Traditionally mindfulness meditation developed as part of Eastern philosophy and Buddhism. In the last few years we saw it becoming mainstream in the western world and widely practiced in health care, social care, education and business settings. In this interview, The Mindfulness Key author Sarah Silverton offers an introduction to mindfulness, the many benefits of its practice and the experience of switching from a ‘doing mind’ to a ‘being mind’. The Mindfulness Key will be published in January, 2016.
Can you describe your book? What should the reader expect from it?
We hear mindfulness mentioned frequently these days, even in Westminster, and whilst many people have experienced or read about it there are still many who are unsure and perhaps curious to learn more about it. Many people are being encouraged to take a mindfulness course through the media, their workplace or perhaps their family doctor/GP. But taking an eight week course entails making a commitment personally and in terms of time and perhaps also money. The Mindfulness Key is intended as an introduction to allow people to have a taste of practice and learn more about the ideas behind mindfulness so that they can decide for themselves if mindfulness is something they want to pursue further. It also offers a support for people who are taking a course by clarifying understanding of the core ideas and practices.
In offering a range of life situations where mindfulness may be supportive to the reader it hopes to connect the ideas of mindfulness to real life challenges. Hopefully this will help people see its relevance in their lives.
What made you write The Mindfulness Key?
I wanted to offer this introduction in a way that would make mindfulness easily accessible. Many people live very busy lives these days and find it difficult to have time to read in depth. People have described being put off reading by the size of many of the books available.
Offering the key principles and practices in a format that invites us to taste, with bullet points, enhanced learning points and images to support the reading, intends to help people who want to dip in and out of the book and draw what they need from its contents. There are a growing number of young people learning about mindfulness through curricula delivered in school so this book also offers them a text that is accessible and inviting.
What are mindfulness’ main benefits?
Many people report, and there is research evidence to support this, that when we regularly practice mindfulness meditation we, for instance:
• Feel calmer and sleep better.
• We manage difficult thoughts more skilfully .
• We manage our moods better.
• We are better at making decisions and recognising choices.
• Our relationships improve through our growing sense of connection with people and the world.
• We take better care of ourselves.
• There are also studies that show that our immunity improves, our physical health is improved and our ageing tendencies are even slowed down.
In your book you mention about the many habits that relate to our mind and body and are developed since we born. To be able to become aware of our mind’s activity and respond skilfully to habitual tendencies, we need to incorporate mindfulness to our lives. Is mindfulness more than a few hours practice? Can it become a way of living?
Absolutely. Once we begin to practice mindfulness and tune in to our experiences we begin to access a connection with our self and our life that offers us new possibilities. We learn about our bodies and minds and begin to listen to what they can tell us about being human beings, about our individual habits and patterns but, perhaps more significantly, about what is really here, right now. This possibility to tune in to a constantly updated wisdom that can support and guide us helps us realise that mindfulness practice is a lifelong process, not just a tool or set of skills we learn for a while but don’t need to continue to nurture and grow. One study found that 90% of people were still using mindfulness practice a year after taking an eight week course.
What happens when we move from a ‘doing mind’ to a ‘being mind’?
Both of these modes of mind are normal and natural for us as human beings but we tend to practice the ‘driven-doing’ mode more as completing tasks and achieving are necessary and highly valued in our society. Rediscovering our ‘being mode’ of mind gives us another view on our experience. We can experience this if we listen to a piece of music first in ‘doing mode’ by asking our selves lots of questions that need answering correctly such as who the composer is, the instruments playing, the date of composition, the music score etc. Then we can listen to the same piece of music and simply feel the impact of the music on the body, letting thoughts be in the background. When we do this in groups many people say that the music was more impactful, more enjoyable, they accessed more emotions and they felt the variations and richness of the music more fully, noticing more. This can be equally true of all of our experience. We can eat our food, have a conversation or walk the dog with our mind caught up in thoughts about jobs to be done or getting this task completed or we can be there with the moment by moment unfolding of the experience as its felt in the body of eating, communicating with someone or walking with our dog in this place and moment. Both modes of mind are necessary at different points of our lives and mindfulness gives us the chance to choose which would be most supportive in the circumstances.
What are the main challenges while practising mindfulness?
These vary from person to person and depending on how new to mindfulness practice we are. Most people experience the challenge of making time for mindfulness practice daily in our already busy lives. After all, very few of us have a spare hour in our day! It takes commitment to make space for practice. Daily meditation practice will allow mindfulness to grow and be nourished and then in turn be more available to support us when we want to access it. Not practising regularly or for enough time can mean we lose this connection, and therefore our trust or confidence, in its value. As with physical exercise it is easier and more rewarding if we have done it regularly rather than infrequently.
