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Tessa Watt recommends the best books on Mindfulness

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Tessa Watt is a mindfulness teacher and consultant and author of a number of books on mindfulness. Five Books interviews her on 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.

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.

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? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 July 2017 at 3:31 pm

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