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Learning to live in the present

23 October 2015

A parliamentary report has just been published on mindfulness. Madeleine Bunting looks at the substance behind the popularity

Gosia Wozniacka/AP/Pa Images

Schools of thought: practising mindful breathing during a Mindful Studies class. In the US, a growing number of programmes are incorporating mindfulness, yoga, and meditation into school curriculums

Schools of thought: practising mindful breathing during a Mindful Studies class. In the US, a growing number of programmes are incorporating mindfulne...

A WINDY business park outside Consett, Co. Durham, is an unlikely setting for enlightenment, but it is here that Gary Heads has developed a social enterprise: teaching mindfulness to hundreds of people recommended by their GPs.

One of them, Sue Fletcher, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 20, and has suffered from chronic joint pain since she was a teenager. Fifteen months ago, she attended one of Mr Heads’s eight-week mindfulness courses.

“I’ve tried lots of different ways to help manage the pain," she says. "When someone suggested mindfulness, I was quite cynical, but I thought I’d give it a go. It’s been transformational: the biggest thing has been the way it has changed my relationship with the pain.

I can’t run away from the pain; so I need to accept it — even build a friendship with it.

“On bad days, it can be scary; but the mindfulness has helped me to just be in the moment, not to think about the future. It has also helped me find a degree of self-acceptance, and of being kind to myself. That was a massive thing.”

Ms Fletcher, who is now 34, described the ways she has incorporated into her daily life simple mindfulness exercises such as the body scan, and a three-minute pause to focus attention on the breath. She remembers now to stop, notice, and recognise that, as she puts it, “the world is a bigger place, and we are a part of it.”

She was lucky: her course was paid for by a public-health programme in Co. Durham that is designed to tackle the higher-than-average incidence of suicide and depression. Mr Heads’s company, Living Mindfully, has been commissioned to teach mindfulness classes in places such as Bishop Auckland and Darlington, and is now expanding across the north-east. There is nothing glamorous about working in communities with a long history of economic recession and poor mental health.

For Katherine Richardson, who leads on the council’s public-health strategy, it is very simple: “It works.” She is not a practitioner, but she believes in prevention; courses have just started in all the local secondary schools.

A FEW weeks later, I’m sitting in St Joseph’s Hospice, in east London, attending an eight-week course on "Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction". We are given homework of a body scan a day: 15 minutes of sitting or lying down, and moving our attention very slowly from the soles of our feet through every part of the body.

In one session, we simply sit in silence for 40 or so minutes, listening — to the sound of traffic, sirens, voices in the corridor, and, in between, to the sound of silence.

The instructions were very simple: focus your attention on the sensations of breathing — the rise and fall of your chest, the sensation of breath in your nostrils. When the mind is distracted, gently bring it back to the breath.

The attention is kind, without judgement, and is focused on the physical sensation of breathing, moment by moment. Gradually, over weeks of practice, the patterns of reactive thought begin to loosen, and there are moments of insight and peacefulness.

When the group of a dozen strangers on the course share their experiences, the most striking response is a sense of surprise. “I come from a very atheist background, but now I am questioning some of that,” one man says. Several were taken aback by incidents in which they had found themselves suddenly behaving slightly differently — showing more patience or kindness.

I have been a regular meditator, on or off, for 30 years, and for most of that time I’ve had to explain to confused people why I do it. Now I’ve been overtaken by its popularity; but some of it makes me distinctly uneasy.

There are parts of the corporate world — even the US military — that have latched on to mindfulness because of its benefits of focus, clarity of mind, decision-making, and creativity. Given the sharply increasing toll of workplace-induced mental ill-health in the UK, mindfulness gets used as a sticking-plaster, a cheap alternative to reducing workloads, or in an attempt to create less stressful organisations.

As the demand for mindfulness soars, there are also concerns about the quality of teachers. Anyone can do a quick course and claim to be a teacher, but evidence suggests that it is only when the teacher is fully embodying the practice that the course is effective. The softly spoken Mr Heads is an inspiring teacher precisely because he has practised mindfulness for several decades.

SO WHERE does mindfulness come from? And what is driving its popularity? As a long-term writer on religion, I find it a fascinating illustration of how modernity is radicalising traditional religious practices. This is spirituality without creeds, institutions, or priests — all the usual structures of transmission. Will it survive?

The roots of mindfulness lie in the anti-colonial movement of Burma, where Buddhist reform movements spread out of the monasteries to offer practices for the laity, drawing from the Buddha’s first teachings.

The ideas travelled to India, where they were picked up by visiting hippies from North America. Many of these have become widely admired Buddhist teachers in the West: for example Christina Feldman, Joseph Goldstein, and Jack Kornfield.

In the ’70s, a young American scientist, Jon Kabat-Zinn, decided that the way for mindfulness to become mainstream in the United States was to build a scientific evidence base for its benefits. He developed an eight-week course for patients with chronic pain in a hospital in Massachusetts; it is now running in thousands of health settings across the world, and Professor Kabat-Zinn teaches globally.

