Personal Mindfulness Reflection

27 Aug

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I  have been brewing a big piece on mindfulness for a while. Disclosing my practice of mindfulness in the mental health world has been similar to disclosing my mental illness in some ways. Some people have been full of the ‘oh mindfulness is a individualisitic fad for middle class iphone toters’ and others have been all about the ‘its a new panacea’. Some people even called it wankfulness. I might even have been one of them. Until I found a way to use it.

I’ve had an interesting journey and a few months ago I was asked for an interview for a book that’s being written by a friend. Here’s the long version of what I said.

How did you first get into mindfulness and what was your reason for doing so?

I have been deliberately practicing mindfulness for about 9 months now, but I have come to realise that it is actually something I have been passively practicing for many years.

Mindfulness has been a big part of navigating me through a life changing couple of years. It’s no surprise then that I am a big fan. At the same time I recognise that there is a real risk when you are up close or invested in something that works personally, you can come to believe in and advocate for that as a solution for everything.

I should preface this by explaining that I am acutely aware that I have a large amount of privilege. Yes, I was very badly bullied at school which had a big effect on my mental health, and yes, I have a bipolar diagnosis and a lived experience of using services. But. I was raised in a loving home in the south-east, securely attached, with white, middle class, male privilege. I’ve adopted technology, got a degree, got a well-paying and secure job, a social network, a place to live, a loving partner and a family. Whilst there are things in my life that challenge me, and quite extensively so, my protective network is now strong and my baseline mental capital is good.

A year ago I had been enduring an awful year of recurrent infections, lack of energy, and questioning of myself. We’d welcomed our first child, and I was at a key phase of my career with so much happening. I came to recognise the heralds of impending burnout, both acute, and ironic given my work on workplace mental health and stress. I was mentally like a fibrillating heart, in need of a shock.

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I am passionate about mental health, social justice and making a difference. Like many in the voluntary sector I often find I have no off switch, and that the solution is to dig in and go harder. For years I devoured opportunities to do more, prove myself to myself, show the bullied teenager I once was that carrying on was worth something, and to push boundaries. I built my professional persona on the back of the validation being able to use my lived experience gave me. My work came before myself, and most other things.

In May 2013 I became a father, and the axis shifted. I realised that I had been investing almost all of my non-work time in personal resilience building to mitigate the effect of so much work. Interesting, exciting and stimulating work. But work nonetheless. Having a child pulled on my reserves of mental and physical resilience, but was a wonderful reason to force a reframing, particularly when we planned a second child fairly quickly and we learned our second was on the way.

I’ve always enjoyed solitude, and reflection time. My photography has been a way to observe and be in the moment. Sometimes if I am honest it’s an opportunity to hide in plain view. Looking back I’ve realised that in times of stress I’ve always sought an opportunity to be alone and in the presence of something on which to focus. Rain falling, waves lapping, the Manic Street Preachers loudly in headphones. Or on tough days several packs of Jaffa cakes.

I was aware that mindfulness was a thing. I knew there was an evidence base. I was open to the idea, but never had time to commit to doing a formal course. I was also sceptical about the dilution of Buddhist principles and the adoption of these principles for managing and normalising individual distress on a personal level, as opposed to addressing the circumstances in life that lead to this

I realised that I had to find a way to create the space and time I needed to manage the things I wanted to manage to have the life and career I wanted. I needed to improve my fitness, so I started walking the length of Princes Street in Edinburgh in the morning and after work, and walking at lunchtime.

I read some of the mindfulness evidence, some of the critique, and some of the workplace mindfulness books people like me buy at airports when on business trips. And it made a certain amount of sense. I started using the Buddhify app to try mindfulness exercises designed for city life and for walking, and found them fascinating, and compelling. I found an ability to use the dead time in the day not to consume social media but to be in the moment, reset and renew.

