Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Be more specific...

I wouldn't say that it keeps me awake at night, but I am aware of a low level hum of a concern that I have been sitting with for a while now... 
To become a mindfulness teacher I undertook one of the most rigorous trainings I could have stumbled across (and which, truth be told, I probably rather underestimated when first applying). 
I was given fair warning at my interview.  Sat in front of me were three individuals whose names I had been familiar with for several years, whose thoughts and opinions I had read and respected.  Ascertaining what cognitions were around for me at that particular moment was none too tricky.  And naming my feelings would have come very easily there and then.  
It had been a while since I sat in a panel interview situation and I can't recall ever jumping for joy on discovering that such a scenario would feature in any recruitment process.  I was daunted.  But they got through my (largely self-induced) panic, and explained the route and terrain of the journey I was wishing to embark upon. 
It would be fair to say that, upon receipt of my offer letter, I dusted off my walking boots and sought to brush up my navigation skills.  I needn't have worried; my fellow journeymen (and women) would be there to lend me support whenever the incline felt too steep.  But I'm glad I took the steps I did to 'get in the zone', so to speak. 
And this is where the hum probably originates.  Mindfulness is a most mysterious label that is, I think, now being attached to so much that it is at risk of becoming meaningless. 
I am trained and qualified to deliver mindfulness-based interventions.  I have not only studied the theory that underlies the clinical applications of mindfulness I have worked hard to develop and sustain a personal practice that sits firmly at the root of my teaching style. 
And this is what I hope we, as a community of practitioners find a way to annunciate.  Mindfulness in all its various forms is to be welcomed.  The world is, it seems, becoming increasingly alive to the possibility that it can be helpful for most people to develop the art of stillness but...  there is a staggering volume of science to back up these claims. 
The 'brand' of mindfulness I am interested in, and committed to delivering, is not the hippy-dippy-peace-out-man meditation some people may want to find.  Underneath the acronyms MBCT, MBST, MBRP (to name but a few) is some pretty hefty (and, I concede, at times rather turgid) science that forms the expanding evidence base that supports the protocols.
I am trained and qualified to deliver manualised protocols.  Nothing incorporated within a programme is included 'just because'.  And, it works.  If it ain't broke...  But let's not undermine what we have by generically referring to mindfulness which perhaps just confuses the matter. 
If you're interested in learning mindfulness you might wish to consider the following suggestions when choosing your teacher...
What, exactly, do they teach?
Horses for courses, but what sort of horse are you and what is it that you're looking for?  As I quite often find myself saying in a pre-course meeting (which, incidentally, is a great way to meet your would-be teacher and explore any concerns you might have - if they don't offer such a forum, it's worth asking why not...  For me, this is where the course begins...) - no one comes across mindfulness by accident.  Most of us come to it having been round the houses (a few times, perhaps).  As such, we tend to come looking for something.  You want and deserve to know that what you're signing up for is what you think it is. 
How do they teach it?
How closely do they adhere to the original protocol?  Are you actually getting a programme delivered in the format it was intended and designed to be offered?  If not, what's missing, and what's been added?  Any teacher worth their salt will be happy to explain their approach and rationale.  And (if they're anything like me) they'll enjoy the discussion.  I quite often teach 8 classes in 4 sessions.  It makes for a rather intense experience, which requires a lot of participants (and of me) but means that a solid foundation is developed quickly (assuming sufficient home practice is visited between sessions).  Given the level of demand I have for the double-quick-time courses, I'd be negligent not to offer this format but I wouldn't dream of teaching something I felt lacked integrity.  My outcomes surveys indicate that what people get out of attending a course is directly proportional to what they feel they've put in along the way.  The duration of a course is, I'd dare to say, perhaps less of a determining factor, than the quality of the instruction, guidance and support available. 
Where did they train?
It might surprise you to learn that I don't have a particular loyalty to my own training institution.  There are several excellent trainings that wannabe teachers can now undertake.  I am familiar with some of the more established training routes here in the UK.  There are, after all, many ways to skin a cat.  The moggy is, of course, metaphorical. 
I am proud of what my own teacher training bestowed upon me whilst aware that it came at a high cost.  (And my mortgage broker would be able to tell you exactly how high.)  There was not a single component of the programme that did not stretch me to the point of discomfort.  But that was, I now see, how I found my edge.  Academically, the course demanded I get seriously creative.  Practically, my skills were developed from scratch.  I was a seriously rough diamond.  So, alongside my Masters degree, I gained a whole dose of humility for free.    
What does their own practice look like?
As teachers, our practice must be at the heart of our teaching.  Else there will be no heart in our teaching.  My practice waxes and wanes, but I persist.  And that's where I meet my students.  Mindfulness practice does not, it seems to me, have a smooth linear progression.  It is elusive and, just when you think it's going well, it will disappear, like water through your fingertips.  But, with sustained effort, you will find it never leaves.  Mindfulness starts when you discover how unmindful you are.  And it returns when you notice its absence.  I would be a hopeless and wooden teacher if I did not approach my classes with a solid sense of the benefits, challenges, pitfalls, highs and lows of the practice.  You'll soon find out what a teacher's practice looks like, but it's probably worth enquiring before you've paid up and joined a group. 
What contact do they have with a professional community?

