In a world where many people feel frazzled by the pace of life, can mindfulness help? What's the best way of practising it? Or is it just a fad? Philosopher Nigel Warburton talks to mindfulness expert, Tessa Watt, about the best books on mindfulness.
Could you tell me, briefly, what you understand by ‘mindfulness’?
Mindfulness, most simply put, is present moment awareness. That sounds very simple, but as we start to look at our minds we discover that a huge amount of our time is caught up in automatic thinking, and in thinking about the past and the future. Mindfulness is a training in how we can come back to what’s here and what’s present. So it’s a natural capacity that we all have, but we also have practices that we can use to train this capacity and to strengthen it.
Before we get into the practices, why would anybody want to be wholly in the present? It seems to be quite useful to be able to relate the present to the past and the future. I’m always thinking about what I’m going to do next. I might step under a car if I didn’t think about the future a little bit.
Absolutely. Of course we have to think about the future and the past. But if we examine our minds and what they’re actually doing moment to moment, a huge amount of that thinking about the past and future is unhelpful: it’s mental clutter, it’s rumination on things that happened, it’s perhaps worrying about things that may not happen in the future.
“Mindfulness has become very popular very quickly, perhaps rather too quickly. There have been too many claims for it that have not been substantiated – we need to look more carefully at what the real evidence is”
What mindfulness does is allow us to let go of some of those very unhelpful automatic patterns of thinking, and come back to the present. That frees up space and capacity to think about the past and the future more creatively and more effectively.
And this isn’t just a hunch, is it? There is scientific evidence to support the idea that practising mindfulness has beneficial effects on mental health.
Yes. There are now something like 1,200 research papers a year, at last count, on mindfulness. Not all of them have the same level of experimental design, control groups and so on, but there’s a lot of very good evidence around mindfulness, particularly around the capacity for resilience to depression and anxiety, and around reduction of stress. So, we have really good evidence that mindfulness reduces stress levels, and also increases our capacity for paying attention, especially with the current sense of information overload that we have. Mindfulness really trains our ability to be able to focus on one thing at a time. It also helps us a lot with our reactivity: it enables us to not be triggered by our emotions into automatic patterns of reaction, but actually to be able to react more calmly and wisely in daily situations.
How did you first get involved in mindfulness, because I know you were a historian originally?
I started my career in academia. I was a historian in Cambridge and I was riding around on an old bicycle and spending many hours in the library. It was a very quiet life. Then I decided to make a career change and I accepted a job as a trainee BBC radio producer in London, and suddenly I found myself working at Oxford Circus, working in live radio. It was very exciting but also very stressful. At that point I really noticed that my whole system revved up. I found it hard to sleep, I was quite anxious even though I was enjoying my job, and so I was looking for something to help me find a bit of balance in that situation. Someone pointed me towards meditation, as we called it then. This was before we had mindfulness bringing these practices into more mainstream settings. I went to a Buddhist centre to learn meditation, found that extremely helpful and it became a bigger and bigger part of my life. I did many courses and retreats and found that it was transformative.
When I had the opportunity to take redundancy, when the BBC was doing one of its big culls, I was looking around for the next step. This was just when secular mindfulness was taking off in the UK. So I trained as a mindfulness teacher and in 2009 I co-founded Being Mindful, which offers mindfulness training for the public and in workplaces. As well as teaching, I’ve also been commissioned to write a couple of books about mindfulness, and to co-present an online course called Be Mindful Online, which has trained over 12,000 participants so far.
You’ve mentioned Buddhism: is there a connection between Buddhism and mindfulness, because some of the practices seem very similar?
Mindfulness is a natural human capacity, but certain traditions have been interested in training the mind and Buddhism, in particular, has taken an interest in this for the last 2,500 years. The techniques that we use in secular mindfulness are mainly drawn from the Buddhist tradition, but they’ve been taken out of that setting. There’s no need to have any particular belief-system or any kind of dogma, you can practise them just as a natural capacity that we can train. But, yes, there is this link with the Buddhist tradition.
Let’s move on to the five books you’ve chosen. Could you tell me about your first choice, a book by Mark Williams and Danny Penman called Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World (2011)?