The bit I was still struggling with was the spiritual, the sense of connection, or metta as it is known. That is arguably the bit that is most elusive in mass market mindfulness. I’ve always been generous and empathic but wishing strangers well seemed contrived.

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Then I got a major jolt. On December 22nd 2014 we were leaving the office in Glasgow for the Christmas Party, standing in the foyer on George Square when the bin lorry crash unfolded, right outside the door. Having spent years as a first aid volunteer, I knew I was likely to be able to help. So I went in without a thought. There were several of us in that junction rendering emergency first aid for about ten minutes until official responders arrived.

Those minutes went by in like slow motion, but somehow my consciousness expanded exponentially. I could see options, actions, people, and consequences laid out like a carpet. I could see death, life, shock, compassion, and a city rising in shock and solidarity and I could see it all at once. Most of the usually hidden aspects of humanity were there. All in the space of a few moments.

For that day I lived moment to moment, in those moments. I genuinely believe that the practice I had started to allow me to recognise and accept how I felt moment to moment helped me contextualise and manage that trauma. In the days that followed I used the techniques to allow and accept feelings as they came.

Weeks later I realised that I could see the part of mindfulness I had been missing…the power of the moment, the sheer volume of what it can contain, and the sense of connection with others and the world it can create. But for a few metres, or a minute in time we might have been hit. But we weren’t. I felt able to see that and accept it.

I realised that the surge of humanity I’d seen reaching out to those hurt, confused or dying was what the metta stuff was about. Being connected, being part of a world. I remember feeling compassion not just for those injured by the crash, but also for those professionally trained and not, who stepped up. Members of the public turned their backs to block the view from others, people came forward to escort distressed but uninjured people to safety, two young St. Andrews First Aid volunteers waded into a major incident their training never prepares them for.  When I saw myself on the front pages of the papers rendering emergency first aid I saw the moment, but from another viewpoint.

There’s a sense of metta about Glasgow as a whole. The city responds in solidarity to tragedy like the crash, the Mackintosh Building fire or the Clutha helicopter crash. It responds to celebration too, as we saw with the Commonwealth Games.

When I recognised the face in the papers of the person I tried to help, I felt able to wish their family well, to feel empathy, but not to founder. I thought it would undo me to know the person’s name and background. It was uncomfortable, but I was able to take it in. The next time I tried a meditation involving setting aside the personal narrative and focusing on altruistically wishing strangers well, I found it worked. I realised how self-absorbed I’d been and how jolted I’d been by what happened on that day in Glasgow.

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Distilling it down, mindfulness has helped me in a range of ways:

  • Self-Awareness

I have become aware of the extent to which I was self-absorbed in my own narrative, needs and on occasion negativity. I’ve been able to use mindfulness techniques to help manage my energy levels and modulate my relationships at work especially in times of challenge. It’s made me more deliberate and improved my decision making and strategic thinking by enabling me to non-judgmentally listen to others and examine my motivations.

  • Gratitude and Failure

I realised how much I’ve taken for granted. I’ve stopped buying things to make me feel happy and realised that a free day in the garden with my family matters more. I’ve realised that what I have to offer them is enough, and that often at work what’s good enough is good enough. I’ve learned to fail, and to enjoy change, and the possibilities it brings. I have become less brittle and more resilient to the winds that blow.

  • Self-Care

The opportunity to do meditation when walking, travelling, or sitting outside has increased my level of physical activity, has forced me to take lunch breaks and breaks in the day, and pulled me away from working al-desco or using social media at lunchtimes.

  • Compassion

Practicing metta techniques has increased my conscious compassion towards others. I have noticed that I am far less judgemental, even internally, and more prepared to notice and acknowledge other people’s states, positions and motivations without rising to bait or responding defensively. That has made me more level headed at work and at home, and a better manager of people and crises.

  • Resilience

I have found a way to reorganise and reframe my work life, and delight in the fatherhood of now two small children. I’m sure that mindfulness, physical activity and time away from social media and consumption/spending have helped that personal resilience. I don’t think that offering wholesale resilience building is an alternative to addressing challenges but at the same time, we all have challenges to address, and strategies for doing so are useful if they can become reflexive, as this has for me.

