Mindfulness with Prof. Mark Williams

Mindfulness is a form of awareness, really. It’s a direct, intuitive knowing, of what’s going on from moment to moment, both in the outside world and in the inside world. And it’s cultivated with forms of meditation, a sort of a secular form of ancient Buddhist meditations that have been cultivated for centuries in Asia, particularly in the monasteries in Asia, but now, has come outside the monastery to the west as well, and is proving of great benefit for many, many people. 

One of the important things is to establish whether mindfulness really works. And so, a lot of our research has been doing clinical trials. And what we’ve discovered is that for people who have the most recurrent forms of depression, we half the risk of depression over that critical 12-month period where we know that two thirds or more would have relapsed. But it doesn’t just prevent depression.

Other studies have found it enhances well-being as well, and that you don’t just need to be depressed to get the benefit from this practice. The three main ways in which people can learn how to practice mindfulness – They can either find a class in a hospital or a meditation centre near them, or they can read one of the books that usually have a CD that people can follow along for an eight- week program, or they can do it online. And it’s like training an attentional muscle, really, just like you don’t go to the gym and do one pull up. You go over a series to get yourself fit. 

So, we don’t train attention in one minute or two minutes but use eight weeks in which people take CDs home and practice every day and they learn where their attention is most likely to disappear from view without them knowing and how to bring it back. So, they’re more in control. They have greater choice over where their attention is. 

One example of how insignificant things can make a big difference is the example somebody gave. She was saying that in walking from the car park to her office, she found herself really noticing her walking, noticing as the feet touch the ground and noticing the air in her hair and on her face. And this became, for her, a little space where she felt she could, as it were, nourish herself at the beginning of the day. And she found that it changed a complete day just to notice that there was a little space there in the walking.

And she even started parking a bit further away from her office thinking, this is really nice, rather than actually frantically trying to get a parking space that would save her 20 yards of walking, which is what she’d been doing, and given the way her life was spinning out of control, this was really important for her.