This is the book that I would recommend as the most practical one on the list. It takes you through an eight-week course and it has audio to go with it, either as a CD or in digital form, depending on whether you buy the book or the Kindle version. It’s really something that you can follow as a course on your own. I would always recommend doing a face-to-face course if you can because it’s very good to relate directly to a teacher and a group, but if you’re not at the stage where you want to engage that deeply, then this is a great option. The author, Professor Mark Williams, is the leading mindfulness expert in the UK, and he’s the founder of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) which is one of the leading formats in mindfulness. It’s been very well studied, and there’s a large evidence base behind it. He has condensed that MBCT course into a shorter version that someone can do at home.
Could you explain what the cognitive behavioural element is? I know CBT is a big deal and that it often explicitly acknowledges its debt to Stoicism, a different tradition from Buddhism. How does CBT relate to mindfulness?
The basic techniques in the course are all focused on mindfulness. But Mark Williams and his colleagues have brought in some elements from CBT that they find to be complementary and helpful. In particular, this course grew up in relation to supporting people who have a history of depression. The biggest factor maintaining depression is the tendency towards rumination, towards cycles of negative thinking that people find very difficult to escape from. Mindfulness is extremely helpful in training this skill, and in learning that a thought is just a thought and that you can make some choices about whether to follow that thought or not. The CBT elements are there especially to reinforce that relationship with thought.
If the core of mindfulness is a kind of meditation that keeps you focused on the moment, why does it take a course to learn that? It seems to me that you could just start focusing on the moment. Why do you need a course or a book that goes through a number of steps?
It does sounds simple, but if you sit down to try and do it, most people discover it’s actually very difficult. In mindfulness, we use very simple focus like the breath or the body when we sit down to do that. And when people attempt this, they typically find they can’t do it. Nobody can really do it at first. We begin to discover all the many ways in which we can’t do it, which includes our mind being very busy; which includes difficult emotions which come up; which includes working with challenging body sensations.
“She’s down to earth, and completely allergic to anything that smacks of too much earth-mother, and the like; she thought, originally, that to meditate you had to sit on a gluten-free cushion”
A course really helps us to understand how we work with all those different challenges. We begin to appreciate that, although it seems simple just to sit and pay attention to the breath, it’s a very profound practice because we’re actually becoming familiar with our own mental patterns, our own emotions, and the way we work as human beings. A course really helps us to understand the context and to discover the transformative potential in that, rather than it being just about concentrating on our breath which is, in itself, not the whole story.
Transcendental Meditation (TM) was a big deal when I was an adolescent. Is it different from the kind of meditation involved in mindfulness?
I’m not an expert on Transcendental Meditation, so I couldn’t really say for sure about the differences. My understanding is that TM works with a mantra and it would share some of the same elements as mindfulness meditation. I think it has more emphasis on going into some kind of blissful or transcendental state; whereas mindfulness is not so much about going into any different kind of state: it’s really about being here with things just as they are in this moment.
What about your second book choice?
I’ve chosen Into the Heart of Mindfulness (2016) by Ed Halliwell. This is a lovely book. Ed Halliwell was a journalist who, in his twenties, was working for men’s magazines and living quite a wild life of a young lad in the 90s, and he completely burned out and became incredibly depressed. He’s written this very moving, authentic account of how he got out of that through mindfulness. I think it’s very valuable in the way that it shows the difficulties, how challenging it is—he doesn’t make it sound like a quick fix in any way. He describes very vividly the dark places that he was in during that period, but also how mindfulness worked to help him out of that. He also has a good understanding of science and of Buddhism, so he brings to the book a lot of insight from both the scientific and the Buddhist traditions.
Is this book pure autobiography or is there a didactic element?
Very much a didactic element. He uses his own story as the basis, but then he draws on science, he draws on Buddhist traditions looking, for example, at the Buddhist idea of the self and how mindfulness at its most transformative is about letting go of a more narrow habitual understanding of the self, and how it potentially opens us to a much wider understanding of the self that comes from Buddhist tradition.
So the Buddhist tradition is of ‘no self’, isn’t it, of anatma? Ultimately there is no self, it’s an illusion: the self that we ordinarily discuss. At a metaphysical level there is just flux, and it’s a very arbitrary connection of experiences that we call the self. In the Buddhist tradition there is no core or essence of it. Do you have to believe that to be engaging in this kind of mindfulness?
