The idea and practice of mindfulness is commonly associated with Buddhist traditions, but meditative practices have been present in most religions, and been practised by those with no religion for many years.
Over the last 40 years or so these ideas and practices have been combined with western psychological theory and developed into a secular practice that has been the subject of thousands of scientific trials.
Rather than seeing mindfulness and meditation as a religious activity, therefore, it is best thought of as a human capacity we have – like our ability to walk, or speak, or solve problems; an ability we can develop or ignore, one we can choose to cultivate and refine, or leave to itself.
It is thought that the greatest benefits of practice are available through courses of at least six weeks, due to the necessity for participants to begin to habitualness the skills they develop, and learn to apply these skillfully, deliberately regularly in daily life.
Structured teaching of methods of cultivating mindfulness have been available since the development of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) programmes for treating physical pain and poor mental health in the 1980s and 1990s.
These courses – devised as, and used as, clinical interventions – generally entail eight weekly classes of up to two and a half hours each. The same courses are also openly available outside of clinical settings (open courses), and are also used as the basis for workplace mindfulness training.
Being mindful does not necessarily involve meditation, but for most people this form of learning to maintain attention is required to strengthen the intention to stay present and cultivate an open and allowing quality of mind.