Mindfulness offers the promise of a healthier mind for everyone, raising questions of how to develop a practice that works for you.
When Bill Lovegrove first started his career in psychology, half a lifetime ago, mindfulness was paid no attention by any serious player in his field.
It was an idea whose home was in the meditation hall, disqualified from serious scientific enquiry by its association with religion, and Eastern religion at that. Psychologists felt that they had far more serious concerns to consider.
So it’s symptomatic of how far things have come that Emeritus Professor Bill Lovegrove AO, former head of psychology at UOW, has now decamped from the academic campus and is working out of the research arm of the Nan Tien Temple.
Nan Tien partnership
It may also say something about the freshness of this change – in a discipline that studies the mind – that the University agreed for the first time only last year to go into partnership with the Nan Tien Institute for academic units that count towards a degree.
There, they will join existing students who come to the Institute, the only place in Australia where it is possible to gain a degree in Applied Buddhist Studies. Importantly, courses in Health and Social Wellbeing are also offered.
“These courses all include meditation and reflective exercises because there is strong research evidence that mindfulness makes students more resilient and allows them to cope much better with their studies,” Lovegrove said.
“It helps individuals become more concerned with their environment and the people in that environment.”
The way to a calm mind
Lovegrove describes himself as a “fellow traveller” with the Buddhists who are his colleagues, though like many Westerners who share the values and follow the principals, he sees no need to adopt the label.
He came to meditation through a yoga class he took after a virus disrupted his avid exercise regime. “It was a mundane process. I picked up a meditation CD at the class and starting using that,” he said.
Most stress is caused by the mind imagining what may happen in the future rather than what actually happens now or concentrating on what has happened. There is a power in the nowEmeritus Professor Bill Lovegrove AO
These days, he practices a combination of mindfulness meditation and compassion meditation for about half an hour at the start of the day, and another 30 minutes in the evening.
“The practice has made me calmer, and given me equanimity,” he said.
The power in the now
“I am less likely to react to situations as they occur. I am able to take time to see what they mean now rather than catastrophizing what may happen.
“Most stress is caused by the mind imagining what may happen in the future rather than what actually happens now or concentrating on what has happened. There is a power in the now.”
That the idea of “contemplative pedagogy” seems so obvious, so uncontroversial, is largely due to the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the acknowledged founder of mindfulness as a technique in the fields of health and psychology.
Kabat-Zinn comes from a secular Jewish background and studied meditation while at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, later studying with the renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh.
His contribution was to strip mindfulness meditation of its cultural and religious context and make it acceptable as a tool for Western psychology. In the process he changed its name and founded the practice of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR.
This year – for the first time – the University is offering a mindfulness workshop for clinical psychology students at the start of their first year.
They will be taken by Dr Judy Pickard, who first started her mindfulness journey after attending professional workshops, and finding the results useful in her own life.
She finds that a body scan or breathing practice for as little as five minutes a day can have a profound effect on her effectiveness, her ability to focus, even addressing the anxieties of everyday social situations.
Mindfulness is essentially current moment awareness - the awareness that unfolds as we pay attention on purpose in the present momentDr Judy Pickard
Eating food, watching clouds – always now
“Mindfulness is essentially current moment awareness – the awareness that unfolds as we pay attention on purpose in the present moment,” Dr Pickard said.
“What is as important as the formal practice is the incidental practice – when you’re eating food, when you’re walking down the street, when you’re watching the clouds.
“It increases your enjoyment, it helps you to be most effective and to regulate your emotions. It might not always be comfortable and not being overwhelmed but allowing yourself to be anxious.”
Losing your mind
She uses the practice of mindfulness with her adult mental health clients and she has found it universally beneficial, including with those clients who experience delusions and hallucinations. Those, in short, who are most in danger of losing their mind.
This work with patients who have historically been seen as incurable has become the life’s mission for one of the giants of psychology at the University of Wollongong.
If you need to know how far mindfulness has come since Kabat-Zinn started the revolution in the 1990s, you need look no further than Professor Brin Grenyer.
In person the professor in the School of Psychology has something of the Zen master about him. There is no doubt that Professor Grenyer is a heavyweight in his field – he helped to found the Psychology Board of Australia, which oversee the registration and conduct of all the nation’s psychologists.
He’s had his work published in 150 different journals and books, and supervised more than 25 doctoral graduates to graduation. Yet there is also something light and playful about him, a ready ability for his knowing smile to break into a laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Yet like many academics with a deep grasp of their field, he also has an ability to engage and to explain in language that is transparent and that is able to convey complex meaning with artful simplicity.
Professor Grenyer leads a program at UOW called Project Air, that works with health professionals to engage the community, family, carers, consumers and health agencies to support better treatments for personality disorders.
Prisons, drugs, depression
From the start of his career in the early 1990s, Professor Grenyer was attracted to those seen as essentially untreatable – those with borderline personality disorders, narcissistic personality disorder and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.
After graduating from university, he worked in prisons, with drug and alcohol services and with those suffering major depression.
“I came up with this problem that there is a whole group of people who simply don’t improve,” he said. “I started asking myself what was going on here because I wanted to think that we were all able to change and to grow.
People with mental health problems are often highly preoccupied with things in the past that are not right or with events that have not yet happened. Suffering is when you spend all your time in the past or in the futureProfessor Brin Grenyer
“I wanted to see myself as a reckless optimist with a spiritual belief that there is hope for everyone.”
So Project Air concentrates on those with personality disorders, and estimates they constitute a quarter of all admissions to mental health services, and more than 40 per cent of those in NSW prison reception centres (compared to less than 10 per cent in the general population).
Regrets of the past, anxieties of the future
Traditionally, these patients have often been seen as untreatable except through short-term crisis intervention.
“People with mental health problems are often highly preoccupied with regrets, with worries, with feelings of failure, things in the past that are not right or with events that have not yet happened.
“Suffering is when you spend all your time in the past or in the future.”
Writing in The Conversation, Grenyer alludes to the importance of practitioners using mindfulness and other techniques to protect themselves, when they are working with patients with personality disorders.
Benefits for patients and practitioners
“Research from our team has demonstrated how ordinary therapists go into consultations with borderline and depressed patients with the same desire to help,” he writes. “But with the former they leave the consultation room more depleted and distressed – even if they are very trained and experienced.
“Similarly, family, relatives and carers of people with the disorder also report significant emotional burden in their caring role. Maintaining compassion, hopefulness and patience despite setbacks is important.”
So one of the fruits of mindfulness – which Grenyer defines as “our mind … right now” – is one of the greatest gifts and greatest protections for our mental health: the gift of humour.
“In Zen Buddhism, the happy monk is laughing because it is an important protection,” he says. “Humour is the noblest art. Comedians are the geniuses of the world. The clown or fool in Shakespeare could tell the truth. The clown is the voice of sanity.”