  • Connectedness

The evidence tells us that spirituality, something to believe in, is good for mental health. I’ve always admired people who have religious faith. It’s never worked for me. But in feeling a sense of connection to others and the world through meditation I’ve begun to understand what secular spirituality might be and why a sense of place in space and time might help mental health. The things that happen are the only things that could have happened and life is a procession of moments. I’ve come to feel this all the more through mindfulness and the daily photo blog I have done for five years. I can bring myself back to that moment for almost every picture and orient myself and see progress by seeing two images.

I can’t be sure mindfulness did this. It was probably a mixture of things. If I’m honest it helped me reconnect to the things I had in life…and my assets were and are strong, I’d just lost sight of them. This new sense of control and mastery was always there, just often unattainable because of background noise and distraction.

I wonder therefore how it would have been if actually my assets were less tangible, if focus was my enemy and not my friend, if the life I was forced to live was often intolerable and if I couldn’t give a toss about birdsong in the park for the gnawing hunger in my belly. At the same time, people like me also deserve to be happy (there I said it), and the growing empathy and sense of connection mindfulness can engender may well help in changing wider priorities so it is easier to address inequalities and reach out compassionately to others.

Mindfulness has become an important basis for a variety of treatments. What do you think has led to that being the case?

I think several factors probably contributed.

Firstly mindfulness works in terms of helping people whose thoughts are chaotic to bring a sense or order, peace and calm to their lives.

Amongst the early adopters of mindfulness practice in the west were people who worked in the healthcare field and who saw the potential therapeutic benefits, and developed those. Areas like pain management were early adopters in the mindfulness for health field and these areas have strong links to mental health and wellbeing. These links are fertile ground for the future.

Mindfulness is a logical adjunctive therapy. Whilst not entirely risk free for everyone at every time the seeds of the technique can be nurtured in some ways by almost everybody. It has therefore got a favourable risk profile compared with other interventions.

Mindfulness is something a person can take control and responsibility for. It cannot be done to you or against your will. It fits well therefore with self management strategies and with the concept of recovery.

Finally, mindfulness can be relatively researched through trials, and there is growing interest in mindfulness research in leading institutions. The robust evidence base for self-management and self help strategies is sparse but growing, and where mindfulness shows potential it is easier to adopt and attractive to policy makers.

It’s great that people are thinking about their minds, their wellbeing and their priorities. It bodes well for workplace mental health, parenting, and for early years and childhood prevention. At the same time I’m interested personally and professionally though in how and whether mindfulness works for people who most need support and who may be furthest from the wherewithal to find and operationalise techniques like mindfulness…Those who live in poverty, with experience of trauma, who struggle to barely exist, who want to escape, who are lonely, and who are discriminated against by communities, the system and themselves.

Is mindfulness a fad?

Mindfulness is certainly in the public eye at the moment. And rightly so.  Whether you can call it a fad depends what a fad means.

Mindfulness is prominent at the moment with media attention including mental health awareness week this year, the Mindful Nation work by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness, increasing academic interest and research funding, and a proliferation of products in the market. It is equally receiving a measure of critique and backlash in the media and blogosphere, a surefire way of tall daisy control of a potential fad.

A fad is for me something that rides a hype cycle to popular claim and eventual abandon and or discrediting by evidence.  Mindfulness is backed by an evidence base and a thousand of years of practice. In that sense it isn’t a fad. In the sense that it is being adopted and owned by so many diverse stakeholders perhaps takes it closer to fad land…with some risk. It would be my great regret if mindfulness became regarded as a fad because of this.

Overcoming stigma is a massive part of improving mental health service provision. Is there a risk that mindfulness might actually bring its own stigma?

