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Self-help system

08 March 2013

Terence Handley MacMath's series continues

I AM walking through Onslow Square, in London, and see a rain-coated businessman hurrying towards me, his head severely kinked to one side, and his face deeply creased in anxiety. He is shouting into his mobile phone something about being "mindful of the fact that . . . ". His mind is clearly very full: mindful he is not.

Mindfulness is not about having a full mind and being oblivious of the body. It is about the mind and body's willingness together to attend absolutely and only upon the present moment.

It is not mindlessness, cultivating an empty mind, nor a value-free mind/body exercise. It is deeply, morally engaged. While the outward technique can be reduced to simple instructions, the approach is one of love and acceptance, or, as some phrase it, "friendly curiosity" or "open-heartedness".

Mindfulness in the West has been developed from an ancient Buddhist spiritual practice into a Western technique for coping with chronic pain, chiefly through the work of Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn with his patients in Massachusetts. Learning to meditate - and within that self-created "safe space", exploring, very gently, the edges of pain - allows patients to move beyond fighting or fleeing it.

Exploiting the as-yet-little-appreciated connection between spirit, mind, and body, mindfulness has been developed as a clinical treatment for recurrent depression in this country by Mark Williams and others at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, at the Warneford Hospital.

It is also being used widely as a safe, effective self-help system in non-clinical settings, including business and education. Increasing numbers of NHS Trusts are sending their social workers, psychotherapists, and counsellors to be trained to teach courses in the community; and teachers are bringing the course into schools.

The students may be of any age, and be referred to a course by a clinician because of chronic pain or recurrent depression, or they may be coping-very-nicely-thank-you professionals, who are aware that there is a dimension to life which they are missing because each day is lived under constant stress.

Mindfulness can be a natural partner to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) - a psychotherapeutic method that is firmly anchored in the present, not seeking so much to understand or analyse the past as to untangle habitual behaviour and defences that patients have used in the past, so that they can evaluate their effectiveness and find better strategies of coping with whatever is causing distress.

So, for instance, if a person is beginning to think about the reasons he or she turns to food when unhappy or tired, or why he or she might be afraid to speak in public, simply taking the opportunity of a non-judgemental "friendly" time of stillness is going to be a good first step.

The Revd Terence Handley MacMath is an NHS chaplain, and a teacher of mindfulness in Christian and secular settings.

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