“Just go into the room and put one chair in the centre. Take the seat in the centre of the room, open the doors and the windows, and see who comes to visit. You will witness all kinds of scenes and actors, all kinds of temptations and stories, everything imaginable. Your only job is to stay in your seat. You will see it all arise and pass, and out of this, wisdom and understanding will come.” Achaan Chah
I came across mindfulness about seven years ago, from a psychotherapist friend who suggested I look into it with regards to my own teaching of special needs children. I bought a book about teaching with mindfulness and was intrigued. Over the next couple of years, a number of stressful influences arose in my life and my health, sleep and relationships began to suffer. I was moved to try a four week course of mindfulness online, was impressed by the effect it had on me, and soon after found a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction teacher and invested the time necessary for the 8 week course. I was bowled over by the seemingly magical transformations in my life: my health improved, as did my sleep and relationships. I was no longer as anxious or reactive and I found had the courage to tackle things that had felt impossible before.
I’ve since trained to teach mindfulness (the 8 week MBSR and MBCT courses, and Paws B course for children ages 7 – 11) through the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice at Bangor University. I’m supported in my mindfulness teaching by an accredited supervisor.
Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist meditation, but the 8 week course is entirely secular. It was initially brought to western medicine by Jon Kabat Zinn, (there are many clips of him on the internet, but this is a good introductory interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2LebuLJmmA ) He designed the 8 week MBSR course, originally as an intervention to help sufferers of chronic pain. Later, in about 2010, it was developed as a way of treating depression by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. They adapted the MBSR course slightly, and the Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy Course (MBCT) came into being..
The benefits of attending an eight week course can be profound, some are listed here:
- Reduced physical & psychological suffering in terms of stress and tension in the mind and body.
- Improved sleep.
- Improved immune system.
- Improved courage to speak from the heart.
- Improved levels of energy and a greater enthusiasm for life.
- Increased ability to deal with challenging situations in a calm, composed way.
- Increased ability to relax, even when faced with stressful circumstances.
- Improved self-esteem and confidence.
- Reduced feelings of anger and frustration.
- Better relationships at work and in your personal life.
- Natural pain management (for those experiencing chronic/on-going pain).
What Mindfulness is and what to expect from the eight week MBSR course
Mindfulness is a form of meditation. It involves paying attention to what is happening in our internal world as well as the external world, from moment to moment. The intention while practicing is to observe our feelings, sensations and emotions, without criticism or judgement or seeking to change them, instead noticing them with compassion and letting them go.
Mindfulness is not a quick fix: the more it’s practiced, the more your mind naturally stays anchored in the present moment, which means the less time your brain spends in the past (dwelling, churning or regretting) or in the future: (worrying), and the happier, calmer and less reactive you become.
Although it’s not for everyone, it has been scientifically proven to reduce stress and anxiety, increase resilience, keep depression at bay, improve the immune system and sleep patterns, and to reduce one’s genetic age. It actually changes the shape of the brain and the length of the telomeres.
Although, initially, it feels a tall order to find the course’s prerequisite forty minutes every day, (it helps to think of it as just over half an hour), the practices are found generally relaxing at the outset. In fact, initially, falling asleep may well be something you will have to fight against. As you continue, the practices may still be found relaxing, but as your understanding deepens, they may bring other feelings as well as calm: perhaps a sense of illumination, challenge, frustration, insight and understanding. You will notice that the sense of calm begins to extend into daily life: that you feel a step removed from difficult situations, and might be able to take more in your stride. Relationships should begin to seem easier after a few weeks of practice. You will also begin to be able to recognise the subtleties of your inner ‘weather patterns’ and recognise when you might need to practice.
Stress is virtually impossible to avoid. As part of our reaction to stress we tend to behave in ways that create more stress. We might create further internal stresses by ruminating and criticising ourselves or others, or worrying how we’re affecting people. When we feel threatened, even on a small scale, we enter a state of hyperarousal that is part of our protective system. We can suffer from headaches, muscle tension, feel shaky inside, feel palpitations and sweaty palms, etc. We tend to habitually pull away from pain or discomfort. We may become blank or vague in the face of situations we don’t like, succumb to addictive behaviours like overeating or alcohol, or we might get angry and begin to apply blame. While these behaviours may help in the short term, in the long run they will probably end up worsening the situation and bringing further stress.
By learning to be more aware of our emotions, feelings and bodily sensations when stressed, we can recognise these unhelpful patterns and find ways to respond in more helpful ways. The intention is to be non-judgemental and kind to ourselves. We can then begin to make choices in the moment based on our awareness of what our minds and bodies actually need.
The eight week course involves eight weekly taught sessions, of about 2 hours long, and one whole day ‘retreat’ generally between weeks 6 and 7. These sessions mostly involve guided mindfulness meditations, followed by pair and group discussions. Each practice taught builds on the previous one as the understanding of the way our minds work deepens. There will be the requirement of daily practices (home practice) of up to 40 minutes, using audio tracks. You will be provided with a course booklet that should reinforce your learning.
By the end of the course you should be finding more states of peace. Of course stress and anxiety will still occur, but you should find yourself better equipped to deal with them.
MBSR 8 week course, Dorchester on Thames, 7-9 p.m.
Dates: September 5th, 12th, 19th; October 3rd, 10th, 17th, 24th, 31st.
Plus Saturday 21st October, 12.30 – 6.30
(n.b., no class on September 26th)