Yes. Mindfulness is so simple that it can seem impossibly hard to grasp especially when mental health can be so complex. There are quite a few handles scared, resistant or sceptical people can use to use to discredit the practice, or the idea of the practice.

The Buddhist tradition is both an asset and a risk. It’s an asset in that it provides a way of addressing stigma in services so as to enable.staff to empathise with people in distress, to manage their own distress and to display compassion and non-judgemental acceptance.

It is a risk in that faith and religion polarise people, and the judeo-christian religions tend to be those with which people are most familiar. Many people with negative experiences of religion or faith will reflexively reject things they see as quasi religious especially in  secular health settings.

The apparent simplicity of practice and the fervour with which proponents advocate it can be off-putting for people with complex lives who don’t believe it could be that simple, chiefly because it isn’t that simple. If we have the evidence base and we can make it accessible we can progress.

The final area of concern related to self stigma, where a person with a mental health problem internalises negative attitudes about people with mental health problems. This can be compounded by things like trauma history and symptoms of mental illness so that practicing mindfulness can be painful or harmful, or the possibility of this becomes so large that people and professionals are unwilling to explore the potential benefits.

Self acceptance is key in mindfulness and in recovery but self awareness and acceptance can be a long way into a recovery journey in mental health. Mindfulness has to be found, not forced. There is justified fear in the mental health world that mental health service cuts will lead to the wholesale adoption of light touch interventions like mindfulness. That can’t happen.

Do you have any concerns about how mindfulness has grown and continues to develop?

Yes, in a nutshell I want to see more quality research to assist with developing mindfulness based prevention in mental health, and I want to see access broaden.

I have a strong sympathy with the argument that the rise of mindfulness in the mass market and the corporate worlds present a risk of it becoming a vehicle to individualise distress and stress, and take away from the duties organisations, neighbourhoods and government have to address determinants of mental health.

We all have to accommodate distress in our lives, but we shouldn’t allow the possibility of mindfulness being able to  help us manage distress and be resilient to permit an increase in avoidable stressors.

The solution, and counterbalance to this is ensuring that the metta aspects of mindfulness also find their way into business and mass market products, and that compassion, empathy and connection to the wider world is seen  as being equally important as personal effectiveness and focus in desired outcomes.

The risk with emerging solutions for complex problems is that the hope of a simple solution often rides over the gaps.

There are gaps.

A few years ago CBT was scaled and touted as the great hope for all distress. CBT is efficacious for some populations in some forms, where there is affinity to the evidence base. Now though there are vocal calls rejecting CBT because it has been stretched and repurposed.

It  doesn’t make CBT less effective for people who can benefit, but it does risk growing skepticism. The problem is that like recovery, stigma, and other concepts in mental health there was a proliferation of half informed CBTesque work and talk, leading to an arguable dilution effect.

I would be fearful that scaling and proliferation of mindfulness tools could bring a similar dilution, to the extent that the evidence based (in therapeutic approaches) and or spiritual based practices (in personal growth practice) become almost homeopathic in strength.

What are the one or two things that you’re most excited about in the next five years or so as mindfulness continue to grow?

There are so many. I think perinatal, early years and schools mindfulness has a great potential to inoculate young people and parents with a hugely useful life skill for navigating modern life.

I am a digital evangelist, and the rise and likely continued rise of digital and the internet calls for a proportional rise in the yang to that yin, with greater value for stop, reflect, and presence in the face of go, act and project. Mindfulness brings authenticity, and self acceptance and that is crucial across the board.

I want to see mindfulness trialled and developed in work with marginalised communities, so that we can understand its potential to support change and personal growth. To do this we need to be careful to grow sustainably and accessible in terms of the products made and the markets they reach.

Finally, I hope to see workplaces adopt mindfulness in business and organisations, to harness the millennial interest in more flexible work and more ethical workplaces by not just reaping the rewards of productivity and better mental health but by also attracting the best talent and supporting local communities and customers thorough metta informed social responsibility.

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