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Mindfulness: What's the Hype About?

06/03/2015 03:32 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016

"Mindfulness is nothing you can be critical or supportive about: It is a state of mind. You can choose to seek and strengthen it, or you can ignore it. It is still here," the psychiatrist says.

2015-06-02-1433256821-7617220-PHOTO_Dr.BjarteStubhaug.jpg Photograph by Hanne Suorza

In this interview with the mindfulness expert Dr. Bjarte Stubhaug I have put my critical glasses on. Because after years of practice, I find mindfulness simple, yet difficult at the same time. But in any lifestyle magazine or tabloid newspaper, I often get the impression that mindfulness is an easy quick fix to all types of stress and problems. I'm still convinced about its healing power, but from what I have experienced myself it takes time, patience and practice.

That makes me wonder:

What's the hype about?

It is partly about the search of a miracle cure for any pain or problem, which people at all times have been occupied by. Simple, easy, low cost, low commitment, universally effective. Fantastic! No wonder people are interested! It is partly about the overwhelming amount of articles in health magazines saying just this, that mindfulness is a golden way to peace of mind with less worries and pain. And it is also about listening to the actual experience people do report, that mindfulness does indeed work, that it is a way of working with regulating uneasiness, negative feelings and health complaints.

What are your concerns?

None, except for the discredit of mindfulness that may arise from uncritical stories of the miracle cure, the idea of mindfulness as a quick-fix to anything, and the commercialization of mindfulness training.

The commercialization?

Commercial interests will often influence the development, growth and use of any psychological technique. I see mindfulness sometimes being presented more or merely as "effective", losing much of its content, not the least acceptance.

A state of mind more than a tool or fix

Are you both a supporter and a critic?

No critic, just a bit concerned about the misinterpretations of mindfulness theory and practice, seeking effective problem solving. Mindfulness is nothing you can be critical or supportive about: It is a state of mind. You can choose to seek and strengthen it, or you can ignore it. It is still here. Mindfulness therapies are something else. I endorse and I use them.

You like to look beyond the term "mindfulness"?

Indeed. Mindful is a good word and concept of a state of mind. A state of mind more than a tool or fix. It has to do with facing and accepting anything in the present moment, not achieving anything or changing bad things. Simple, but not easy.

Yes, simple but not easy. I now find this understanding of acceptance very freeing. But at the same time a wish for change is often the motivation behind learning mindfulness, right?

Yes, and this is the tension and uneasiness in practicing mindfulness: purposeful in search of change and gain, and yet the absence of purpose or effect.

Then what is mindfulness - stripped down?

There are hundred of definitions, all might be true. To me, mindfulness is being mindful - being consciously aware of the present moment, aware of and accepting my life, my body, my thoughts and feelings right here and now. Mindfulness therapy, be it cognitive therapy, stress reduction, pain, anxiety or depression relief: see, that is a step beyond mindfulness by itself.

And at the end, when there is no bridge over troubled water: by helping you accept life as it is, now. Not yours to control. But still, and more important: for you to cope with

So the great deal is about the present moment. Here and now. How can that possible help when life is tough?

By relieving the pain, the grief, the troublesome body or mind. By letting go - as well as you manage - of the experience of this tough life, and by this reducing activation in the stress nervous system, in the immune system, in the complex interaction of all body systems and emotional responses. And at the end, when there is no bridge over troubled water: by helping you accept life as it is, now. Not yours to control. But still, and more important: for you to cope with.

That might sound like a paradox? To turn to the present moment even when you feel like being anywhere else? Even when in sorrow, anger, pain or defeat?

No paradox, really. Merely shifting your attention from the past and future, from regrets and worries to the stillness of being here, right now. No problems are solved; no sorrow or defeat is repressed nor forgotten. But at this present moment, your mind is somewhere else, just being here. No solution, but a glimpse of calmness, acceptance, peace of mind...

How? Not necessarily by sitting still?

By sitting still. By lying down. By walking around, being mindful of whatever is in your senses, in your body and in your mind right now. By simply being aware of the life around you, in this present moment.

Above all, be aware of your breath, it is always right here. Now. Always. As long as you live

Does this make mindfulness a technique or a way of living?

It may be a therapeutic technique when part of a wider therapeutic context. It can be part of your way of living, living your life with all its doings, analyses and plans, even its worries and concerns, bringing small pieces of ease, peace and being here. Mindfulness practice may be an integrated part of a busy, executive life, with tiny moments of awareness of being, in the jungle of doings. With a conscious longer break from your doing by deciding to stop, pause and do nothing, achieve nothing... just being here.

Where to turn if you want to learn?

To your breath and to your senses: coming to your senses. By deciding to train and practice mindfulness of being here. If you like, find a good app on guided mindfulness. Reading Jon Kabat-Zinn about mindfulness, or find a good YouTube video of him. Take a course with an experienced teacher. Above all, be aware of your breath, it is always right here. Now. Always. As long as you live.

Bjarte Stubhaug is a well-known Norwegian psychiatrist and researcher with thirty years of clinical experience. During the last ten years his main interest has been within the field of stress medicine.

This post originally appeared on the blog hannesuorza.no