit. That's misappropriation."
Justin Connor, a business strategy consultant living in Sydney is another who has had a negative experience of mindfulness. He came to realise, after many years, that the version he was taught was not so much about connecting with his inner self but instead about detaching from himself and his own personality.
Connor grew up in Wellington "playing Lego around the legs of meditating parents" who were members of the School of Philosophy, a worldwide movement offering courses and activities in philosophy.
From a young age he was exposed to mindfulness, grounding and meditation practices and his definition of mindfulness - "the conscious practice of observing, or noticing, the inner world" - is not dissimilar from the one given by Rix, except there is no use of the words "kindness" or "interest".
The mindful practice that Connor was taught involved a process of becoming aware of his own thoughts and feelings in order to then detach from these so as to become part of a "universal self", a form of collective consciousness. As he explains it: "You attain godliness by detaching from your thoughts and feelings and effectively detaching from your identity as a human being so as to identify with the universal self. Unfortunately what gets lost is personality.
"This means people become prone to manipulation because they are under a system of discipline to relieve themselves of their own personalities."
While Connor does not practice meditation today he does believe mindfulness can be a useful tool if the emphasis is right. "Mindfulness can get us out of a limited perspective. It becomes a bit freaky when it moves into the territory of defining who we are. There are probably a number of areas where mindfulness can be co-opted in a very positive way or in a very sinister way."
Dianne May, co-director of Mindfulness Auckland, says it's very important that people carefully research courses and trainers before signing up to a programme. Her organisation offers the eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme which was designed by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979. Kabat-Zinn is a Zen Buddhist who secularised mindfulness into the form that is most often practiced today.
"MBSR is the gold standard of mindfulness. You hear a lot of people talk about the benefits of mindfulness but all of those are based on research that has been done on the eight-week MBSR course."
May argues that the effectiveness of mindfulness is "dose related" and therefore shorter courses that have cropped up may not be as effective.
There is a screening process for those wanting to attend one of May's courses and while most people are accepted, not everyone is. She says for some people, it is simply not appropriate because in cases where people are extremely distressed, focussing on the inner world may not be helpful and instead professional treatment would be better. "Mindfulness is not a panacea for everything and I think that is one of the reasons that anyone delivering mindfulness should be very well-trained. I wouldn't take someone on my course who was actively depressed for instance."
Likewise, May says that she would not take on someone who is suffering from high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder. "We are asking people to turn their attention inward and for some people that might not feel very safe."
Dr Ruth Gawler, President of the Meditation Association of Australia, agrees it is vital that mindfulness teachers are properly trained. It was for this reason that the Association was established eight years ago. Currently, 158 mindfulness teachers in New Zealand and Australia are members, including Packard. To become a member, teachers must undergo 110 hours of face-to- face meditation training.
Gawler encourages potential students to research carefully the background of mindfulness teachers and to choose those who have a proven track record and solid training as "anyone at the moment can call themselves a meditation or mindfulness teacher."
She says it is also not uncommon for teachers to be refused membership to her association. "Largely the reasons we would refuse membership to someone would be related to a mental health problem they might have. There are definitely some flaky people who are out there teaching mediation."
I have come away from the course with greater insight into my inner world. I have glimpsed something which I can see is a really helpful tool for better appreciating the here and now. But it's hard to do, it takes constant practice and for the moment at least my mind is still busy running on to the next thing that needs to happen.
But for those who do persist, Packard sums up the benefits in such a beautiful and tantalising way when he says of his own mindfulness practice: "More and more I just enjoy the myriad of beautiful moments in life and often I find myself happy for no good reason."
- Sunday Star Times