Many people struggle with their experience in practice, especially if the experiences feel at all challenging. As humans we are practised at striving for things to be different from how they currently are. When we learn to allow things to be as we find them this can become easier but we continue to work with human tendencies to fix and improve our experience even if it will change if left alone! When working with sleepiness or physical discomfort in the early stages of a mindfulness course it might not be obvious why we are doing this. If a solution is available why would we not choose to do that? The value of being with experiences even if they are uncomfortable for us can take some time to realise. When this becomes clear this provides us with the motivation to practise.
People are often in a hurry to see changes and may be very specific about what they want to change and this can make it more difficult to let the fullness of potential learning emerge. Sometimes the learning we discover through mindfulness practice is surprising and quite different from what we thought we might gain. We sometimes use the metaphor of planting a seed as we start to practice mindfulness, saying that our task is to water the seed, clear the ground of weeds and wait and see what grows. Digging up the seed often to check on progress will certainly make it harder for the seed to flourish.
Many people who come to mindfulness courses have prioritised thinking about experience over directly experiencing it through their bodies. Tuning back in to the body and relearning to trust what it tells us can be challenging for some. It seems to go against the ways that we have been taught to process experience into our adult lives. Discovering that our minds and the thoughts that pass through them may even be inaccurate or incomplete in the stories they tell us can be a revelation but learning new ways of relating to our experience is never easy; habitual patterns can be strong and deeply entrenched. We learn to work with our habits of mind and body through mindfulness, not be rid of them.
Mindfulness meditation has developed over 2,500 years and its roots are found in Eastern philosophy and Buddhism. It became mainstream in the western world as a non-religious approach widely practiced in health care, social care, education and business settings. How does mindfulness keep the same ethics and values in a western non-religious approach?
The Buddha’s teachings were intended to help all people in their everyday lives to live well. He recognised that human suffering is there because we have a human mind and live in a human body. Working in the present moment with these common human experiences was the way to find ease in everyday life. It was only much later that these teachings became a religion. Even now there are many different types of Buddhism with varying practices and beliefs.
Secular mindfulness, in my view, has kept all the original intentions of the Buddha’s teachings to offer ways that we can live more skilfully and with more ease. The ‘spiritual’ aspects of mindfulness such as a sense of belonging to something bigger than us, our feeling connected and at peace are just as accessible through secular mindfulness practice as the more ‘religious’ practices of modern day Buddhism. Ethical qualities and awareness that we can choose to live by our values, I believe, arise very naturally out of mindfulness practice. Developing awareness, connection, trust (in ourselves and the practice), patience, compassion/kindness, responsiveness rather than reactivity and acceptance are all core values of mindfulness.
The availability of this learning in a completely secular course means that many more people feel able to explore mindfulness.
Is it important to attend mindfulness classes and how we can recognise the right mindfulness teacher for us?
There are ways that you can learn about mindfulness individually or as part of a group but my experience leads me to believe that learning about mindfulness through taking a course as part of a group offers important shared learning about humanness as well as individual patterns. As the group describe experiences of learning mindfulness practice this allows us to let go of our tendency to over-identify with our experience. Who knew that everybody’s mind wanders! Recognising our own habits in others and hearing that we’re not alone or different can be really powerful and give us a different perspective on experience. Often courses are places where people make important and lasting connections, there is laughter and a level of trust that allows important learning to emerge. We learn as much from each other as we do from the teacher in a mindfulness group; the teacher’s skill is to facilitate this shared exploration.
There is a new register of mindfulness teachers being launched currently in the UK. This intends to allow potential mindfulness course participants to have a place to check that the teacher of their course has taken the necessary training to run that course. Whilst this is a voluntary register we are encouraging trained teachers to register so that we can support people looking for courses to find a skilled teacher. There is a growing range of mindfulness courses available for different contexts and life circumstances so choosing both a course that’s right for you and an experienced teacher to deliver that would enable people to be introduced to mindfulness well.
Sarah Silverton is a meditation teacher working with the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice at Bangor University in Wales. She was trained by Professor Mark Williams of Oxford University, and by the Center for Mindfulness in Massachusetts, established by Jon Kabat-Zinn. A trained occupational therapist and counsellor, she has 25 years’ experience of working with people with mental health issues and physical disabilities, including chronic fatigue.
The Mindfulness Key
£7.99, Available from Watkins Publishing
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