Up at 6am, you reach for the Blackberry, in its usual place beside the bed, and punch the radio awake to grab the first piece of news. The daily treadmill of incessant intensity has started and you know it won’t stop.
You surf through the deluge of emails, the calls, all the while thinking of key lines for the speech you are going to deliver next week, the paper you have to write, the key contact you are going to meet. And ‘surf’ is what it is – you try and get on to the next thing as quickly as possible, without stopping. Because you know that if you stopped, you would be afraid of sinking. But everyone needs to stop sometimes, and this is where mindfulness comes in.
Mindfulness takes ancient Buddhist principles of the benefits of meditation and applies them to the needs of the modern world. In a society in which one in four of us will suffer depression at some stage in our lives, mindfulness is a new weapon to prevent its recurrence. Recognising this, mindfulness has been given the NICE stamp of approval.
A continuing programme of academic research carried out by Professor Mark Williams at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, nestled within Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry, has already shown that mindfulness is more effective than anti-depressants at preventing recurrent depression. This is particularly important as, for many people, if they have depression once, they are far more likely to have it again. Further work is being done at Oxford around mindfulness in the workplace, its benefits for young people and ‘at risk’ groups such as veterans and people in high-stress occupations.
So what is mindfulness? Is it espoused by a bunch of new-age hippies who want everyone say ‘ommm’? Certainly not. Solidly based on scientific and academic research, mindfulness is a way of training your brain to focus on the here and now – it is not about pushing away thoughts, trying to pretend that they aren’t there, but about ‘listening’ to sensations, emotions and thoughts, acknowledging them and then allowing them to diffuse, letting them move on. Learning to be mindful can make a real difference – it can be a way out of anxiety and stress – and for those with serious recurrent depression it can be a life-line.
So, as many NHS Trusts turn to research-based training organisations such as the Oxford Mindfulness Centre to treat those with recurrent and serious depression, individuals, people like you and me, can turn to mindfulness too.
It is possible to get through the day without ‘surfing’ over the top of it, without lurching from one panic-inducing moment to the next punctuated only by another cup of coffee. It is possible to be clear about what you are doing and why, to be present in the moment and not the moment before or the moment to come. And it is possible to take a few minutes to ‘be’, to stop, to breathe and to rebalance. You don’t have to say ‘ommm’, but you can if you like.
Charlotte Vere, former Conservative PPC and Founder and Director of Women On..., is on the board of the development campaign for the Oxford Mindful Centre at the University of Oxford, which aims to raise £3.19m to endow a professorship of mind and science. Professor Mark Williams’ book “Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world” is available here