Like many people last year, I found myself struggling at Uni. In response to my flailing about, and upon the recommendation of the University counsellor I was seeing at the time, I enrolled on an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course run by the University of Bath. I don't say this lightly when I say that this course has been one of the most positive and empowering things I've ever done for my mental health. I have found that the experience and what it teaches have had lasting and continuous positive impacts on my daily life.
It's certainly not been some instant-cure-all for all the woes of my life but from attending I have found myself able to pass through troubling things more smoothly. I find myself quite lost, quite less.
Troubles or not, I feel like this course should be on everyone's radar. As such, on May 17th, 2020, I (virtually) sat down with Counselling and Mental Health Service Team Lead, Amanda James and asked her to answer some of the questions I was too anxious to ask when enrolling (and a few others I had afterwards!). Amanda is lovely. I know this first hand as she was the instructor for my group when I took the 8-week MBSR course and was a perpetual wellspring of encouragement and kindness.
My list of questions is numbered below for your convenience. I hope you find Amanda's answer's useful and informative.
1. What do you recommend someone does before attending the eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course?
2. You've had the MBSR course, you've gone through the eight weeks. What do you recommend someone do afterwards?
3. What kind of student would you suggest take this course?
4. Who would you suggest not take this course?
5. Is there a challenging part of the course for you to teach?
6. What is the most rewarding part of the course to teach?
7. What would you say to someone hesitant but curious about attending the MBSR course?
8. After completing the MBSR course, are there any resources either at the university or outside of the university that you would recommend to students to continue developing their mindfulness practices?
9. What are your thoughts on mindfulness apps in comparison to courses?
10. How do you envisage mindfulness being integrated across the University of Bath in the near future?
11. If you could implement any mindfulness-related initiatives across the University of Bath today, what would they be?
12. Is there anything else that you'd like to mention?
What do you recommend someone does before attending the eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course?
So, you can attend the eight-week MBSR course without having any previous experience of mindfulness or meditation. However, I find that usually students, that have a little bit of curiosity about the process, tend to stay the course and get the most benefits out of it. So, they are typically students who utilize Headspace, or Calm I think the other one is, on a regular basis. Obviously, other meditation apps are available. But students who are already noticing the benefits of quiet time, silent time, time to sort of be still and time to meditate.
Also, they run introductory courses for mindfulness as well. They typically last about four weeks and they're like an hour and a quarter where you learn the rudiments of how to do a body scan, or how to sit, or what mindfulness is and what mindfulness isn't, and the different attitudinal foundations of mindfulness such as kindness, curiosity, patience, coming at things from a beginner's mind.
You've had the MBSR course, you've gone through the eight weeks. What do you recommend someone does afterwards?
Keep practicing. You know, the whole point of the eight-week course is that by the end of the course, you will have an established meditation practice and you will have established mindfulness practices that you can keep coming back to. So, what distinguishes mindfulness practices from meditation practices is meditating. It's a formal practice.
You sit or lie down for twenty minutes to half an hour, either following a guided meditation or in silence if you're feeling brave. Informal practices are things like taking moments for yourself in the day. These are called pauses where you stop, you make a conscious effort to feel your feet on the floor, you make a conscious effort to connect to your breath. You just take a moment to sort of land at the present moment before you then go on to the next task of your day. And it's just a really good way of catching up with yourself.
And other things are like just being attentive - noticing the world around you, noticing when you're slipping into automatic pilot, knowing how to come out of automatic pilot, noticing how you are with your interactions with others. So, being mindful in your communication, noticing when you're starting to get stressed, and the red flags - tell-tale signs of stress or anxiety when they happen - so you can make wise choices about how to best take care of yourself. So, there are lots of different things that you can keep on doing. In the eight weeks, you learn to cultivate a very different relationship with yourself which then hopefully sustains you.
Also, finding a community. There's a couple of former students from the eight-week MBSR and they set up a peer-led mindfulness meditation group that runs once a week on a Wednesday. So, they meet, they meditate together, have a little chat about how they're getting on and this is a lovely little community for people to dip in and out of. And if you're feeling super adventurous, and once things come out of lockdown more, doing things like day retreats or two-day retreats or five-day retreats, you know, so really expanding your practices even further into your exploration of mindfulness.
What kind of student would you suggest take this course?
