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For a healthy mind, body and business

East vs West: Are we getting mindfulness all wrong?


woman on yoga mat with headphones - mindfulness in western culture

Mind the (Western) gap

Brad Reed of Repurpose-You examines if the rise in popularity of mindfulness in the West means we have become too distanced from its origins to reap the full benefits.

Two names often come up when exploring how the concept of mindfulness entered Western culture. Mindfulness in the West first started to become poplar in the USA during the 1960s and 70s, stemming from Buddhist practices. Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, is often credited with pioneering modern mindfulness while, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School is also seen as having introduced it into our everyday lives with his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme in the late 70s. As we have found mindfulness in the west to be incredibly helpful, we ask, have we moved too far from its origins and intentions?

Westerners absolutely love the spiritual buzzwords and phrases. 'Be mindful' or, 'Just be present' have become part of modern language when talking about our mental health. Commonly, we hear adaptations from yoga such as: 'Namaste'. I've also heard them used as an admonition when saying: “That’s not very mindful.”

A Western interpretation

Interestingly, the way mindfulness and meditation have been adapted in the West is still largely based on attainment, on some goal that is achieved through the practice. Many people initially are attracted to mindfulness, meditation and breath work programmes because of the rewards that they offer. It is indeed true, that engaging in these practices offers a myriad of benefits, which include:

  • Better focus and executive functioning
  • Improved energy and stamina
  • Increased immune function
  • Better mental health
  • Reduced stress
  • Reduced chronic pain
  • Faster recovery
  • Emotional resilience
  • Trauma and emotional release
man practicing mindfulness in the west with iphone
Nick Wehrli

This is a very impressive list and enough to prompt many people to start a practice.

Mindfulness has successfully been used to complement more medical approaches and Western psychology. In fact, this study published in The Lancet in 2015 found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was as effective as anti-depressants in preventing a relapse in patients with a history of depression. Another study found Kundalini yoga was more effective for people with Generalised Anxiety Disorder than conventional stress management.

As we have discovered the benefits of Eastern mindfulness and modified it to fit our Western culture, are we also now losing sight of what we really gain from it when practised in its truest form?

I have also seen many Western teachers flaunt their certifications or training like a badge of merit. It is another attainment, another qualification. This is often where the West gets stuck. What happens after six months, a few years? Perhaps that above list has been “achieved” and if that is the case, what then?

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