Not at all. Mindfulness doesn’t require any kind of belief system. But I think what’s valuable is that, through mindfulness practice, we might start to have a glimpse of some of these things, that some of the things that we think, for example, are very solid in terms of our self-identity are not as solid as we believe. We notice that flux of experience in mindfulness practice, so we might begin with some very practical motivation like we want to reduce our stress, or we have an issue with depression, or we want to be able to focus better in our job, but as we practise more and more, we begin to notice that some of the things we might have taken for granted about our experience are not necessarily the way we thought they were. Then, if we want to go more deeply, traditions like Buddhism give us some potential insights into how to interpret what we’re experiencing on a practical level.
It seems to me that there is an interesting question about what it is that’s doing the observing if that’s not the self?
In neuroscience, some neuroscientists have talked about what they call ‘ipseity’ which is the bare sense of ‘I’. As far as I understand it, this is the kind of ‘I’ that is engaged in direct perception before we then begin to layer many layers of interpretation and concept on that. What mindfulness allows us to do is to recognize that directness of initial perception and experience, and to notice the layers of interpretation that we put on to it that we then tend to label as ‘self’.
Your third book is by Ruby Wax, who is best known as a comedian and actor. It’s called A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled. Why do you think she called it that?
Ruby is very funny about what it means to be frazzled, to be constantly on edge. She’s very self-deprecating and she writes frankly about her own experience of mental health challenges—like Ed Halliwell, she has suffered from depression. Mindfulness is what helped her to get out of that.
“Mindfulness is extremely helpful in teaching that a thought is just a thought and that you can make some choices about whether to follow that thought or not”
She’s down to earth, and completely allergic to anything that smacks of too much earth-mother, vegetarianism, and the like. She talks about how she thought, originally, that to meditate you had to sit on a gluten-free cushion. She’s great at making mindfulness accessible for people who aren’t in the least attracted to the hippie stereotype they think is attached to mindfulness, and she talks about the practical challenges of daily life.
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She’s got some great advice about bringing mindfulness into parenting, mindfulness for children of all ages, some really good exercises that she’s put into the book, and she also brings humour into it. She’s constantly telling us stories about how she fails in her mindfulness, and how she falls into what she calls ‘amygdala highjack’ which is when the primitive part of the brain that’s always looking out for threat goes into overdrive. She’s also very interested in neuroscience, and she makes the neuroscience of mindfulness very accessible.
Presumably in her day job there’s a lot of stress involved, particularly in live performance…
She talks about that, how she has a lot of stress around performance and a lot of stress around her own identity and being liked, and so on. She tells little stories about how when she walks into a room she feels the stress of having to be funny, having to be around the right people, and how mindfulness has enabled her to step back from that a bit. She’s very good on the way that mindfulness doesn’t necessarily fix all the neuroses that she has, but gives her a sense of perspective that means she doesn’t have to buy into them as much.
All the books we’ve discussed so far have got exercises in them, not just because this is a practical subject but also, it seems to me, because there is a sense you can make progress with mindfulness. But what you’re suggesting here is that the benefits come even if you don’t get very far along the line. There’s a sense in which imperfect mindfulness is better than not being mindful at all.
Yes, it is incremental. There’s very good evidence that practising for just ten minutes a day, which is not a very big demand, over time can bring quite a few benefits in terms of focus and reduction of stress. If you want deeper benefits you do have to practise more: something like half an hour a day, and also go on some longer retreats. Ruby gives quite a funny account about going on a retreat, and her reaction to that, and her challenges with it. It’s really a matter of how much time and energy you want to invest in it. I think most people only really want to invest in it when they start to see the benefits for themselves. It’s generally a matter of dipping a toe in the water, and then some people find that they want to pursue it a lot further.
Can you tell me something about the next book The Mindful Brain?
Dan Siegel, its author, is a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA. This is a book that focuses on the neuroscience of mindfulness. I think the neuroscience of mindfulness is very much in its infancy, and there’s a lot of misinformation out there, a lot of claims that aren’t yet substantiated; there’ll probably be better books coming along in the future. But for now, I find this a very good book.
Siegel gives a detailed account of the workings of the brain that’s quite accessible. He has a lovely model of the brain using your hand: you can clasp your hand in a fist and the palm is the brainstem, the thumb is the limbic region, and the curved fingers are the cortex. This really helps you to visualise the brain.
He’s really trying to investigate how mindfulness works in the brain. One of his main themes is how mindfulness seems to strengthen the middle prefrontal cortex area, which is responsible for integrating a lot of different networks in the brain, and how it helps us to be more reflective and aware through strengthening that area of the brain. Siegel also gives a good account from his own experience. He goes on a retreat, as Ruby Wax does, and tries to bring a first-person account of this and what he thinks was going on in his own brain.
