Resident Psychologist, James Newman, interviews Oxford University’s first Professor of Mindfulness, to get an expert lowdown…
The past few years has seen the public perception of mindfulness meditation go from ‘some odd hippy practice’ to the ‘fashionable tool’ of the busy professional. But what actually is mindfulness? Does meditation have benefits? What can it help with? Given the interest in mindfulness, we recruited an expert to give us the lowdown. Professor Willem Kuyken directs the Oxford Mindfulness Centre and is Oxford University’s first Professor of Mindfulness and Psychological Science…
PP: Professor Kuyken, could you tell us what mindfulness is and how it differs from how we normally go about our daily lives?
WK: At its simplest, mindfulness is the natural capacity we all have for awareness, to attend to our experience with openness, interest, friendliness, equanimity and care. However, mindfulness can also be described more fully as:
Attention / awareness. The extraordinary “mental muscle” we have for paying attention.
Imbued with certain qualities, turning towards, allowing, curiosity, friendliness patience, equanimity and kindness. Mindfulness is not a cold glare of attention, quite the opposite.
Underpinned by an ethical framework and a clear sense of intentionality. In its largest sense this is to know the mind, train the mind and free it so we can realize our potential for happiness, compassion and wisdom and responsive action in the world.
In its narrower sense it can be used for particular groups of people or contexts. For example, we work a lot on helping people at risk for depression learn mindfulness as way to prevent depression.
Mindfulness is a natural capacity we all have, and there are individual differences – some people just seem more mindful than others. There is nothing special or different about mindfulness, most things we do in our lives can be done either with attention, care and intentionality or on automatic pilot.
If this seems like a long answer to what seems a simple question, this is because in my view the word is a bit like words like “beauty”,” love,” and “wisdom.” It a nuanced and complex and can easily be misunderstood.
PP: It seems that practices, such as mindfulness, which are closely associated with Eastern religions are being more integrated into psychological practice in the west. Why is this?
WK: I have just completed a book with Christina Feldman entitled Mindfulness: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Psychology. What we found were many parallels between Buddhist psychology and modern psychology and where these were useful we drew on them and where they weren’t we didn’t. For example, these traditions have developed practices for gathering and stabilising attention - modern psychology is now clearly demonstrating these practices are effective. The mindfulness-based programs that I teach and research are secular, and in fact we have people from many backgrounds and religions attend and say they find them helpful.
PP: The growing popularity of mindfulness seems to have led to a counter reaction, with some criticising mindfulness as a fad. What is your response to this?
WK: Robust critique helps, it sharpens our thinking and methods. It ensures all we do is well thought through and researched. Mindfulness-based programs I am working on have deep roots in both contemplative traditions that are more than two thousand years old, so it is hardly a fad. What will happen I am sure though is that as we do our research, we’ll discover what works best for different people and the field will need to evolve and change. Many innovative ideas faced a backlash, sometimes for years, before they became mainstream.
PP: You recently became the first Professor of Mindfulness & Psychological Science at Oxford University – how did you first come across mindfulness and how do you practice it?
WK: My whole career has pursued the question of how best to understand and prevent depression and enhance human potential across the lifespan. In the way we have seen smallpox eradicated, my hope is that we can see a world without the devastating effects of depression. I have long been interested in how the broader perspectives of psychology, biology, philosophy, contemplative traditions, and social justice can help us to understand and find ways to prevent depression.
From an early age my inquiry was both academic and deeply personal. Like many people, my life has not been without struggle. My parents were exposed to unimaginable suffering in occupied Holland and Indonesia during World War II, and my uncle—who is my namesake—died in a Japanese concentration camp at the age of 4. As a young boy, I often felt a deep sense of empathy and compassion when I encountered pain and suffering. I was brought up in Nigeria and although my life was cocooned within the expatriate community, for a child it was impossible to not see the great suffering that was never far from view.
I first experienced depression myself as a young man and this experience has informed how I live and work. In my early 20s, I travelled extensively for my job at the World Health Organization. At a Bangkok airport, I picked up a book with the title The Good Life: A Guide to Buddhism for the Westerner (Roscoe, 1990). On the night flight back to Geneva, I read the book cover to cover. Toward the end of the flight, I remember being in the cockpit of the plane looking out into the night sky (if you asked politely, you were allowed to sit up with the pilots in those days!) and having an extraordinary sense of identification with the teachings, a sense of common humanity, and a sort of awakening. The teachings resonated on two levels: my personal experience and my work as a young scientist. The ideas informed not only my understanding of my mind and life but also the research program I was developing. The end of the book included further resources, which I sought out with ardour and started on a path of mindfulness practice and learning.
A few years later, at a conference entitled “East Meets West,” I was exposed to some inspiring people and ideas who in different ways were working at the same interface. Jon Kabat-Zinn gave a masterful 3-hour opening keynote; Francisco Varela used philosophy, Buddhism, and cognition to work on embodiment; and Stephen Batchelor worked on making Buddhist psychology accessible and secular. Over a drink in the bar, John Teasdale, an academic clinical psychologist, encouraged me to bring my work on depression together with my personal interest in mindfulness. This was an extraordinary moment of convergence and set the direction for my career and life ever since.
PP: The evidence-base around mindfulness seems to be growing – can you briefly highlight the key research and what benefits we might see from mindfulness practice?
WK: The field is still quite young, just forty years or so. The science in some areas is strong and well developed (e.g., mindfulness-based programs for chronic pain, recurrent depression and addiction) and in other areas is in its infancy (e.g., mindfulness for young people). For the general population a body of scientific research suggests some encouraging insights about the role of mindfulness in mental health and resilience.
PP: How does mindfulness actually achieve these benefits?
WK: The research seems to be pointing to being able to stabilize our attention enough so we can stand back and see our thoughts and feelings from a different perspective. This sounds very simple, but it’s also profound and potentially can change people’s lives. Winston Churchill would suffer periods of very incapacitating low mood, and he developed a way of describing these as like being visited by his black dog. Describing it in this way changed his relationship to these thoughts and feelings. Our research suggests that for many people this can make it easier not to get sucked down into a downward vortex of negative thinking that characterizes recurrent depression. Perhaps the best description of depression and a journey of recovery was Mathew Johnstone’s book I Had a Black Dog which WHO posted on their website.
PP: Aside from the scientific evidence, what are the common descriptions from people who have gone through a period of mindfulness practice?
WK: Everyone is different, but the quote I love is, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” People learn to step out of automatic pilot and create some space that can be very empowering. Instead of a negative thought being experienced as reality, we can step back and see it in a different way and realise we don’t have act out of habits or automatic thoughts.
PP: There are so many apps, courses and resources for mindfulness. Are there any tips you could give on what type of mindfulness practice works best?
WK: Mark Williams and Danny Penman wrote Mindfulness Finding Peace in a Frantic World which includes some very accessible mindfulness practices. There is some promising research suggesting this is an accessible way for people to learn mindfulness. There are numerous apps, and I can’t recommend one over another, but my website and Twitter feed provide regular updates on resources for people learning and researching mindfulness. To find a good mindfulness teacher there are now registers, in the UK there is the UK Network and internationally a network called AccessMBCT.
So, will mindfulness work for you? As the Buddhist masters suggest – you need not have faith, just experience. Give it a try for a month or two and – see what happens.
Professor Willem Kuyken's and Christina Feldman's book Mindfulness: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Psychology is available now in the USA and on 9 July in the UK. Orders and pre-orders are available from Guilford Press and other booksellers
Interview includes extracts from Mindfulness: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Psychology. Copyright (c) 2019 The Guilford Press. Reprinted with permission of The Guilford Press.