Is mindfulness truly worth pursuing – or just a flaky Western fad?

Mindfulness is a popular buzzword nowadays – but it can mean a lot of different things.

At worst, it’s seen as a vague, inauthentic and even silly fashion. Melanie McDonagh calls it:

a form of Buddhism lite […] it’s gone from being an eccentric but harmless hobby practised by contemporary hippies to a new and wildly popular pseudo–religion; a religion tailor-made for the secular West.

It’s also sometimes said to have spawned a cynical, superficial, money-making McMindfulness industry, completely divorced from its original ethical basis, and its grounding in genuine meditative practices.

But University of Huddersfield academic Dr Deborah Middleton is not so ready to write off the practice. As part of her current research into relationships between mindfulness and performance practices, she’s focusing on some key questions:

  1. How can we define authentic mindfulness?
  2. How can mindfulness be used in ways that are beneficial for society?
  3. How can we develop a positive, ethical mindfulness ourselves?

Here’s a summary of some points Deb made in her lecture on Saturday, relating to each of these questions . . .

1. What exactly is mindfulness?

Deb and a group of other academics are running an international Mindfulness and Performance Project ( The project is exploring how mindfulness and performance practices (dance, theatre and so on) interact. It also aims (to use Deb’s words) to counter the uninformed application of the term “mindfulness” that has been criticised in other areas of Western culture.

For example, Deb explained that people often oversimplify the concept, by conflating mindfulness with awareness. In the context of physical activities such as dance or martial arts, Deb cites the introduction to Dancing with Dharma: Essays on Movement and Dance in Western Buddhism edited by Harrison Blum:

Shi DeRu and Shi DeYang by Shi Deru via Wikimedia Commons (cropped)

Movement and dance training foster continuous mindfulness of the body. Artists in these fields spend decades fine-tuning their awareness and control of subtle sensations and movements.

Recognising the value of Blum’s observation, Deb points out that true mindfulness is so much more than this. Just being aware of what’s going on is not enough – there also needs to be a deep sense of spiritual contemplation and reflection.

Deb explains that mindfulness is a specific type of awareness. It’s focused, lucid, non-judgmental, and characterised by energy and clear comprehension.

In the context of a martial art or other physical practice, true mindfulness goes beyond just helping us become technically skilled in that art. It starts to engage us on an ethical level too, and should help us to become more skillful as people. By this, Deb means kinder, more compassionate and generally more connected to others . . .

2. How can it be used to do good for society?

There’s a growing body of evidence-based research into the benefits of mindfulness, and even an emerging academic discipline called Contemplative Neuroscience.

buddha-1550588_640Deb made reference to the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. He has integrated yoga and Buddhist teachings with medical science, to create the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme, which is claimed to help people with stress, anxiety, pain, and illness.

Deb explained that Kabat-Zinn has taken the Buddhist concept of reducing dukkha (suffering) and applied it to the reduction of mental distress in the modern age.

The evidence base for MSBR is relatively strong, and according to the Mindful Living Programs website, MBSR is offered by over 200 medical centers, hospitals, and clinics around the world.

Kabat-Zinn has both raving fans and strong detractors. Deb explained that the debate is not so much whether the approach works or not. It’s more about whether MSBR appropriates, reduces and misrepresents mindfulness.

Deb also mentioned the work of Harvard professor of psychology Ellen Langer, who has applied mindfulness theory to help people in innovative ways. Langer is famous for her “counter-clockwise” experiment among others, which showed that elderly men could improve their health by simply pretending it was 1959, when they were younger.

Langer’s approach doesn’t refer to Buddhist mindfulness at all, and tends to be more practical and common-sense. She argues that mindlessness is rife in today’s society – and encourages us to pursue mindful living as a far better alternative.

Another interesting development is that the UK Government has set up a Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group, and published a report called Mindful Nation UK, which seeks to:

address mental health concerns in the areas of education, health, the workplace and the criminal justice system through the application of evidence-based mindfulness interventions.

