By Professor Mark Williams, D Phil, DSc, FMedSci, FBA, Wellcome Principal Research Fellow, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Director, Oxford Mindfulness Centre
Mindfulness means ‘awareness’ or ‘non-forgetfulness’– a direct, intuitive and compassionate knowing of what is going on in the exterior and interior worlds. Such awareness is an innate capacity– we can see it in the open curiosity of any small child– but most of us are not taught how to cultivate it. Instead we tend to spend more effort developing the thinking mind, an incredible resource but one that can tragically backfire in the face of strong emotions, where thinking can so easily turn to self-blaming rumination, entangled in a web of inner language and imaginings.
However, over the centuries, and mostly inside monasteries in Asia, meditation practices have been developed through which any of us can train our minds and bodies in mindful awareness, in how to cultivate a silence of the heart that can profoundly ground and nourish us in the midst of the noise and chaos of the external and internal world.
Can mindfulness meditation help in the face of bereavement after the suicide of a loved one? As a teacher and researcher of mindfulness, I was cautious at first. Could meditation meet the tragedy of such a loss? There is some wisdom in such caution: there are times when we need to let go of meditation if it all feels too overwhelming. But my initial caution has been turned to hope through the experience of those who have told me that mindfulness has been a lifeline.
One person wrote:
“After the initial shock of my son's suicide passed, I remembered how mindfulness had enhanced my life before...so why not now? I had a choice...I could either wallow in self-pity and the "whys" of everything that happened or live in the moment and choose to carry with me the smiles of his life. At first I had to "act as if" whatever was in front of me had my total attention as the memory of the horrific event was still living rent-free in my mind. But as I practiced and woke up with the intention each day, that space shriveled and was replaced with love and compassion. I am no longer clinging to the negatives of the past, but enjoying the present moment in whatever way it shows up. And I realize that there will be days of flooding, sad memories, but I just need to feel the sadness and ride the wave, for it will pass.
Here is hope born not out of forgetfulness, but out of courage to be alive to each day– indeed, each moment– as it comes.
And poet Kristen Spexarth, who lost her son to suicide, says that her entire book Passing Reflections was, in truth, an exercise in mindfulness and her struggle to be present with what IS. About twelve months into the loss of her son, her work began to speak directly of mindfulness practice.
She asked when it was
I began to feel "old"
a rhetorical question about life’s pain
from one young enough to long for none
and perplexed by the ever growing pain
mounting her youthful body.
I told her, “Old came when I lost my son
and lost my will to live,”
but there was more I could not tell,
more I could not give
for I’ve learned "old"
does not always come with age—
Aging comes to all who live
but "old" is a wallowing, muddy mind-set
where we allow ourselves to languish.
Seeing this now I know my task
life’s journey beckoning as I stand
uncertain, frightened and burdened
but a seed has been implanted
There is a dawning coming to me
as I pause to grasp deep wisdom
letting go while standing fast
a paradox like all the rest
but this one’s reworking my love of life
helping me rejoin the living.
Years may go by as I learn to cope
for nothing on this journey is easy or quick
but now I am quite certain
this way will be my path.
From Old, 20 April 02
So I have changed my mind. I see now that when the time comes to re-inhabit life, that mindfulness can be essential food for the journey– giving us the courage to be willing to experience pain without it entangling us, and then– without recrimination– to experience joy again.
What can I do if I want to learn mindfulness?
Attending a class
In MBCT programmes, participants meet together as a class (with a mindfulness teacher) two hours a week for eight weeks, plus one all day session between weeks five and seven. The main ‘work’ is done at home between classes.
There is a set of CDs to accompany the programme, which you use to practise on your own at home once a day. In the classes, there is an opportunity to talk about your experiences with the home practices, the obstacles that inevitably arise, and how to deal with them skilfully.
Over the eight weeks of the program, the practices help you:
- to become familiar with the workings of your mind
- to notice the times when you are at risk of getting caught in old habits of mind that re-activate downward mood spirals
- to explore ways of releasing yourself from those old habits and, if you choose, enter a different way of being.
- to put you in touch with a different way of knowing yourself and the world
- to notice small beauties and pleasures in the world around
- to be kind to yourself instead of wishing things were different all the time, or driving yourself to meet impossible goals.
- to find a way so you don’t have to battle with yourself all the time
- to accept yourself as you are, rather than judging yourself all the time.
The UK mental health charity The Mental Health Foundation’s BeMindful– Find a course interactive map can help those based in the UK.
Classes for the general public are held at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, which may suit you if you live within reasonable travelling distance of Oxford, England.
Outside of the UK you will need to ask locally.
Can I practice without attending a class?
At the moment there may not be classes available in your area. If you wish to pursue the programme by yourself, then there are the following options.
First, it is possible to purchase or download the CDs that are used in classes in the Oxford Mindfulness Centre and work through them by yourself.
Second, you can learn more about the MBCT programme and follow it yourself in the book that Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn have written especially for those who have struggled with depression in their lives. It is called “The Mindful Way Through Depression: freeing yourself from chronic unhappiness” and comes with a CD of guided meditations narrated by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Finally, a more general introduction to Mindfulness with shorter meditation practices can be found in the book by Mark Williams and Danny Penman “Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World”. It comes with CD of guided meditations narrated by Mark Williams.