9:00am: lecture. 10am: meditation.
An Oxford term might not strike everyone as a natural environment for the pursuit of inner peace; but in Michaelmas twenty students went through a course designed to help us find just that. With a little help, obviously, from dried fruit.
During the first class of the eight week course at St Anne’s, participants were each given two raisins, and spent ten minutes being guided through what was probably the slowest snack that any of us had ever eaten. We paid attention to the raisins’ texture, smell, and impact on the eye, and chewed it gradually, noticing how new flavours were released on each bite. Several participants said they had never enjoyed any snack as much as those raisins.
Mindfulness is a hot topic these days in many areas of psychiatry, with much of the pioneering research coming out of Oxford. This course in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was the first in the UK specifically aimed at university students – a version tailored towards children is already being taught in schools. The course introduced the idea of mindfulness as helping students to: ‘learn new ways of being that support a sense of health, aliveness, creativity and well-being. Mindfulness invites us to connect more deeply with our bodies and our hearts (feelings, emotions, intuition), and with our living experience in each moment. In focused mindfulness practice, we pay attention to the small changes in body sensations, feelings and thoughts. One benefit of this is that we can see how these are linked to mood fluctuations.’
At each weekly session, we were introduced to a new mindfulness exercise, sometimes with yoga mixed in, to be practised during the next week with the aid of a CD of guided meditations. We were also set a ‘habit releaser’ designed to shake up our daily routines and to reduce the extent to which we were living on autopilot: these included ‘valuing the TV’, ‘going for a 15 minute walk’ and ‘committing a random act of kindness’.
The course used the new book ‘Mindfulness: A Practical Guide for Finding Peace in a Frantic World’ by Prof. Mark Williams of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, a research centre within the Psychiatry Department, and Dr Danny Penman. Prof. Williams has been conducting research into the effects of mindfulness meditation, which draws on Buddhist meditation traditions, for thirty years. The secular mindfulness courses that he and others have developed are based on numerous scientific studies and clinical trials, and are recommended by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence as one of the most effective means to prevent the recurrence of depression. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce blood pressure, to cut the likelihood and risk of cardiovascular disease, to increase job performance and productivity, and a whole heap more health benefits.
The big question of this course was: how does mindfulness mix with student, and Oxford, life? From the feedback I have received it would appear that mindfulness practice is as healthy a supplement to hard work as Watson is to Sherlock. Aaron Smith comments:
“As a PhD student for the last 4 years, I’ve noticed that I go through waves of enthusiasm and anxiety with my work. Since taking up mindfulness I feel like I’m able to ride the waves, rather than get swept away in them. When I feel stressed I’m able to step back, take a few deep breaths, and re-focus my attention if necessary.”
Another participant claims:
“It was really striking how as soon as they arrived at the class, people suddenly became aware of how much tension they’d been carrying with them all week, and were able to let it go and put all their tasks aside for an hour.
I have felt more resilient, better able to see the funny side, more at ease, more clear-minded, more grateful for everyday things, and more concentrated, over the course of only eight weeks.”
Jess Beagley says,
‘I was struck by the wholly inclusive aspect of the course – all opinions and contributions were valuable and explored by the teachers, and this made the experience even richer’.
All fine and dandy. But is mindfulness really a worthwhile way to relax and enjoy your experience of Oxford when there are so many other pursuits, from sport to drama, on offer? Aaron thought there were similarities between mindfulness and other leisure activities:
“I think that when I’m playing football, for example, my mind is totally in the current moment and not focused on work etc. In a way what we’ve learnt in this course is how to access these moments more directly.”
For Andrew McCormack:
“I think being at Oxford is so stressful because there is always more going on than you’ll possibly be able to do: work, incredible extra-curricular activities and opportunities, socialising, and dealing with the normalities of day to day life are condensed into such a short, intense space of time, it’s very easy to lose touch with reality and to forget to look after yourself!
Sport, drama and going out can very easily become something to stress about instead of enjoying; mindfulness reminds you it’s possible to enjoy, or at least be able to cope with, everything you do.”
“I find Mindfulness useful because like other de-stressing activities, it offers a clean break and a chance to come back at something refreshed, but is different to many other methods in that in a way that is different to sport, it is based on focusing on something internally grounding.
Perhaps the most useful thing is that it can be done at any time of day, alone or with friends, for a minute, or as long as desired, and in that sense it offers ultimate flexibility”.
The theme of the seventh week was ‘When did you stop dancing?’ The discussion aimed to get participants thinking about the activities that we find most nourishing and enjoyable, and about how we can get the balance right between these activities and depleting ones, in order to avoid a downward spiral of stress and overwork.
Another course is being offered this term; anyone intrigued should contact the LMH college nurse at firstname.lastname@example.org. Raisins will no doubt be provided.