Please celebrate the last 25 years with me and download a free 5 minute 3 step breathing space and a 40 minute body scan which I’ve recorded for the occasion. I’d love to hear about your own journey too – so please do let me know how you get on!
Do you remember your first experience of mindfulness practice? Or perhaps you’ve never had one.
I remember mine clearly, on a damp and cold Saturday in March 1992. I was a young psychology student, and was really excited that I was taking the first ‘positive psychology’ course in the UK – learning about what keeps people emotionally well and enables people to flourish even in the face of adversity. The newly published (and now seminal book) ‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi was compulsory reading, and I was fascinated by his ideas and keen to experience ‘flow’, the state of consciousness which occurs when we are deeply involved in the present moment fully immersed in doing something which we love. So when a Malaysian friend suggested I come to a ‘day of mindfulness’ with her, I said yes, little knowing that it would shape my personal and professional development and my career interests, nor that it would lead me, 25 years later, to be training to be a mindfulness teacher on an NHS mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) course. As that quarter-century milestone is this month, I thought I’d write this blog on how my mindfulness practice has developed over that time and some of the many things I’ve learned along the way.
- Increase your life expectancy through greater present moment awareness
If you think I’ve spend 25 years sitting in the lotus position with my eyes closed, think again! I learned the value of ‘informal’ mindfulness practices at that first mindfulness training day, by this I mean paying attention to whatever is present in the moment using all five senses, this can include how we listen and pay attention to other people, to music, to the world around us – and because we are more consciously aware, it feels like we are increasing the length as well as the quality of our lives. I still vividly remember an outdoor walking practice on that first day of mindfulness – noticing the new buds on the bushes and the raindrops hanging from them, the grey Edinburgh streets reflected in each drop. For the next 13 years I mainly practiced informally and on a very irregular basis, as well as some shorter practices at the end of yoga classes, such as mindfulness of breath and/ or sound. The seeds were sown!
- You can’t get it wrong
In 2006 I was interested in the rapid growth in evidence based ‘positive psychology’, and curious to discover that ‘secular’ mindfulness was blossoming and proving itself as a clinical and preventive intervention, and had already progressed into the NHS’s NICE guidance. By this time I was a public health doctor, improving the mental and physical health of populations, and I read up on the psychological theory and research underpinning these ‘mindfulness based interventions’, including Jon Kabat-Zinn’s ‘Full Catastrophe Living’ book, and his ‘series 1’ set of CDs. I tried to listen to a track once a week. Each track was about 10 minutes long, I probably listened to two tracks a month, more often when I remembered or when I felt under greater pressure and wanted something to help me manage a busy mind, less often when I forgot. Looking back, I realise that during these few years, I was using my practice time as an opportunity for relaxation or time out, a time when I could switch off from my busy mind and responsibilities and reward myself with some quiet time for myself. Now, I more consciously choose when I want to do a practice for relaxation, but then I was less interested in the mental training side of the practice (the process of noticing when and where my mind has wandered, and gently escorting it back to the present moment; and the process of ‘metacognitive awareness’ or ‘defusion’ – seeing thoughts as mental events rather than facts). I have learned that formal practice is actually really quite hard work even now – and that’s why the brain changes its neural shape during and following regular practice! But with mindfulness, you can’t get it wrong, when your mind wanders (which as a thought-generating machine it always will), you just learn to notice it’s wandered, and start again. And again. And again….
- Cultivating beginner’s mind
Remember the big NHS reorganisation in 2013? During the period running up to this my staff team were struggling with the scale of the change and the fact that the team was being split in 3 different directions. I asked my kind boss to invest in a brief mindfulness through change programme to help to support my team through this difficult time, he agreed provided I could convince him that this was an evidence based intervention. I rediscovered all the workplace health literature and evidence of effective interventions and persuaded him to fund the intervention. This is where I discovered ACT- more on that later. It was at this time that I decided to really commit to a regular mindfulness practice, and as started to practice more regularly, I began to consider the possible applications of mindfulness beyond myself and my own team, and decided to start the process of training to be a mindfulness teacher myself, so that I could use it in a workplace setting, as one aspect of improving working lives.
