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Swirl

I was delighted to receive my copy of Swirl recently, a booklet produced by Andy Walton and Gina Yu, on overcoming worry and over-thinking. Andy Walton is a community mental health  nurse based  in the north-east who trained in mindfulness through the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course and works with military veterans through  Combat Stress, a charity that helps military veterans with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Andy wanted to produce a guide to rumination that would be concise,  empowering, uncomplicated and pleasing to the eye, and also free of mental health stereotyping. The words “mental health ” don’t appear until the last page. The result is a stylish and beautifully produced 20 page booklet, designed by award-winning creatives, including Guardian and New York Times illustrator Nate Kitch, providing accessible and straightforward wisdom on rumination from mental health professionals. It is simple, accessible and contains clearly presented information in a series of beautifully illustrated chapters. As Andy described in an interview with The Guardian, ‘if you wake up in the middle of the night with your mind swirling with thoughts, my hope is that you can pick up Swirl and that it will soothe you, help you feel a bit more in control, bring you back to the here and now. It’s something you could read on the bus on your way to work that will give you the positive mindset that you are in control of your thoughts.’ You can read more of the article from this link:

https://www.theguardian.com/healthcare-network/2018/may/15/mental-health-self-help-guide-swirl-zine

The booklet gives simple clear guidance on being grounded in the present moment, recognising thought activity and for example, the benefit of labelling thoughts rather than being subjected to the labels, making choices that stem from responding rather than reacting, and the value of building blocks of taking small steps towards a narrative of self-care and resilience. It’s a wonderful distillation of practical advice on how to work with rumination and engage pro-actively with the present moment,  building new habits to support well-being. The combination of its simplicity and design has great impact, simple truths powerfully distilled in a creative format that inspire the possibility of working transformatively with the mind.

Swirl is available from www.swirlzine.com for £6. Since publication, the booklet has  been donated for free to every secondary school pupil in the borough affected by the Grenfell Fire.

A Fearless Heart

Heart stoneA book I am currently reading and greatly enjoying is “A Fearless Heart” by Thubten Jinpa. Thupten Jinpa has been the principal English translator to the Dalai Lama for nearly thirty years. He is an adjunct Professor at the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University, Montreal, and chairman of the Mind and Life Institute, which is dedicated to promoting collaboration between the sciences and contemplative knowledge, especially Buddhism.

The book shows us how and why compassion is the key to greater well- being and how  we all can train our capacity for compassion so that we can become more resilient to the inevitable challenges that life presents us with. The book is full of thoughtful reflection and practical exercises that are based on the Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) that he has helped to create at Stanford University School of Medicine. It is a book infused with gentle wisdom and penetrating insight. Drawing on Buddhist and western psychology, it describes very clearly why compassion is so essential to our well-being, and how it can be accessed and touched and experienced right in the heart and reality of everyday life, rather than viewed as an ideal or concept or aspiration that is somehow beyond our reach. It describes simple practices that can be developed as a way of building compassion for ourselves and others in profound but simple ways.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the 8 week  Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction progamme that I teach termly in central Newcastle upon Tyne, describes it as “the bravest, clearest, and most engaging book I know on why we need to cultivate compassion”. In his introduction, Thubten Jinpa writes: “Even at the height of our autonomy as adults, the presence of another’s affection powerfully defines our happiness or misery. This is human nature – we’re vulnerable and it’s a good thing. A fearless heart embraces this fundamental truth of our human condition. We can develop the courage to see and be more compassionately in the world, live our lives with our hearts wide open to the pain – and joy – of being human on this planet. As utterly social and moral creatures, we each yearn to be recognized and valued. We long to matter, especially in the lives of those whom we love. We like to believe that our existence serves  a purpose. We are “meaning-seeking” creatures. It’s through connecting with other people, actually making a difference to others, and bringing joy in to their lives that we make our own lives matter, that we bring worth and purpose to our lives. This is the power of compasion.”

Making the most of it

bees on comb

 

Here in the uplands of the Northumberland National Park, the heather is flowering at its peak. The fells have taken on their full stain of purple, great pools of deep colour, like cloud shadow passing over the landscape. In the recent fine weather, I took some moments to watch our bees flying at full capacity, to-ing and fro-ing from the heather on the fells above our house. Our six hives are situated at the edge of deciduous woodland, facing south and to the moorland  above. A shepherds hut overlooks the row of hives, which also serves as a kind of observation hide, from which I can closely observe the bees’ activity throughout the year. But on this glorious hot afternoon, I have pulled a bench out in front of the hut, so I’m sitting directly behind rank of the hives at a short distance, getting as close as I can, looking out over hives to the meadow, a sea of tall, moving grasses.