So, it's open to everybody. Everybody and anybody who's curious and wants to know more about how to be present, how to be engaged. If you're curious about meditation practices. And also, students that are struggling like all human beings. Life can be difficult and challenging. So, if you're having difficulties with stress or overthinking, or you're finding it difficult to switch off, or you tend to ruminate and get stuck in negative thinking cycles. If you're feeling lonely and disconnected, it's a really good way to feel connected to a community of like-minded people and students that just want to practice good mental health or students who are curious. You know, it's open to everyone.
Who would you suggest not take this course?
There are some cautious indications with mindfulness. So, if you've had a bereavement, for example, mindfulness is not a good idea to do because what it tries to do is draw you to the present moment and how you're feeling in the here and now. And sometimes that's not the most healthy thing. If you've had a recent bereavement and also trauma as well - you've got to be really careful with any instance of trauma. It doesn't mean to say that students who've experienced trauma can't do mindfulness. We usually suggest that they are either in therapy or have done a course of therapy beforehand anyway.
Is there a challenging part of the course for you to teach?
It really depends who the group is because - this is the beauty, this is why I love teaching mindfulness - because even though I am a facilitator and I come with a certain amount of experience, I've got the structure of the course so I know that I've got the map and the compass if you like, I know the trajectory. It's actually the participants that make the course really rich and interesting because it's all about people sharing experiences of what mindfulness is and what they're noticing when they try to meditate. What do they notice when they try to connect to their breath? What do they notice when things are pleasant or unpleasant? So, the more people share, the more rich and interesting that makes it. So, it depends. It really depends on the group.
If a group is having real difficulty, for example, distinguishing body feelings to do a body scan, ‘I can't feel my body’, it just takes time. I can't teach you how to feel. It's just you noticing. So, it's not so much the content it's just letting the course work its magic. And also, sometimes addressing difficulties can be, not difficult, but it can be challenging. You know, students have to sort of trust the process that they're in and understand that this isn't therapy. We're not picking apart why we're doing something. We're noticing what happens when we get stressed, what happens when we're upset, you know. What happens when we've got deadlines and we're not looking after ourselves. So those can be sticking points in the course. But I wouldn't necessarily say they're difficult. As long as participants can keep an open mind, then that's good.
What's difficult is when people drop out. I think that for me it's the most difficult thing. I understand that sometimes after two sessions students think, ‘actually this is not for me’, but if students drop out because they can't find the time to commit to it, that makes it difficult. I appreciate that being a student is very, very demanding but before students come on the course, we have quite a rigorous enrolment process just so people know what they're letting themselves in for. It doesn't happen very often. But when it does, I always feel - what's the word - it's not disappointment, it's more like... Yeah, sadness, you know. That somebody’s finding it’s not the right thing for them, or a little bit too stressful, or work is overriding their mindfulness practices.
What is the most rewarding part of the course to teach?
Oh, I just, I feel so lucky and privileged to teach this course. You know, for one thing, it is such a precious resource for students. If you were to do this course - this is the real deal you know. I've done years of teacher training to do this. And when I did the course, it cost at least two hundred, three hundred pounds to do the eight-week course. And this has been offered free for students. So, it's a really precious resource.
And I, I just love watching students going through this journey, learning to be kinder and more compassionate to themselves. Learning to cultivate an authentic relationship with themselves. Learning how to understand what their red flags are in terms of stress and administer self-care - getting really into meditation and starting to really notice the benefits of that. Noticing the impact of their mood on their emotions. Not taking things so personally, not being so reactive. You know, just watching students on their journey to me is just such an enormous pleasure. Watching students really grapple with ‘what is mindfulness?’ and being really willing to put themselves forward and share their experiences.
I find it endlessly fascinating and endlessly rewarding and seeing people. You know, it's that thing of planting seeds. Occasionally I get emails from students that maybe I taught mindfulness to a year ago who email me and go, 'oh, by the way, I'm still practising. I've now been to this retreat and that retreat' or ‘I've gone on to a career and I'm incorporating mindfulness into my work practices.' To me, that's amazing.
What would you say to someone hesitant but curious about attending the MBSR course?
Oh, that's a great place to start from. Being hesitant is part and parcel of embracing change, isn't it? Stepping into the unknown and trusting the process. When you get that little bit of doubt, you know, embrace that. Embrace that and do it anyway.
After completing the MBSR course, are there any resources either at the University or outside of the University that you would recommend to students to continue developing their mindfulness practices?
