ABC Catalyst - The Mindfulness Experiment
25 March 2019 | Mindfulness Courses
ABC’s Catalyst recently conducted “ The Mindfulness Experiment” by inviting 15 Australians from all walks of life into an eight-week intensive mindfulness meditation program: Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). The outcomes were researched by Assoc Professor Nicholas Van Dam, Senior Lecturer, University of Melbourne.
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
MBSR uses a range of mindfulness practices to teach participants to cultivate an observant, accepting and compassionate stance towards their own internal experiences including cognitions, emotional states, body sensations and impulses. MSBR is a bit different from many other contemporary mindfulness offerings in that it is:
- not a quick fix,
- quite demanding in terms of practice (up to an hour a day!) and
- the group process is quite important.
People in the group were dealing with the usual stress of life but also the poignant challenges of chronic pain, PTSD, anxiety and depression, injury, grief and loss and Multiple Sclerosis. The Catalyst program will show ordinary people in the throes of interest, confusion, irritation, pain, excitement, warmth and humour as they learn how to approach their own stress and distress using mindfulness meditation as their guide. Some amazing stories of transformation ensued. And the show also points out the complexities that scientists face when they are researching mindfulness.
The Catalyst MBSR course
The Catalyst MSBR course was demanding in all sorts of ways. Often we had 10 crew creeping around and pointing cameras and sound booms in our faces, as we meditated and then explored the practice in the group. And many of the participants travelled a long way each time to the group. While we will have to wait for the program to find out about the cortisol levels, the MRI scans and the blood pressure measures, what I can report on is some of the profound processes and discoveries that people made. These are some of the things we learned:
Starting something new is scary
Djo Hillaire came to the course suffering the profound grief at having lost his beloved wife of 40 years just three months before. He was a true leader in the group because of his emotional openness and articulateness (being French and 71!). He writes:
"My first question was - How am I going to even ‘be there mentally’, with my immense grief, (as I can hardly talk), facing so many new faces? I should not have come! But I should not have worried. I realised pretty quickly that when bad luck, adversity, trauma rips apart someone’s life, that very someone is already well inclined and open hearted to listen to anyone else’s sadness."
"Even if we did not believe it at first, we were going to learn from each other, from our experiences, and more so, we were going to foster, develop, become stronger, and even find some answers, because of the group.
I understood a bit later that someone’s evaluation of the practice, and of the week events, was to be a valuable insight for me/others, as we continued together in the classes, as well as separately with the home practice."
Self criticism gives way to compassion in dealing with pain
Samantha Olhsen came with chronic pain and PTSD from many years in the military. She describes her journey in terms of the shift from a pushy, self critical mode of being with herself to a kind and and compassionate one:
"The meditation component of mindfulness has been helpful, particularly in improving my concentration and productivity.
However the lesson that mindfulness has instilled have been life changing. A lifetime in the Army, had made me an expert at self criticism to fuel motivation and attention to detail. After a diagnosis of PTSD and chronic pain this coping mechanism was far from helpful. In fact, it was down right destructive, but it was the only way I knew how to live. Despite psychologists pointing this destructive thought pattern out and attempting to get me to change my thought patterns, I was highly resistant to changing it as I thought without it I would become weak and lazy. The mindfulness course slowly broke down my barriers to changing this thought pattern from self criticism to self compassion. This is allowing me to let go of the past and of things that are outside of my control and get on with life. I seem now to see things more clearly, and it has made dealing with the reality of the life I have a lot easier. I still live with PTSD and chronic pain, but I’m not continually fighting myself and my thoughts anymore. Thank you for your patience in dealing with someone who was so resistant to the idea of mindfulness. I’m really glad you were able to help me get through a major sticking point in my recovery."
Sam and Erin both came to the course with chronic pain. Here is Erin's story:
Opening up emotionally
Shane, a high-achieving architect, discovered a lot about himself over the eight weeks: “During the course I experienced an enormous shift in what I thought I knew about myself, particularly with regard to my emotional and stress responses. I entered the course with a strong habit of shutting down or becoming numb in high stress environments, something that I believed was a positive trait as it enabled me to endure the situation. The practice of mindfulness helped me to observe, understand and overcome the various impacts that pattern of numbing had on many aspects of my daily life such as energy levels, focus, sleep and relationships. I think it is important to normalise and promote preventative approaches to our mental health, in the way that we do with diet and exercise. We tend to focus on the treatment of injuries rather than prevention; when we consider that approach in the context of mental health, by the time the injury is apparent, the damage has been done. I view mindfulness as an unmissable opportunity to take control of my wellbeing.”
