Modern and ancient perspectives on mindfulness broadly agree on its function as a protective mental quality.
This humble mental quality allows us to have a ‘clear view’ of the moment-to-moment flow of events in order to be ‘on guard’ for potentially negative and injurious psychological states. It is important here to distinguish between protectiveness and defensiveness, which is a ‘not wanting to know’. The quality of mindfulness always inclines towards ‘wanting to know’.
Mindfulness as a protective factor was first outlined in the ancient Buddhist simile of the gatekeeper:
“Imagine a fortress, at a frontier, which has a wise and experienced gatekeeper. The function of this gatekeeper is to keep out those he doesn’t know and to let in those he does. This is for the protection of those within and to ward off those without.
“In the same way, someone who is mindful is alert and able to call to mind even things that were done and said long ago. With mindfulness as his gatekeeper, such a one maintains what is helpful and benevolent, abandons what is unhealthy, and looks after oneself well.”
You can find a translation of the original discourse, which includes this simile, here.
Here, being ‘mindful’ connotes ‘taking care’. This is also the word’s most common English rendering despite its recent and gradual shift in meaning towards something more akin to ‘awareness’.
Not by coincidence, protective care-taking is the rationale for modern mindfulness-based psychotherapies, which predominantly aim to prevent the relapse of mental distress.
Take one example: Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). This is a well-established, evidence-based treatment for depressive relapse first developed in the 1990s. Here, the researchers were seeking a ‘final solution’ to the repetitive nature of depression.
They found that, for people who had been depressed in the past, a small change in mood led to a large change in negative thinking, which could easily trigger a downward spiral into further depression.
They then discovered that this could be prevented if people were able to recognise their thought patterns relatively early on, so that they were able to ‘stand back’ and get some perspective on their experience.
It was the combination of these two discoveries that led them to adopt a fully-fledged mindfulness-based programme, which they would later name MBCT.
Such a programme, in effect, allows you to deliberately access and empower your internalised gatekeeper, cool-headed and wise, who quietly monitors your interactions with the world to enhance your sense of ease and to diminish your potential for suffering.
As a result, life smoothes out and becomes an easier ride.
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