suraj makwana

In 2011, Professor Mark Williams of Oxford University and journalist Dr Danny Penman published their best-selling book, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World. The guide brought to public attention the overwhelming scientific evidence that suggests that mindfulness can quantifiably improve mental health. The book was the product of nearly two decades of research, and is based around the Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) that Williams pioneered in conjunction with Dr Zindel Segal and Dr John Teasdale in a 2002 book.

Williams describes how he and his colleagues were drawn to mindfulness “out of a clinical need” when, in 1993, they sought advice from Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, who “had already started to use mindfulness in a clinical setting” for those with chronic pain or stress, in situations “where the doctors couldn’t do anything more for them.” Williams, alongside Segal and Teasdale, built on the foundations laid by Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme to formulate an effective, clinically-tested intervention to prevent depression, based around the same traditions of mindfulness meditation.

Yet, despite being a term that is increasingly becoming part of the popular lexicon, mindfulness as a concept is often misunderstood; it is for this reason that I was particularly keen to hear how Williams would define the word. He directs me first to the ancient Pali word from which it is translated. ‘Sati’, which means ‘awareness’, can be translated as ‘lucid awareness’ or ‘appreciative awareness’. The distinction between lucid and appreciative is intriguing; he explains that lucid refers “to the sense of clarity”, whilst appreciative refers to “a welcoming attitude towards whatever the object of awareness is; whatever you are paying attention to, looking at, investigating”. He sums up the word by describing it as “an awareness that is discerning without being harshly judgemental”, referring to the act of “seeing clearly what is going on in the inside world and the outside world moment by moment”.

Indeed, he is keen to dispel the myths surrounding mindfulness, explaining that it is less “about clearing the mind, but seeing its pattern. The stillness of which we speak in mindfulness meditation is not the stillness of a quiet mind; it is the stillness of allowing things to be just as they are now, whilst trying to make things different all the time.”

In 2009, the use of MBCT for depression was granted ‘key priority’ status within National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines, and yet, in many areas of the country, it isn’t possible to access the therapy through the NHS at all. When I ask whether this lack of availability concerns Williams, he explains that “nothing different really needs to happen” other than the clinical trials which continue to validate MBCT as an effective approach to depression. Indeed, he emphasises the need to “stay within the evidence of what works,” explaining that “if it’s going to change from just being a fad to being available to people on a permanent basis then it has got to be evidence based.”

He goes on to explain that MBCT has seen particular success as a preventative approach for those who have had three or more episodes of severe depression. When I ask why this might be, he speculates that “what mindfulness teaches is a way of bringing non-judgmental awareness to bear on experience, a sense of compassion to the self” which is particularly effective against those types of depression that stem from “a sort of self-hatred and a self-denigration which is very adhesive and compelling.” That is to say, those that suffer from this sort of depression “need that compassion most because the pattern of their depression is so self-destructive.”

When I ask, then, whether mindfulness could help students, he is quick to cite the success of mindfulness sessions at Oxford University, where Chris Cullen – who also runs the mindfulness sessions in the Houses of Parliament – leads a series of meditation sessions during lunchtimes based on those detailed within Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World. He places emphasis on what he terms as “the universality of mindfulness practice”, explaining that it can be adopted by “people of all faiths and none.” For Williams, mindfulness is completely detached from any form of religious experience, being instead the act of “cultivating the art of being still; there’s nothing more religious about it than that.”

Speaking on the concept of the ‘Week 5 Blues’, he is keen to avoid trivialising them; he explains that “although you might have been warned about them, when they come, they come with their own unique pattern for you and so it feels much more compelling. It often may reactivate old stresses and old memories. So you won’t think of them as being the ‘Week 5 Blues,’ you’ll just think ‘I’m useless, I can’t do this, it isn’t for me. What on earth do I think I’m doing here? Everybody must know I’m not up to it; I can’t keep up with this, it’s all too hard.’ If you could see them for what they are, which is a pattern of what happens during that time, then that already would be helpful.”

Recognising them is one thing, but how to deal with the blues? “If it’s possible, to be very gentle with yourself, realising, in a sense that you’re ‘under attack’ from this destructive force,” says Williams. “It will pass. You can’t have much control over the fact that these thoughts come, but if it’s possible, see clearly the way that you react to them. If you’re feeling low, you’ll assume they are telling the truth about you. If you are able to see them as ‘thoughts and memories,’ then it prevents the sort of reactivity cascade which entangles us all in the very thought that we’d rather not have.”

He emphasises that to push them away, or deny that they are there is not helpful, but that it is better to distinguish reality from truth; acknowledge that “the experience is real, so there is a reality there, but the content of what they’re whispering in your ear isn’t true.”

What Williams leaves me with is a sense that mindfulness meditation must be experienced to be fully understood. He tells me that, since that initial investigation of the concept in 1993, he has been practicing mindfulness meditation on a more or less daily basis, explaining that it would be impossible to teach mindfulness without personal experience. Indeed, Williams describes it as “like having lots of books on cycling without having ever sat on a bike: you won’t really know what cycling is until you get on a bike. Similarly, you won’t really know what mindfulness is until you have done some practice.”