view of mountains

View from monastery at Rumtek, Sikkim, North India

Companies up and down the UK have discovered Buddhism. Well, an aspect of Buddhist practice anyway. It seems businesses are almost as likely to send employees on ‘mindfulness’ courses as they are to stump up for vocational training or Health & Safety Days.

Some of the non-corporate, more traditional exponents of Eastern meditative practices, those who are more at home with love, peace and long-flowing robes than takeovers, spreadsheets and jacket-and-ties, dislike the use of mindfulness for selfish, or at least self-centred, purposes. In their eyes managers are solely concerned with improving their own wellbeing and increasing their employees’ productivity (in other words, the bottom line), in effect grabbing what they need from mindfulness and leaving behind the ethical values that mindfulness is all about.

If the whole mindfulness thing has passed you by – though it can only have done so if you’ve spent the last few years meditating on a mountain – it is, in a nutshell, about anchoring yourself to the present, being more aware of the world around you. As such, it can relieve stress and lift depression.

We spend too much of our time dwelling on the past – often with a hefty dose of regret. And when we ponder the future, it’s with trepidation. Even while enjoying our favourite leisure activity we allow disquieting thoughts to enter our minds.

With roots in the contemplative traditions of all the main religions, but Buddhism in particular, a course in mindfulness is a palliative for the frazzled mind in an ever-busier world.

Harassed government ministers and other Westminster politicians are looking to mindfulness – for the relief it can provide them, weighed down by the cares of office, but also because of the potential it offers the National Health Service to reduce the dependency on medication of depression sufferers, or to treat drug addiction.

Again, our more spiritually-inclined practitioners may applaud the attention it’s receiving from health policymakers, while being less keen on its use as a career development tool (for MPs or whoever) or its status as the latest corporate fad. Business leaders can do all the meditation-based training they want to, but if ethics are merely implicit rather than explicit then it ain’t mindfulness. Mindfulness can only be understood with reference to other people, and to compassionate behaviour. And it won’t solve the big problems our politicians and corporate highflyers are in a position to tackle – such as the marginalisation of the poor, or environmental degradation – without a deeper engagement, focused on outcomes, with the very issues themselves.

I haven’t tried mindfulness, as it happens, but I’m well disposed towards it. It’s not going to change Gordon Gecko into Gandhi: but by becoming hyper-aware, the mindfulness student is almost bound to become more empathetic, with the result that he is more likely to respect others and rein in the worst of his greedy grasping tendencies.