To keep growing we need optimal conditions.  To teach ethically, we need to be remain aware of our blindspots, and access support in the form of guidance or supervision from those we can learn from.  I'm not sure it's enough to have a practice and have attended a training course.  The field is developing too quickly, and we will surely get left behind if we do not remain open to learning, thinking, reflecting.  Practice must be followed by inquiry, after all... 


Sunday, 15 June 2014

I do, therefore I am...? Mindfulness, Resilience and Stress Reduction

This week I have been giving particular thought to the role of resilience in stress reduction, and the benefits of a mindfulness practice in the development or enhancement of resilience. I was delighted to have an opportunity to present some of my ideas to in-house lawyers at the BBC on Wednesday and inspired by some initial research have given the subject a little more thought, formulating some of this theory into a (hopefully) digestible form for a 'Staying Mindful' workshop I held this afternoon for individuals seeking to refresh their mindfulness practice.
Were I to introduce myself and my work, I would say that I am interested in the reduction and/or alleviation of suffering.  This is a common thread across the different contexts I move between, as a psychotherapist and as a mindfulness teacher. 
I have, I think, developed something of an understanding of the territory of depression and, collating the evidence gathered both from a personal and professional perspective, I know that clinical depression is a likely outcome when exhaustion and hopelessness are overwhelming.  It is this understanding that I have built upon to further develop my interest in wellbeing and the vital role that resilience plays in both the prevention and treatment of burnout.  The mainstay of my work is with individuals but, as many of these are leaders, I am confident of a ripple effect. 
Our individual stress 'signatures' are not only interesting, but useful.  They can be very useful, provided we pay attention to them in a timely fashion, as they can activate strategies of self-care that can ward off an otherwise likely depression, or simply calm us down when we're becoming stressed or agitated.  In this way, mindfulness is necessarily a practice.  Theory alone, whilst all terribly interesting, will get us nowhere.  (And may even contribute to the downward spirals we seek to avoid or escape).  In fact, as I was sharing with the group today, awareness can itself be a double-edged sword.  The novelty of a shiny new mindfulness practice soon wears off, and with it so can self-forgiveness.  We are apt to forget.  When we forget we are unlikely to reap the benefits.  When we notice we're no longer feeling to super sparkly, we start to beat ourselves up.  I should know better.  I could do more.  I ought to...
All that good stuff.  The relentless internal monologue.
Cue:  resilience!
This is, I think, the ability to maintain performance in the face of high stress, and uncertainty.  Sound familiar?  We most of us exist much of the time within a climate characterised by stress and uncertainty.  Surviving, let alone thriving, requires creativity, flexibility and engagement.
But not necessarily in that order.  We must engage with our realities, if we are going to change anything about them.  We must approach our experience with flexibility, and be prepared to get creative.  And that's where I think a mindfulness practice comes into its own.   
To adequately respond to the challenges that beset us, we likely need to draw on new models of the mind and the brain.  Mindfulness has become a term that is being used increasingly frequently.  But what is it that we are actually referring to?
Mindfulness is something of a translation of a Pali word, 'sati', which might otherwise be translated as awareness, or non-forgetfulness.  It is this more direct 'knowing' which we seek.  Traditionally cultivated by the formal meditation practices, but also by living in a way that fosters compassion, deepens wisdom and builds resilience. 
Whilst I'm thrilled that meditative approaches are becoming increasingly popular, it strikes me that getting zen on a mat might only be part of the answer.  To really integrate the practice into our busy lives, and be able to feel the difference, we probably need to understand what it is and how it is that mindfulness and the practice of pausing increases resilience. 
To become mindful is to realise what gear we are in.  For we have a choice.  Put simply, we can either think about what it is that is going on for us, or actually get up close and personal, and sense it.  Much of the time we are encouraged, if not required, to be in this driven doing mode, neglecting the more mindful sensing that becomes the name of the game when undertaking any form of mindfulness training. 

