Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced mindfulness to Western healthcare and he defined it as: ‘…paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.’1
What is mindfulness?
Originating from Buddhist philosophy, mindfulness is the process of giving attention to whatever arises in our awareness; but it is more than just concentration. Mindfulness is acknowledgement of emotion and thought. By being curious about our thoughts and preceding emotions, this can sometimes be enough to allow them to dissipate and shift, rather than become overwhelming.
According to Buddhist psychology, much of our psychological discomfort originates through tightly held perceptions, beliefs and experiences. Through the development of mindfulness, an acceptance of ourselves, our environment and our emotions is easier to attain. Developing an ability to see things and be ‘with’ things just as they are, with less struggle, relieves much discomfort. Through mindfulness practice we broaden our awareness and wisdom. Compassion is central to all mindfulness practices, and is sometimes referred to as heartfulness or kindfulness. Development of this compassionate focus towards ourselves and others enables more acceptance and less judgment. This in turn creates more ease and happiness in our lives and towards those around us.
Benefits of mindfulness
We are all well aware of the reported stress that students face, including academic attainments, home life, relationship strains and financial issues. These problems and worries sometimes lead to unhealthy behaviours (smoking, drug taking, poor diet, poor sleep hygiene) and psychological discomfort (anxiety, depression). And while some researchers make reference to the dearth of literature supporting the use of mindfulness-based interventions for overcoming bouts of anxiety, relapse episodes of depression, eating disorders and addictions, others have found that higher levels of mindfulness are associated with choosing a healthy diet, good sleep hygiene and physical health among college women.2,3 Being more present in life seems to support mental wellbeing and enhance choices around good diet, sleep and physical health. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, in turn, enables resilience towards stressful situations such as exam stress, daily challenges and periods of difficulty. In their research, Murphy, Mermelstein and Gidycz conclude that equal consideration should be given to increasing mental health through mindfulness techniques.3 Meta-analysis supports the effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions for anxiety and depression in clinical populations too.4
It was also shown that effectiveness was maintained at an average of a 27-week follow-up.4 Quite often the main factor that mindfulness addresses, in relation to anxiety and depression, is simply an increased acceptance of things as they are. A reduction in rumination and getting stuck in repetitive thought in order to try to control thoughts is also observed when developing mindfulness practices.5
Through the development of mindfulness we are able to become less focused on ourselves, and our perspective grows and changes to become much wider and less personal. With the pressures that students face today, it seems sensible to offer them skills to be able to develop a wider perspective and deeper wisdom in difficult situations, to reduce entrapment in the flurry of stress-inducing internal dialogue. Mindfulness is not about turning away from fear and worries, but about acknowledgement of irritation and worry. Mindfulness can help students become curious about the qualities of fear and negative thought, resisting the temptation of getting tied up in them and instead learning to treat thoughts with kindness and allowing them to pass.
Training to deliver mindfulness in universities
Establishing opportunities to bring mindfulness to student life is essential and delivering it correctly and ethically is important. There is a range of training routes available for teachers, including mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). Segal, Williams and Teasdale introduced MBCT, a programme delivering a combined approach of cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness.6 MBSR, introduced by Jon Kabat Zinn, maintains a focus on stress and also pain reduction.7 ACT combines many therapeutic exercises, including mindfulness, to increase acceptance within one’s life and state of health.
If we aspire to teach these skills, developing mindfulness for ourselves is the first step. We can only offer others that which we have developed for ourselves. So the starting point for training in mindfulness is to bring meditation and mindfulness practices to our own life. Attending an eight-week mindfulness course will support this and develop a good knowledge base. Spend time researching and selecting the right eight-week course for you, as they all differ and encourage different focuses. A fundamentally important focus for any eight-week course is compassion and heartfulness/kindfulness. Developing a deep, compassionate awareness towards ourselves and those around us is powerful. Attendance at meditation groups can really support our practice to grow. After developing your own practice for a period of at least six months, attendance at a mindfulness teacher training retreat followed by a 12-month supervised pathway or rigorous training is advised. There is a real need to commit to daily practice and engaging with our own mindful development before tutoring others. We can only really teach what we know for ourselves. This keeps the teaching of mindfulness ethically sound and real.
Eight-week mindfulness courses take you through a series of meditation practices – mindfulness of body and breath, a bodyscan meditation, a three-step breathing space as well as loving kindness/compassion meditations. We develop more awareness of our thoughts and emotions and become more present to our bodies through these meditations. A move away from being ruled by our heads, and a gentle curiosity towards our hearts are encouraged. This curtails the impulsivity of behaviour as a result of thoughts. A developing appreciation of little day-to-day things starts to emerge. Recognising and being curious about sensations in the body that arise due to emotion, can unlock long-time suffering and lead to change. We start to step away from the confines of the mind and open up to the joy of moment-to-moment experience, along with a reduction in negative rumination. We all want to experience happiness and a sense of ease in our lives. The Happy Buddha writes the following:
‘We can see meditation as a continuous process of letting go. We let go of the bundle of lifelong habits that cause us suffering and unhappiness. We let go of all the limiting views that lead us to live a small, fearful and cramped life. In a word, we let go of the self.’8
Once you have developed your own sustained daily practice over a period of time, you are ready to go forward and train to teach. Taking the next step and undergoing teacher training really cements everything that you have learnt from the eight-week course. Teacher training retreats involve six days of deepening practice and learning skills to be able to teach others. Whether you want to go on to lead eight-week courses or just bring the essence of mindfulness into your work with others, teacher training will give you the confidence to do so. You will be able to guide meditations, receive peer feedback and develop your ability to engage with questions about mindfulness and meditation. The environment is a supportive and generous one. People often find that they develop within themselves as much as they do in their understanding of what is needed to be a great teacher. This isn’t just about being a mindfulness teacher; it is about developing as a person, and about self-care too.
Mindfulness, therapy and self-care
Rogers described the core conditions in person-centred counselling as acceptance, genuineness and empathy.9 Mindfulness helps to embody these. Counsellors who develop their practice of mindfulness generally experience an improved therapeutic relationship with clients.10 In addition to improved therapeutic relationships, counsellors also notice an improvement in their relationship with themselves. An improvement in our relationship with ourselves prevents burnout, fatigue and illness. It seems that it is as important to develop mindfulness as counsellors, in order to help others, as it is to practise it for ourselves. We need to promote self-care and kindness to ourselves if we really want to help others. After completing the teacher training retreat, it is advisable to undergo supervised practice when leading meditations and teaching mindfulness. Finding the right supervisor is important and they will support you through a 12-month pathway, further developing your own practice and supporting you to teach others.
Through learning to teach mindfulness and meditation, you are not only helping others but giving yourself something valuable too. Despite the challenges of much modern life and work, developing awareness and finding happiness on our doorstep are, I believe, achievable.
Dr Liz Sparkes is a health psychologist and mindfulness and meditation teacher. Liz completed her PhD in pain psychology, and she is course director for MSc in Mindfulness and Compassion, a collaboration between Midlands CIC and Coventry University.
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2. Brown AP, Marquis A, Guiffrida DA. Mindfulness-based interventions in counselling. Journal of Counseling & Development 2013; 91: 96–104.
3. Murphy MJ, Mermelstein LC, Edwards MK, Gidycz CA. The beneﬁts of dispositional mindfulness in physical health: a longitudinal study of female college students. Journal of American College Health 2012; 60(5): 341–348.
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8. The Happy Buddha. Happiness and how it happens. East Sussex: Leaping Hare Press; 2011.
9. Rogers CR. Way of being. Boston: Houghton Mifﬂin; 1980.
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