Why do people have to go on a retreat? You can learn most things in the everyday world, you don’t have to get away from it.
Yes, we can learn a lot. The most important thing is integrating mindfulness into daily life. But when we go on retreat, we have a much deeper experience of the mind actually slowing down. We take away all the stimuli, all the busyness of daily life. We strip the world down to very simple things like having breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and sitting on our bottom doing meditation. What we find in this situation is a lot of the busyness of the mind tends to settle.
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It’s a bit like if you shook up a jar of water with some debris in it, so that’s the way we are normally. We’re very busy and agitated, and we have a lot of debris floating around in the water. When that jar is placed somewhere and left quietly, the debris can settle, and you have clearer water. It’s the same with mindfulness: if you spend hours each day just sitting, mindful of your breath, and paying attention to thoughts, you’ll begin to get an insight into how the mind works, because it slows down and you are able to see more clearly the way the thoughts arise and dissolve, the way the emotions arise and dissolve, and so on.
You’ve talked about neuroscientists who are sympathetic to mindfulness. Is there a scientific backlash against mindfulness? Are there people who are sceptical of its powers to transform people and think that it’s maybe a craze rather than something that’s empirically warranted?
Yes, definitely. There’s been a big backlash recently. Mindfulness has become very popular very quickly, perhaps rather too quickly. There have been too many claims for it that have not been substantiated by the evidence. We need to move into a phase where we’re looking more carefully at what the real evidence is and at the experimental design of the studies, whether they involve control groups, and so on. We need to be careful that we’re not using selective evidence from neuroscience. There’s definitely been a backlash, and I think that this will also calm down, and then we’ll start to be able to look at mindfulness more realistically where it’s not just about ‘mindfulness will fix everything’ or it’s not just about ‘mindfulness is dangerous’ or ‘just a fad’, but actually it becomes part of the culture, in the same way that physical exercise has done. Probably some decades ago, we got physical exercise naturally and we didn’t really have to think so much about jogging or going to the gym. Now we take for granted that jogging, and yoga, and going to the gym are part of the culture. It is similar with mental training.
What’s your last choice?
It’s Mindfulness in Action by Chögyam Trungpa. This is the only book in the list that is by a great Buddhist meditation master. Mindfulness training does have a lineage coming from the Buddhist tradition and I chose this book because Chögyam Trungpa was a brilliant teacher who spoke in a fresh and direct way to Westerners. He was Tibetan, left Tibet in 1959, and taught mainly in America.
“He was trained as a Rinpoche, recognised as a high teacher in Tibet, as a very small child. He was a full-time—you could say professional—meditator”
He’s been dead for 30 years, so this book was based on talks he gave in the 70s and has been very skilfully edited. The editor, Carolyn Gimian, has gone through hundreds of talks to put this together. It reads surprisingly coherently, given that he didn’t write it himself. He spoke it—and it gives you a sense of the profundity of mindfulness in a way that can only come from someone who’s so firmly rooted in the tradition. He was trained as a Rinpoche, recognised as a high teacher in Tibet, as a very small child. He was a full-time—you could say professional—meditator. He was quite a maverick teacher, he had a very fresh approach to meditation where he was trying to find ways to talk about it that would make sense to Americans in the 70s, rather than just using the formulas of Buddhism.
It’s interesting from the outside, that there’s an almost evangelical feel to mindfulness. People really want other people to do it—they don’t just go and do it themselves.
I think that it’s often the case that people who take up mindfulness find it so beneficial that they want to go and tell their friends. It’s important not to be evangelical. Generally people come to mindfulness in their own time, but I certainly find that, in my own courses, a large percentage of the people that come will come because their mother, or their child, or their friend has really convinced them of the benefits of mindfulness. Not always so much by speaking about it as by the way that they themselves have manifested, have changed in some way.
Do you think you’ve changed as a result of the hours, months, years you’ve spent working through these exercises and focusing on mindfulness?
I’ve definitely changed. I would say that I can relate to other people much better, that I’m less caught up in my own worries and projects, and more able to connect with other people through mindfulness. I’m more relaxed, I’m more creative. I feel I appreciate the magic of the world more, that vivid quality of experience, of simple things like the trees, and the sky, and the whole experience of being alive. All of that is more intensely vivid since I took up mindfulness.
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