Pure awareness transcends thinking. It allows you to step outside the chattering negative self-talk and your reactive impulses and emotions. It allows you to look at the world once again with open eyes. And when you do so, a sense of wonder and quiet contentment begins to reappear in your life.
Mark Williams
It is not that mindfulness is the ‘answer’ to all life’s problems.  Rather it is that all life’s problems can be seen more clearly through the lens of a clear mind.
Jon Kabat-Zinn
When we are mindful, we have the ability to move from the conceptual towards a more embodied or experiential experience.  Our preoccupation with the past or future fades, giving way to the present moment, and as we step out of the habitual automatic pilot we have at our disposal an altogether more intentional and therefore flexible way to be.  We can respond, rather than react, and our thoughts which might otherwise be powerfully believable become more recognisable as no more than events in the mind.   
There is nothing wrong with thinking, or doing.  They are not the enemies to be assassinated in favour of being, but we need to be able to switch gears.  Our thinking serves us, and enables us to make meaning of our experience.  It allows us to get stuff done.  But when we are done doing stuff, we might perhaps want to sit comfortably, and perhaps even do so in silence.
For this is where we harness our resilience.  We need to be able to move flexibly between the constrasting modes.  This is how we become less preoccupied with the internal commentary and planning that might otherwise consume us.  Short term stress is beneficial, but if it does not switch off it will destroy the vessel that contains it.  And this is where burnout happens.
The common factor in stress, anxiety, depression and PTSD is the persistent and chronic over-use of thinking mode:  our tendency to ruminate and not be able to stop thinking about thinking. Our basic emotions are useful to us only if they are temporary.  Get stuck in any of the emotional states we are capable of, and we have a problem. 
We need to be able to come out of the doing mode, in order to come back to baseline, and recharge our energies which will otherwise begin to feel depleted or exhausted. 
Mindfulness can be helpful in training the muscle which enables us to switch modes (and perhaps then switch off).  In learning to develop present moment awareness we begin by paying attention in a particular way:  on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment to things exactly as they are.
Mindfulness means being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).
James Baraz

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

View from the pool

It's been a long time coming.  But it's done now.  Yesterday evening I made my debut at the Lido.  My first outdoor swimming experience of the year.  Somehow, my routine has seemingly not permitted me to spend nearly enough time exercising outdoors. 
I have, I know, been a tad busy... 
Yesterday was great.  I swam just under 2k which was, in fact, probably a little more than 2k.  Swimming lengths of 91m (that's 100 yards, in old money) in a pool without lane ropes means I likely clocked up quite a bit more as, I now realise, I struggle to swim in a straight line. 
Keeping on the straight and narrow has, historically, been something of a challenge. 
These days, I like to think I do it better.
Until I'm in a pool in which I can't see from one end to the other (for all the swimming gizmos and gadgetry I do not, yet, have prescription goggles so must remain chronically short sighted and heavily astigmatic).  Luckily, I swim for the experience, rather than the achievement.
I will not be leaving it long before I return to the million gallons of water contained within the UK's largest swimming pool.  I know few better ways to mark the end of my working day with the time I call my recreation. 

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

There's no one quite like grandma

I was pleased to offer her a seat.  My eyes could barely leave the pair of them.  Rather out of place - on the busy tube, crowded full of commuters - thought I...
Grandmother and granddaughter.  Grandmother visiting granddaughter who has not long arrived in London - I thought...
They were, I could see, equally enthusiastic to see one another.
It was beautiful.
They were beautiful.
Grandmother could not resist but remark on granddaughter's dress.  A little too short not to be wearing tights.
Granddaughter (managing well in her skyscraper high heels) only smiles in response.
The love between them so apparent I feel I could reach out and touch it.
It made my journey.  It made my day.  It will stay with me a while longer.