After I decided to start the process of training to be a mindfulness teacher, the first step I needed to take was to take part in an actual 8 week mindfulness course. I didn’t realise just how much more there was to learn, and the MBCT course was a great learning experience for me on the value of ‘beginner’s mind’ – a quality of curiosity and willingness to experience things as if for the first time. I thought I knew a reasonable amount about mindfulness and my own practice, and to some extent I did, but the more I learn the more I realise how little I know. I’m now much more consciously incompetent in my practice, and every time I sit down to formally practice, I remind myself of the quality of ‘beginner’s mind’, no two mindfulness practices are ever the same, sometimes I spend the whole practice period noticing my mind wandering and patiently bringing it back, sometimes I’ve got lost in a long, long train of thought before I notice that its wandered off. But the purpose of mindfulness practice is all in the noticing and the being willing to start again, every breath as a new beginning, every practice as if for the first time.
- Weaving your parachute
Part of the reason I learned so much from the 8 week course was I chose Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) over Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), because it is the meeting of minds between the tradition of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and MBSR, carefully researched during the 80s and 90s by the UK’s leading psychologists and psychiatrists, and is the course in NICE guidance and the favoured programme in the NHS. In MBCT there is a lot of psychoeducation and the home practice is quite demanding, up to an hour a day for 8 weeks and a personal commitment to practice at least 20-30 minutes most days after the course. The thought of this level of commitment before the course seemed pretty daunting, as I had probably never done more than a period of sitting or lying practice for more than 30 minutes, but I found that once I really decided to commit to it and to make the time to do the full formal practices, that it led me to a different experience of mindfulness than before. I learned about boredom, frustration, and resistance! I learned more about other’s experiences and struggles and their persistence in the face of not being able to ‘feel anything in their toes’, or worries of ‘not doing it right’. I understood first hand the dose- response effect and that commitment to a regular daily practice is part of ‘weaving your parachute’, developing brain training skills which can be used to support oneself in times of the inevitable difficulties of life. The 8 week MBCT course changed my mindfulness practice, and gave me a significantly increased toolkit and confidence in my practice that I never reached with all the years of informal and formal practice.
- The Practice of ‘Valuing’
I love the challenge that mindfulness presents me with every day to be more present in each moment, to be more compassionate for myself and other people, and I like knowing that this practice is something I can develop over the course of a lifetime and still never master. It is both an end in itself as well as a means to an end. In early 2016, I did the 7 day MBCT teacher training level 1 retreat, a very challenging and rewarding experience and I’m doing the practical training at the moment. I love sharing mindfulness with people I coach, it helps support my clients with their leadership skills, effectiveness, wellbeing and their families and life outside work, and I look forward to offering mindfulness based courses in the workplace, giving people cutting edge internal resources to support themselves in their working lives.
I’m also really interested in ACT, ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’, another mindfulness based cognitive behaviour therapy, with an exponentially growing evidence base for workplace health and other situations as described in my other blogs. As well as developing mindfulness skills, other psychological processes targeted include ‘valuing’ – taking action in line with one’s own chosen life directions. I use ACT and MBCT in my work and in my own life on a daily basis and whatever people come to me for coaching for, they generally say that the work they do on mindfulness and on their values is what will stay with them for a very long time.
Here’s what some coaching clients who are senior doctors have said about their own experience of mindfulness:
‘Fiona introduced me to the concept of mindfulness and I now incorporate this into my daily routine. Since taking time out every day I have seen my productivity increase and feel more relaxed within my working day. Highly recommended!’
‘I’ve known ‘mindfulness’ all my life. It was the brief pauses between what appeared to be constant anxiety and rushing to get things completed. I could never grasp what these seemingly brief episodes were. Nor why, as there didn’t appear to be a pattern. Time off work or vacations didn’t seem to follow, in fact often made me worse. I seemed to be racing all the time, never enjoying the journey. Hobbies were always traumatic as I was my worst critic. But there were these episodes of serenity. Having experienced mindfulness, I can now look back and identify them more easily. The breathing exercises and body scan does allow me to get back into it. Life is still busy but is being met with a greater degree of calm. I have something to do which makes me feel better. I was accused by a colleague of being too positive the other day! I have started bullet journaling, unusual for a bloke but it does give me some order and a place for me to be. I can therefore proactively keep a gratitude log – there is at least something that I’m thankful for or someone expressed gratitude to me each & every day.’
‘(After learning about mindfulness during coaching), and since participating in an 8 week MBCT course and immersing myself in practice, I approach life at a consciously slower rate. I listen more and interrupt less. I lunch away from my desk. I use the Breathing Space Technique frequently both at home and work : a short mindful pause which I find both energising and calming. I also find it a useful way to maintain or regain focus.’
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