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Last week DH bought home a book from the library that I forgot I had ordered, Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in frantic world. It comes with a CD with guided meditations. I should point out I haven’t actually read it yet.

This morning, instead of reading the book, on a whim I decided to browse through the brochure for the last day of the Cheltenham Science Festival to see if there was anything to go to. I had completely forgotten it was on. I often moan that all the good things happen in London (I keep moaning to the people at Psychologies magazine that all their cool events are in London, which puts them out of reach for me – too far and too expensive to get to). But in my whining I forget about the multitude of festivals that are on in the nearby town, and we rarely go to see anything due to finances and childcare. But today I flicked through the brochure on the off chance and found that Professor Mark Williams, author of the above book, was speaking about the very same subject, along with the BBC Arts Correspondent David Silitoe. So I bit the bullet and booked it, and thought that we would take the kids along to the free events that are always on.

I left DH queuing with the kids for the Lego Tent with the kids, and went to the EDF Energy Arena. I was seated in the Gods due to my very last minute booking. Professor Williams and David Sillito were introduced by one of the festival directors. She mispronounced the name Sillito which wasn’t a great start! Fortunately the questions that she asked at the end suggested she had done a bit of research at least. David Sillito began by showing a video that he had made for the BBC, which is a bit of a cheek if you ask me, we want new content for our £10! Anyway, you can see excerpts of the film here and here (hey, if they can cheat, so can I!) The film showed David and his friend Fiona, who suffers from chronic pain as a result of lupus, undertaking an 8 week mindfulness course.

MRI scans taken before and after the course showed a marked attenuation in brain activation in certain areas. For Fiona the part of the brain associated with pain reception was much less active than it had been before the course, and Fiona reported a corresponding difference in her perception of the pain. It wasn’t that the pain had lessened per se, but she had learned to disassociate from it somewhat. For David, the part of the brain that reduced in activation was the bit that is associated with the ego and self-centredness. He didn’t say what part that was, and that is beyond my neuroscience training, but it will be somewhere in the frontal lobe. Incidentally, it is an area that is vulnerable to head injury, and self-centredness and lack of empathy quite common after a brain injury.

After the video David went on to describe the after effects of his mindfulness course. He described it at being able to remove yourself from your own feelings and look at them, to determine an appropriate objective response, rather than the initial emotional reposes we often feel that we can’t control during times of stress.

Mark Williams then took the metaphorical stand. I have to include my completely uninteresting fact here that I have actually stayed at Mark William’s house. He was good friends with my aunt when he lived in Cambridge. He then went on to become a very important academic at Bangor University, my alma mater. When my aunt heard I was applying to Bangor to study she insisted I go and stay with Mark. There, that’s my incredibly boring claim to fame.

Professor Williams spoke a little about the history of mindfulness. It has come full circle to its secular origins, though most of us will associate it with the Buddhist practice of meditation. It literally means “non-forgetfulness” but was originally a way of trying to relieve suffering by concentrating on understand what was causing the suffering. Prof. Williams used an excellent analogy to describe our need for it. Imagine a gazelle in the Savannah, they have to be on ready alert for any lions preying on them (or film crews, he pointed out, as where there is a film crew there is probably a lion not far behind!). When a lion attacks the gazelle flee, and the fortunate ones escape. But within about 5 minutes of the danger passing the gazelle are busy grazing again, they need to graze to live. If they sat there analysing what happened after each attack, assessing all the other gazelle for PTSD, consoling each other for their loss and fretting about the next attack, well, they’d die of starvation.

Humans on the other hand have not only present lions to run from, we have future lions that we worry about, we have imaginary lions running through our heads. The amygdala, controlling the fight or flight mechanism doesn’t recognise that the actual threat has disappeared, and that what we are mostly worried about are hypothetical lions. It doesn’t switch off. Mindfulness can help it switch off, and can stop us worrying about hypothetical lions, and when the lions do come, it can help us manage our emotions, and as Fiona showed, manage real pain.

As more and more studies on mindfulness emerge with positive findings even the medical establishment is beginning to see its benefits. NICE include mindfulness as recommended way of preventing depression in their clinical guidelines.

The festival session moved on to questions quite swiftly, fortunately as there were a great many. Among them was a query about the use of mindfulness in children. Mark (you see, I’m calling him Mark now!) mentioned a programme called Mindfulness In Schools which offers courses in mindfulness to teachers for the benefit of the pupils (and no doubt the teachers).

One brave woman spoke up and said that she suffered from depression and tried the “Body Scan” CDs that came with a mindfulness book (I think that is a technique that guides you through different parts of your body and gets you to focus on each in turn, a common relaxation technique). This lady said that being in the throes of depression she didn’t really want to focus on her big toe, she just wanted to feel better. I imagined the answer that Mark was going to give was to give it a chance to work etc. But being a far more insightful person than I am, with years and years of experience study clinical depression, his answer was to leave it for a while. It’s not compulsory, he said, and doesn’t replace many other well regarded techniques for treating depression. Be kind to yourself, he told her, come back to it when you are ready.

I had a question too. Of course I did. I’m well known for this at work. I can’t pass up an opportunity for my own input. But despite doing my best Hermione Granger impression, I wasn’t picked out from among the many other people with their hands up.

This was my question. The video and the talks all made it seem like mindfulness was such an amazing thing, a panacea in a difficult world. But if it is so good, why aren’t we all doing it? Why are there so many books telling us how to do? And as I have noted in previous posts, everything comes at a cost, even good things, so what are the costs to mindfulness, what are the obstacles to overcome? I suspect I can come up with the main one, time. But with books like Headspace promising effects from just 10 minutes a day, time isn’t really an issue. In fact I have a very good half read book (you know me, of course it’s only half read!) called Buddhism for Mothers which is all about carving time out of non-stop days, for example, by practising mindfulness even as you are washing up or feeding your baby.

Another answer may come from a point that was made by a member of the audience. He said why should we try and be mindful and calm when there is so much to be enraged about. The mess the bankers made, politician’s mistakes, without anger, surely there can be no action. There wasn’t really a direct response to this by the speakers, but from what I understand about mindfulness it is not about suppressing any emotion. In fact the traditional “smile through it” approach to a problem whereby you ignore the bad and focus on the good, is thought to be more damaging. By trying to suppress a thought you are more likely to focus on it. After all, ever tried not to think about orange penguins? Go on, try not to think about orange penguins. Stop thinking about them. Difficult isn’t it?

We did a short mindfulness practice in the talk, and Mark said clearly several times that if your mind wandered from what it was supposed to be focused on, your breathing or body or whatever, that was ok, don’t beat yourself up and just draw your mind back. Doesn’t matter if it happens again and again either. The aim is not to clear the mind, but to let the thoughts flow through you, acknowledging them, but not focusing on them.

You’re still thinking about them aren’t you?

All in all it was an interesting hour. I’m not sure I learned much that I didn’t know before, or couldn’t find in a book, but I did feel inspired to give it a go. I don’t think there is a magic key to mindfulness or meditation, just practice and perseverance. And with practice you could be almost as happy as the “Happiest Man in the World”.