In this issue
Mindfulness at Cam
A report from the University of Cambridge where research into a student mindfulness programme is underway
The 10 Minute Mind
Practising mindfulness for just 10 minutes a day can yield real mental health benefits, writes Monique Rhodes. She describes her email-based mindfulness programme.
The 10 Minute Mind at UCL
Catherine McAteer, Head of Service at UCL, reports on the introduction of the 10 Minute Mind programme across the institution
Being mindful of mindfulness in higher education (free article)
Might potential downsides of mindfulness be underacknowledged? Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm caution against notions that mindfulness is for everyone
Bringing mindfulness to student life
Liz Sparkes describes the route to becoming an ethical mindfulness teacher
Imposter Syndrome – finding your ground
The experience of feeling like a fraud can overwhelm any of us, in whatever role we find ourselves. Nicola Heath explores this experience and suggests ways forward
Notes from FE
Notes from the chair
Notes from HUCS
From the editor
When Karl Marx described religion as ‘the opium of the people’ we may – with our 21st century ears – hear that as criticism of systemic mass delusion. Yet a more sensitive, historically aware reading of Marx’s phrase reveals that in the 19th century opium was not, primarily, seen negatively, but rather as an essential medicine, prescribed for fatigue, depression, sleeplessness, and many other conditions, and held wide economic, political and cultural significance.
One writer comments that for Marx, opium was a metaphor, encapsulating both a reaching out to something beyond a limited sense of self, and the essence which simultaneously provided a desired feeling of transcending limited perspectives – rather like religion: ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.’1 Religion, like opium, then, might provide both an expression of suffering and a balm for it. Despite the decline in traditional religion in much of the West, I don’t think anyone would claim that there has been a decline in suffering. Is mindfulness arising in the West to fill a gap left by religion? Can we understand it, in part, as both an expression of suffering, and as an attempt to ease pain?
So recently, mindfulness meant little to most, but has now firmly entered our lexicon and seems to be popping up everywhere – mindfulness colouring books, mindful baking, mindful leadership, even mindful sex. Many businesses and universities have embraced mindfulness with enthusiasm: here at Birmingham, I run an ‘Introduction to Mindfulness’ course each term, and it is always oversubscribed. A recent survey of our BACP UC division attracted 135 responses from individuals based within 110 institutions. Eighty-two people (70 per cent of respondents) said that they have a private mindfulness practice of some kind, and 84 services (62 per cent) offer mindfulness sessions to students. I also have practised mindfulness (in different forms) for over 10 years, been on mindfulness retreats, done an eight-week mindfulness-based cognitive therapy course, and undertaken mindfulness teacher training. I do not consider myself an expert (a term which does not carry much value within mindfulness circles, where ‘beginner’s mind’ is more highly prized). I do, however, have questions. What do we/clients really understand by mindfulness, and how does it differ from, and overlap with, say, meditation? (Is ‘loving kindness’ the same as intercessory prayer? What does ‘falling awake’ mean?) Is mindfulness actually a separate project from therapy, undermining Western psychological concepts of self? How legitimate is it for overstretched counselling services to devote resources to mindfulness? Is this something that sits more naturally with chaplaincies, meditation groups, others? What contraindications for mindfulness have been established? Who might actually find it an unhelpful or harmful practice?
As with anything that has strong cultural and philosophical underpinnings, simplifications, misunderstandings and misappropriations are more than likely as mindfulness is translated into new, Western settings. It will take time for a genuine understanding of what mindfulness offers to secular society to emerge. One issue, which may challenge Western engagement with mindfulness, is that it undercuts our relentless desire to improve ourselves. As Susan Piver, an American mindfulness teacher, writes: ‘We are so accustomed to demanding results and weighing the short-term value of our every gesture that to release all such efforts feels, well, weird. If we are not trying to improve ourselves, what exactly are we doing?’2 If mindfulness is not primarily about self-improvement, about ‘getting somewhere’, what is it about? How do we realistically communicate this to students who may just be looking for quick solutions to problems-in-living?
My instinct is always to err on the side of caution in advocating mindfulness to students, stressing that it is not a panacea. For students – with their boundless optimism and energy – this can be difficult to hear. Many do find the practices and concepts helpful, but some clearly struggle with them and I am concerned never to leave someone feeling that they have failed if, at this stage, mindfulness is not ‘right’ for them. One investigator, having tried mindfulness for herself, came to the conclusion that – at this point in her life – a long walk, a glass of whisky and a soak in the bath were more helpful.3 This observation may be important in reminding us that pathways through suffering are culturally driven, and in our capitalist, individualistic society, infinitely adapted to each person’s preferences.
In this issue, contributors with many years’ knowledge and experience of mindfulness help unpack the concept, and explore how it is being used in university counselling services. Most are enthusiastic about mindfulness as a way to offer something of real value to students. Some express concern about an apparent lack of awareness of how mindfulness can potentially leave some individuals more distressed and confused. Whatever your personal knowledge of and investment in mindfulness, I hope you find something to stimulate and engage you here.
David Mair, Head of Counselling and Wellbeing, University of Birmingham; Chair of HUCS; and editor of University and College Counselling firstname.lastname@example.org
1. McKinnon A. Reading ‘Opium of the People’: expression, protest and the dialectics of religion. Critical Sociology 2005; 31(1–2): 15–37.
2. Piver S. What are we really doing? Open heart project newsletter, 3 October 2016.
3. Mindfulness: panacea or fad? (radio broadcast). Emma Barnett (presenter), Phil Pegum (producer). Radio 4 2015; 11 January. www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04xmqdd