So, like I said, within the University there's already a meditation society - I understand, that's up and running. But there's also the mindfulness peer group that I've mentioned already, which is what's run by Ben and Liz. And then there are loads of books out there. So, any books by Christina Feldman. She's like the don of Mindfulness. Any books by Jon Kabat-Zinn, he's the guy who created mindfulness and he wrote a book called Full Catastrophe Living. And, I mean, it's a Bible-thick book but it tells you everything you need to know about mindfulness.
Finding retreats to go on - now that lockdown is lifting there are all different places that have day-long retreats. Gaia House is a really good, fantastic resource. The Mindfulness Network is a really good resource as well. So, finding online meditations that you can use, finding an online community or a real-life community to connect with as well.
What are your thoughts on mindfulness apps in comparison to courses?
I mean, I can't give you a thorough answer because I've never used a mindfulness app, so I don't really know. But I would say the thing that makes mindfulness work IS the community, sharing their experiences in real-time with other people. Because what that does is it globalizes things like the mind wandering or stress or anxiety or conversations that trigger feeling anxious. You know, that's the beauty of mindfulness, you're sharing what it is to be a human being with other human beings, so you get that sense of shared experience together.
You get the sense of having been on a journey together. If you get stuck or if you have any questions, you've got a facilitator that you can talk to. You've got, I would imagine, with the apps it's sort of bite-sized things you can do. On the course itself, it’s two hours a week so it's a dedicated amount of time to spend exploring mindfulness practices. So I would say that it probably goes deeper.
How do you envisage mindfulness being integrated across the University of Bath in the near future?
I'm not sure if you're aware, but the Psychology department has the Bath Centre for Mindfulness and Compassion (BCMC) and they're doing really interesting research about the efficacy and impact of mindfulness as well as offering introductory courses to mindfulness in conjunction with Student Services. As well as the BCMC, there is a community of practitioners at the University such as my colleague Nicola Peacock who also runs mindfulness-based courses. And one of our graduates from the eight-week MBSR course is now training to be a mindfulness facilitator herself and is assisting us. Paul Chadwick, who's the head of the Psychology department, is our mindfulness supervisor. So, there are lots of interesting developments which integrate the Psychology Department and Student Services together. Moving forwards, I would like to see some sort of mindfulness-based programmes integrated into the curriculum.
But also, I understand that this isn't for everybody either. I'm not saying mindfulness is a panacea for all ills. But I think I would like to be able to offer all students the opportunity. When you're mindful about yourself, when you can take good care of yourself, when you can cultivate compassion for yourself, you then have space and capacity to offer that to other people and the kinder we are to ourselves and to each other, you know, that is going to create a fairer, more equitable society. And, for me personally, I think that's the way to go.
If you could implement any mindfulness-related initiatives across the University of Bath today, what would they be?
So, I think two things. One would be to offer this out to academics and lecturers who want to look after their own health and wellbeing and also offer that out to students. And to do a mindful pause at the beginning of every lecture, every session would be amazing. The other thing is having dedicated space because, you know, in terms of looking after student mental health and wellbeing, it's so important to have spaces that are quiet.
Over lockdown, I've adapted the MBSR course so I can meet people online which has been amazing because when I've tried to do it face-to-face the one thing that's really difficult is finding appropriate space. And usually what I've had to do is do it in a classroom and rearrange the chairs and move all the tables. And students come in and it's still a classroom, you know. We happen to be doing mindfulness there but it's still a classroom. If we had a dedicated space where we could do mindfulness, not just mindfulness, but all kinds of group activities that impact student mental health and wellbeing, that would be amazing.
I went to Manchester University and, obviously they've got like double the number of students there, but they've got a whole building that's dedicated quiet space for students where they can do clinical and psycho-educational groups and courses and where they can run mindfulness classes. So, there's not a lecture theatre in sight. It's all sort of bean bags and meditation stalls and murals on walls, you know, that kind of thing.
I think students at Bath work incredibly hard, sometimes under really difficult circumstances, and it's being encouraged to work hard and apply yourself but also, at the same time, having space where you get to unwind and take care of yourself as well. For me, having that space for students to unwind, a quiet space where we could do mindfulness classes that doesn’t look like a reconfigured lecture theatre would be amazing.
Is there anything else that you'd like to mention?
I think what I love about mindfulness is I've met students from all over the world, particularly doing this online. It means it's opened up to students who are maybe stuck over in their country of origin, unable to travel because of lockdown, but we've managed to establish a sort of online community. So, we've had students from the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Switzerland and India, actually doing it in their home country, time differences notwithstanding. So, I really like the way that the course has opened up the opportunity to reach out to those students as well. I love its inclusivity.