3. How can people develop a positive, ethical mindfulness practice in everyday life?

brain-619060_640The popular image of mindfulness practice is someone sitting perfectly still and silently meditating. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Deb’s work with mindfulness in performance looks at meditation in movement; and as martial arts practitioners, we’re also familiar with the forms in arts such as Karate, Tai Chi and Taekwondo sometimes being described as “moving meditations”.

Ellen Langer, already mentioned above, teaches a version of mindfulness that’s lively, upbeat and doesn’t involve motionless meditation at all – she’s quoted as saying: The people I know won’t sit still for five minutes, let alone 40!

Instead, Langer simply defines mindfulness as the process of actively noticing new things, relinquishing preconceived mindsets, and then acting on the new observations.

When talking about mindfulness, it’s important to remember that in Buddhism, cultivating mindfulness is not just an end in itself – it’s a route to becoming a “better” person. Gil Fronsdal writes:

Once the mind experiences some ease in meditation, it is easier to train it in other ways. We can develop concentration or mental stability. We can foster the growth of generosity, ethical virtue, courage, discernment, and the capacity to release clinging.

One of Deb’s main points about mindfulness though, is that it doesn’t only “belong” to Buddhism – and practising Buddhism is not necessarily the only way to achieve it. Other world religions and traditions also have comparable frameworks – yoga is an obvious example. So Deb says:

Perhaps any practice – martial, performative, artistic – carried out with focused attention on the ‘direct experience of what is happening right here, right now’ could be ‘self-revealing’ (in Kabat-Zinn’s phrase) of the nature of consciousness, and from there the nature of reality itself.

Perhaps, with guidance, all practices, deeply engaged, can open us to the insights that constitute the Buddhist path and that when realised turn the practitioner toward non-attachment, compassion, and innate kindness.

How are martial arts particularly suited to this ethical practice of mindfulness?

Deb didn’t single out the martial arts for any special attention during her talk. But they are special, as we all know 😉 Here are two reasons why you could say that martial arts are especially suited to the process of training ourselves in authentic mindfulness, as Deb described in her talk:

  • Firstly, martial arts in their truest sense are absolutely in the here and now

Later on in the conference, Dr Tamara Russell explained in her own talk that focusing on the breath for meditation practice is very suitable because:

Your breath is always in the here and now. You can’t pay attention to a past breath! So if you pay attention to your breath, you must be in the present.

Martial arts (in their true martial sense) arguably have the same advantage over other physical activities. Taisen Deshimaru says,

In sports, time exists. In the martial arts there is only the present. In baseball for instance, the man at the bat has to wait for the pitch, he has time; his action is not instantaneous. The same is true of rugby or football or any other sport. Time passes and there is time, if only a fraction of a second, to think about something, while waiting. In the martial arts there is no time to wait. Victory or nonvictory, life or not-life, are decided in no time. You have to live now, it is now that life and death are determined, wholly (The Zen Way to the Martial Arts, p23)

Or to put it more simply (thanks to Jackie Bradbury for posting this on Facebook on Saturday):


  • Secondly, a focus on developing self-discipline and ethics is built into the art

There’s a potential problem with hoping that mindful training in a physical art will somehow automatically make us into better people. Deb explains:

As any meditator knows, the Path is not an easy one, and in the absence of structures, instructions, and teachers who know the Path better than we do, it is hard to imagine that many students find their way past their own delusions into the kinds of lucidity that canonical mindfulness points to.

Of course I’m biased, but my own feeling is that we’re more likely to find and benefit from a spiritually developed teacher in the martial arts, than many sports or other physical arts (excluding overtly “spiritual” practices such as yoga or falun gong).

This is because many martial arts have a strong ethical underpinning; and students and teachers alike are often very focused on self-improvement through their practice. As Gichin Funakoshi (the founder of Shotokan Karate) famously said:

The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of character of its participants


This was a fabulous talk, and an exciting start to the full-day conference (full write-up to follow). The way Deb defined mindfulness so precisely – and differentiated between more and less evidence-based / authentic versions of it – was really helpful in thinking about the relationship between mindfulness and martial arts practice . . .