In part, the success of Professor Kabat-Zinn’s work has come about because it coincided with breakthroughs in neuroscience: scientists are fascinated by what is happening in the brain through mindfulness practices. There are now more than 500 research papers published each year on aspects of mindfulness, and its applications for conditions ranging from cancer to eating disorders.

Earlier this year, the Wellcome Trust committed a £7-million grant for a long-term study of its impact on children — the hope is that mindfulness could be a potential tool to tackle the disturbing levels of mental ill-health among adolescents.

One of the most successful research projects was that of the psychology professors Mark Williams (an Anglican priest), based at Oxford; John Teasdale; and Zindel Segal. They found, over a number of studies, that Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) was as effective as anti-depressants in treating recurrent depression. It is now a treatment recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), the NHS body which offers guidance to medical practitioners.

For some, mindfulness is a science; for others, it is a spiritual practice. Some Buddhists believe that their teachings have been commercialised, and served up as Buddhism-lite; for others, it has nothing to do with Buddhism, but is simply a form of mental hygiene. Just as jogging was widely adopted to keep the body fit, so will mindfulness become the way that our age deals with information and stimulation overload. What makes the subject so fascinating is that all these positions have validity.

IT WAS a busy evening earlier this summer at Second Home, in Shoreditch, the hip London neighbourhood of tech start-ups and expensive cappuccinos. With its stylish modern architecture, Second Home incubates tech innovation with shared working spaces, but the 30-somethings had come to hear an Anglican priest, Professor Williams, talk about mindfulness.

Afterwards, Professor Williams talked to a queue of individuals. While he waited, one executive for a high-profile tech company told me that Professor Williams’s best-selling introductory book, Mindfulness in a Frantic World, had changed his life. His attentiveness to his questioners reminded me of his pastoral training as a priest.

He has unwittingly become the father of the UK movement. Now retired from Oxford, he is much in demand as a speaker and teacher. His approach is kindly, but backed up by the authority of science. His talk in Shoreditch started with the word “sati” in the old Buddhist Pali texts; it translates as “mindfulness”, but really means to gather together — to remember. “Mindfulness” is becoming aware of all that is happening in the moment, as it happens. Not fretting about the future, or regretting the past.

Then he moved on to the science, and the overactivation of the brain’s amygdala, which leads to the stress response of fight or flight that so many people find hard to switch off. The “doing” mode of the brain becomes dominant, constantly planning and worrying, at the cost of the “being” mode.

“I get as distracted as anyone by the mind; but you just note how thoughts come and go for 20 minutes,” he explains, and quotes Joseph Campbell: “What we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.”

Professor Williams argues that research has shown how mindfulness increases creativity by reducing rigidity in the mind, generating greater versatility. “Fear inhibits creativity,” he says. Mindfulness could be subversive, he continues, as it comes into the workplace: it makes people more compassionate towards themselves and others, enabling them also to look after themselves and others. He suggests an example: leaving the office on time.

When someone asked Professor Williams how it had changed his life, he paused. “I hope I listen better, and don’t try to problem-solve all the time. I have more moments of just being.”

He is clearly reaching places in society that might have very little interest in traditional Christianity. Dr Jo Cook, a medical anthropologist at University College, London, who is researching the subject, believes that, for many, its appeal lies in the combination of science and personal testimony.

“It has been individualised and psychologised in the West,” she says. The “ethical integration” of Buddhist practice has been less evident here.

She points to the history of how Buddhism, as a non-proselytising faith, has spread across south-east Asia, adapting itself to the preoccupations of each culture. In the West, it is being used as a medical treatment for depression, or instrumentalised for work effectiveness.

ONE of the most ambitious of Professor Williams’s ideas was to take mindfulness into parliament. Frustrated by the slow spread of MBCT within the NHS as a treatment, the researchers thought that politicians needed personal experience. More than 100 MPs and parliamentary staff have now done the course.

In 2014, an All Party Parliamentary Group was set up, with enthusiastic backers such as the junior Conservative minister Tracey Crouch, and the economist Lord [Richard] Layard, who has been influential in mental-health policy over the past decade.

On Tuesday, a report was due to be launched, the result of a nine-month inquiry into the potential of mindfulness in public policy in areas such as health, education, the workplace, and criminal justice. It urges much wider availability of mindfulness courses across the NHS, and support for training in schools.

There is no shortage of sceptics questioning why this Government would be interested, but the part played by mindfulness in helping a range of deep-seated challenges around poor mental health, as well as the management of chronic health conditions such as those of Ms Fletcher, in Consett, is attracting politicians’ interest.

The key word on politicians’ lips is resilience; it is part of the character education policies so close to the heart of the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan; and it is part of how people manage long-term conditions, now in the remit of the Minister for Community and Social Care, Alistair Burt. Significantly, they both spoke at the launch.

The million-dollar question that lies ahead is whether cash-strapped, target-driven public services can really accommodate the integrity and subtlety of mindfulness. It is not a quick fix.

Madeleine Bunting was co-founder, in 2013, of the Mindfulness Initiative, an advocacy project that has provided the secretariat to the Mindfulness All Party Parliamentary Group. She is writing here in a personal capacity.


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