This year the Mental Health Foundation has focused on mindfulness for Mental Health Awareness Week. We spoke to author and mindfulness teacher Ed Halliwell about this initiative, and for some advice on mindfulness practice.
What are your thoughts on this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week focus on mindfulness?
It’s excellent that the Mental Health Foundation are focusing on mindfulness for Mental Health Awareness week. The MHF was the first charity really to give their focus to mindfulness. They have been pioneers of promoting and pointing people towards mindfulness as a way of working with their wellbeing. So it’s excellent that they’re doing it again this year.
Do you think the attitude towards mindfulness in the UK is relatively progressive?
I would say the UK is at the forefront of mindfulness developments in the world, in that Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy has been recommended in the NICE guidelines since 2004.
There’s clearly the appetite for mindfulness in the UK, as a grassroots movement. The many developments in the health service, and obviously the All-Party Parliamentary Group on mindfulness are all proof of this. The parliamentary work to do with mindfulness has been hugely influential, proving that there is a real seriousness and good evidence base for mindfulness.
Has mindfulness become a modern practice in its own right?
Mindfulness as it is offered in the eight week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction courses or Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy courses, is based around particular ways of teaching meditation which have their own modern, research base. These have a particular mainstream approach, but they still owe a debt to the Buddhist tradition, which has been teaching mindfulness meditation for 2500 years and from which the practices on these courses are derived. But they are obviously presented in a non-religious way. Different people will engage in different ways with meditation. Some people may be looking for a more spiritual approach, some people definitely won’t be.
Is an eight-week course long enough to benefit from a mindfulness practice?
In some senses, eight weeks is a short period of time. We’re talking about patterns of mind and body which have developed in our own lives as well as in the evolution of our species, which we’re learning to work with through mindfulness. So while remarkable changes can be seen in the space of eight weeks, it is perhaps more helpful to see this as a lifelong practice.
Mindfulness can be practiced and experienced and cultivated in every moment that we are aware of what we’re doing and how we’re feeling. It can take some work to develop this, that’s where taking a course and where ongoing practice comes in. As long as we can remember to be mindful and we have some sense of how to do it, then we can engage with mindfulness at any moment, but most of us need some cultivation.
Did you find yourself becoming naturally more mindful in daily life over a period of time, or does it remain a conscious effort?
It’s been a slow process. I started meditating about 15 years ago, and definitely wasn’t in a mindful space for much of my life before that. I do think there’s a correlation between the amount of time you can dedicate to formal practice and the ability to draw on it in daily life. It’s a bit like any other skill: if you want to be a good tennis player you have to practice on the court, and then you’ll be more likely to be able to hit the shots spontaneously in the moment when you are faced with an opponent. It’s the same with mindfulness. The tendency for us to be an autopilot is powerful; it’s a formidable opponent. The more we’re able to practice, the more we’re going to be able to remember to be present in spontaneous moments of our lives.
Do you have any personal tips for a good practice?
Showing up is a good start. And that’s really what we’re doing, we’re showing up for our lives, really showing up with our bodies and not just our thinking minds. In any way we can do that, that is a good mindfulness practice.
In terms of time of day for formal meditation, personally I don’t offer a prescription as people are different. My own experience is that the middle of the day is good, I will often meditate at lunch time. I don’t tend to suggest to many people that they do it last thing at night as there is the occupational hazard of falling asleep! You have to work it out for yourself: when can you make time, when do you have energy, and when does it fit with your practical schedule.
What do you think of youth mindfulness initiatives? Are children naturally mindful or is this a bit of a cliche?
I’ve got two small boys and they are naturally mindful in the sense that children have a great curiosity. But what children don’t have is the capacity for self-regulation. Any initiative to teach mindfulness to children, or perhaps bring out the elements they have naturally, is excellent. How much better would it be to learn these skills that you can use throughout your life for wellbeing at such an early age?
Would you recommend a group practice above a solitary one?
It’s hugely supportive to have others to practice with, to talk with about your practice, explore mindfulness with, and I think it’s part of mindfulness itself, to be connected with others. At the same time there is value in having space and time to yourself to just be on your own, as well. So I think it’s not exclusive one way or the other, but group practice can be a really good means to support individual practice.
What has been the big positive change for you since embracing mindfulness?
I came to meditation practice with a lot of stress, anxiety and depression and 15 years later those patterns are far less dominant in my life. While it’s not that they don’t occur, my relationship to them has significantly changed. I am able to manage what comes up in my mind and body more effectively and I would say that’s a direct result of mindfulness practice. More letting be, less reactivity, less impulsivity. Being able to manage my own mind and body better has enabled me to manage my relationships better, to choose courses in life more choicefully, rather than just being propelled into whatever comes next. My career has changed, I got married and had a family. I think all of these things are very much a result of developing mindfulness.