For Ben Knight - who came from an armed services background, working in the Navy - becoming more open to his emotional life was also important. He writes:
"On completion of the 8 week course, we were asked to summarise our experience in one word, I chose “blessed”. As a fairly head strong male from a traditional environment where I have always suppressed my feelings and emotions, I made the decision to commit to the program with no preconceived ideas. What I was able to do was break down my own internal walls and just be honest with myself. The result has been profound in my life, I sleep better, I am able to be more level headed with my emotions but most importantly I am more present in my family life and the impact it has on my relationships with my beautiful partner and daughter is everything I could wish for. My journey in life will continue to have its challenges but I feel better equipped to recognise and deal with these challenges and be open with myself through the practices learnt. The course had such a positive impact on my life at the period that I was at and I am grateful for the experience and on completion I was, and still feel “blessed” for being able to share that journey."
Mindfulness training is experiential not just cognitive
It is such a shame that so much mindfulness these days is taught primarily with a Powerpoint about the neuroscience and with little engagement in the actual practice. Even though this kind of teaching is well-intentioned, it won’t help much except to add another “should” to how we need to be in order to be a good person, or a good team player or good worker. Djo writes about the process:
"At first I had lots of questions: How could I ‘measure’ where my practices would take me every week? How could I decipher any strong sensation that I was making a certain progress in that elusive search for peace, and make my difficult journey much more bearable?
But like every good teacher, meditation does not give you the answers on a platter as every student would like to have it. After four months of practice and good advice, I feel that the nebulous forest of my thoughts is, from time to time, showing some welcome clearing. The journey which has started cannot be stopped now, as it would be inconceivable to regress to the state I was in, before the mindfulness course. That journey will never end because it is in itself the answer to my intense grief. The practice itself seems to give me a present for every day of my life now."
The practice is important
What I found again, is that it is the practice that makes the difference. To make real changes in our thinking, feeling and actions we do need to practice. I have seen powerful new skills and capacities develop in people in a relatively short time, but it is the practice, rather than beliefs or ideas about being 'more mindful' that seem to provide the traction for change.
What you may initially meet in practice is not an escape from life but more intimacy with your own mind and body and this is the very site of your stress and distress. So initially, you may feel more of the discomfort you have been avoiding through busyness, or drinking or positive thinking or zoning out generally. This doesn’t mean the practice “isn’t working”. It can be a bit challenging but it is an excellent (and the only) place to start.
Gemma McKinnon from the Catalyst MBSR course, a young Indigenous lawyer and academic (who has 4 children at the ripe old age of 31!) even found time to do the practice. If she can, we all can! She says: "I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the MBSR course changed my life. It has brought such happiness and contentment to my days and the space to really think about my choices rather than have them be based on reactions to dissatisfaction with the now. My friends noticed a change in me from as early as week two and they all want to do the course now."
Some facts about MBSR
MBSR was developed in 1979 by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Over the past 40 years, MBSR has been adapted and translated into many mindfulness based programs which are used to treat a wide range of mental and physical health issues including depression, anxiety, pain and illness, substance addiction, eating disorders and also in education, leadership and workplace contexts.
Read “What Mindfulness Isn’t” The Conversation, Nicholas Van Dam, 19th Feb, 2019: https://theconversation.com/we-dont-yet-fully-understand-what-mindfulness-is-but-this-is-what-its-not-110698
About the Experts
Dr Nicholas Van Dam
Dr Nicholas Van Dam is a Senior Lecturer in the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences. He holds an appointment of Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program in the Department of Psychiatry in the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York (USA).
Nicholas completed a B.S. in Neurobiology and Psychology at the University of Wisconsin -Madison (USA). He completed an MA & PhD in Clinical Psychology at the University at Albany, SUNY (USA) and a post-doctoral fellowship in Clinical Neuroscience and Psychiatric Neuroimaging back at Mount Sinai. Nicholas moved to Melbourne, Australia to join the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences in 2017.
See his article with comments from Timothea here: (“What Mindfulness Isn’t”)
Timothea Goddard is an accredited Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher and was the facilitator of the Catalyst MBSR course. She was the first MBSR teacher in Australia to be trained and accredited by the Center for Mindfulness at The University of Massachusetts Medical School. Timothea has been involved in several research projects supporting honours, masters and PhD students in their mindfulness research. She is a psychotherapist, workplace trainer and the director of Openground, an Australia-wide network of clinicians and teachers offering MBSR and related programs. She is a founding director of Mindfulness Training Institute and is currently the Director of Training there. Recently she has been accredited as a yoga teacher with specialist training in Trauma Sensitive Yoga.
To watch the program within Australia: iVEIW - The Mindfulness Experiment
If you are outside Australia you can watch the program when it's uploaded on the Catalyst website.
Openground run Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction courses around Australia. Next term MBSR courses starting soon.
And another recent article published in The Conversation: Mindfulness meditation offers help with the travails of chronic illness