Week 8: Where do we go from here? Pasted Graphic 1

Well that 8 week course really made me feel better. What next? How often have we been on some course, felt wonderful after it, and then a week later been back to square one. Before we finish, we will look at how each of us can keep up the practices we have learnt, and grow in awareness.

If the course has been of real value, then it will be the beginning of a deeper exploration of mindfulness. There are many ways that can happen. But from hereon, you are in charge of the journey.

A little science

This has been an experiential course, and that is where the value comes. From yourself, and from the group, there should have been a great deal of learning. Everyone arrives with a different history to these courses, and everyone takes away something different. The course was about you.

However, it is worth looking a bit at the science behind mindfulness. It may be a popular topic in the media, but there is real depth to it.

Jon Kabat-Zinn set out in the 1970’s to bring two world views together - the scientific world view that focusses on hard evidence, and the more holistic world view that come from spiritual practices such as Buddhism and Yoga - Einstein once said “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Out of that vision, came the MBSR course that is now taught widely and that has been adapted into many different mindfulness courses. Since then the academic literature on mind-body interconnection has grown exponentially.

At the turn of this century, Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, John Teasdale developed a course called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which built on MBSR and Cognitive Based Therapy. Controlled trials then showed that it was effective at preventing depression relapse in patients with three or more depressive episodes. Based on that evidence the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommended that the NHS adopt MBCT as a psychological therapy.

Investigations are now underway to examine many aspects of mindfulness, with new academic journals and papers in established journals: in April 2015
The Lancet published a paper on MBCT demonstrating that it matches drug therapy for maintenance to prevent depression relapse. Scientific experiments show that there are physical as well as behavioural changes within brains from meditation that can be measured after only one 8 week course. Controlled trials with patients show that mindfulness can reduce depressive relapse as well as drugs. There are even studies showing that mindfulness has a measurable effect on gene expression and gene replication.

Why is that important?

Science is a dominant world view. It has provided us with so many breakthroughs and insights, and its methods have advanced human knowledge. Its demands for a sound evidence base before accepting anything are a key to its success. So, living in a scientific age, it is vital to back up propositions about anything that is claimed to have clinical value with sound evidence.

As science progresses, it challenges assumptions. For a long time it was assumed that the mind was a product of the brain. Now science is challenging assumptions about the mind-body connection as it is shown that mental processes can change not only behaviour but our physiology. The notion of “plasticity”, that suggests that our whole body, including our brains, can develop and change throughout life as a result of mental activities, is eroding the traditional dualistic mind-body view.

Science has brought us technologies that are of tremendous value, but which are also a tremendous strain. Science, though, thrives on paradox. Einstein’s theory of relativity grew out of the paradoxes around the measurements of the speed of light. Newton’s theories of gravity and calculus arose from Cantor’s puzzling observations about the motion of the planets. We now have some new paradoxes, such as the process of “doing nothing” in meditation causing significant changes both physically and mentally, and even at a molecular level.

It was tremendous insight and wisdom that led Jon Kabat-Zinn to develop the mindfulness courses that are now growing fast in both acceptance and use. It was great courage of him and many others to persist.

The relaxation response

Back in the late 1960s Herbert Benson responded to a request from the Transcendental Meditation (TM) community to measure the effect of TM on blood pressure, and the results were surprising - TM could reduce blood pressure. Subsequently he researched other methods, and found that certain forms of guided attention with particular attitudes could reduce various stress markers, and he published a book in 1975 titled “The Relaxation Response”. Since then he has led a wide range of mind-body research at Harvard University.

The relaxation response, he argues, is the opposite to the stress response. With the stress response, heart rate increases, blood pressure increases, and various hormones are released. The relaxation response reduces heart rate, blood pressure and the production of stress hormones. Even a short meditation can have a positive effect, but the strength of the response increases with regular practice. Physiological changes can be measured after only 8 weeks of practice. He notes that practices have appeared in all cultures that induce the relaxation response. It is not tied to any particular beliefs or cultural settings.

Regular practice

This course has introduced mindfulness through a set of practices, both formal practices and informal practices. The intention was to provide a number of ways of bringing mindfulness into our daily lives. To use the analogy of physical exercise, to maintain the benefits you will need to keep up your practice in some form. Herbert Benson would argue strongly that the more you do it, the more effective it will become.

By now, you should have some idea of what works best for you. If mindful movement is helpful, maybe a yoga or tai chi class is something you could introduce. If sitting meditation works, is there a meditation group you can attend? Look out for local groups that organise such things.

A day of practice every few months can be very beneficial. They are a good way of refreshing practice.

If you are interested, there are longer retreats on meditation and mindfulness. However, before committing to a long retreat you might be best advised to discuss with someone who has been to that form of retreat.

Finally, there are many good books out there.

Continuing the journey
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Hopefully this course has led you to a deeper understanding of mindfulness and some insights into how it applies to you and your life. With luck you have found what you wanted, or perhaps changed your view of what you want. Probably there were a few surprises on the way.

Whatever you have taken from the course, may it benefit you in years to come.

Whatever you do, enjoy the adventure.

Pasted Graphic 3 Further reading and research

The following book is a good general introduction to mindfulness.

Williams, M., & Penman, D. (2011). Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. London: Piatkus.

The following book is probably the definitive text, first written in 1990 and updated recently. It can be hard going, but is full of insights.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013).
Full catastrophe living, Revised Edition: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation. New York, NY: Delta.

There are lots of talks on youtube. Look for Jon Kabat-Zinn, Shauna Shapiro, Chade-Meng Tan., Ajahn Brahm, Pema Chodron, Jack Kornfield, Mark Williams.

Finally, keep an eye on
www.jamyangleeds.co.uk for further courses on mindfulness, meditation and Buddhism.

Home practice: it’s over to you!