There is something deeply thrilling about watching the bees, as they are today, at the height of their activity. From deep within the hive, a huge swelling hum resonates – the intense sound of thousands of honey bees active on the combs and frames ranked side by side within the boxes, in a throng of concentrated activity. In this afternoon heat, the air in front of the hives is a kaleidoscope of flight paths, the zig-zagging of bees in and out of the hives to and from their various trajectories on the heather and meadow flowers.  The colonies are united in purpose and working to full capacity while the weather conditions permit.

Heather is the bees final and essential crop before winter and there is a urgency in their activity, to build vital stores while they can. The flowering period of heather is short and weather dependent. When the bees are working on the heather, it is best to leave them uninterrupted to get on with it. Even the most mild- natured bees get especially irritable and agitated if the hives are entered for any bee-keeping procedures during this vital period. It is not wise to thwart the bees unnecessarily. Today, in the warm, late afternoon sunshine,  they are focussed and unfussed by my presence sitting quietly behind their ranks. An occasional bee buzzes lazily before me, checking me out, but I am completely safe sitting here, facing outwards behind them.

It is inspiring to be so close to this hub of purposeful activity on this late summer’s afternoon, each bee contributing to the health and well-being of the hives, each flight an expression of their united intention, serving the colony as a whole. Today the cohesive organisation of these communities is manifesting  in its maximum glory. At the peak of their activity, the fullest potential of the colonies is being actualised from within to without and there is a sense  of complete harmony witnessing this climax of their productive endeavour. The air hangs with the scent of honey, gold bullion locked up in the vaults of the hives.

Watching the bees, I  am fascinated and  humbled by the wisdom of their  levels of social co-operation and organisation, their ability to align so completely  with the prevailing weather conditions, their absolute presence and focus in the moment, drawing from nature what is there to be drawn upon, each bee following its own flight path and completed journey to and from the hive, over and over, as long as the weather and flying conditions hold.

I reflect that as humans, the gift of mindful awareness similarly has an agency of purpose, and allows us to actualise our fullest potential as human beings, bringing us conscious connection with the world we inhabit and are part of , the breathing in of experience through the senses and the mind’s clear mirror. With mindful awareness we engage with the world responsively and with choice, opening to the limitless possibilities of life’s unfolding, in a million consciously lived moments, like the million flights of the honey bees to the heather this hot August afternoon, making the most of it, and returning with gold.

Gwennie Fraser lives in Northumberland National Park and teaches mindfulness in North-East England, including Northumberland and Newcastle upon Tyne.

 

 

 

 

 

Mindfulness in Education Conference 2016

I recently attended the Mindfulness in Education Conference 2016 at the Institute of Education in central London, organised by the Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP), which was attended by over 700 delegates, from all over the UK and abroad. It was a stimulating day of presentations and break-out sessions and a chance to find out how mindfulness is beginning to make a difference to the well-being of staff and pupils in schools. Although not a school teacher myself, I have teenage girls going through exam years at GCSE and A level, and know from our own experience as a family, the pressures and stresses that young people go through. I have recently trained in delivering the .b Foundations course for  school staff through the Mindfulness in Schools Project.

The day was introduced by Professor Katherine Weare, Emeritus Professor at the Universities of Southampton and Exeter, and a freelance consultant. She described mindfulness as the “WD40 of education – it unlocks doors”, and  “helping people to live the lives they want.” Professor Mark Williams, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), gave a wonderfully clear talk about the origins and applications of mindfulness, tracing mindfulness to its roots in the long river of practical philosophy from Asia, through to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s pioneering work in the Stress Reduction Clinic which he founded in 1979 at the University of Massachussets Medical School, and to the emergence  of mindfulness today  in diverse contexts right across the spectrum of society, offering a  life-changing “way of cultivating a sense of changed narrative from self-criticism to self-care that is foundational for being fully human.”

Richard Burnett, Co-founder and Director of the Mindfulness in Schools Project, talked about how the possibility of introducing mindfulness in schools has now shifted from a field of possibility to a dawning growth of massive potential through the introduction  of mindfulness courses into school curriculums ,  through the development of Paws.b and .b  mindfulness courses for junior and secondary schools, and the recent .b Foundations training for school staff. He described  how these courses  offered the evolving  possibility of “putting well-being at the heart of school” and “nurturing staff to nurture children”. He cautioned that mindfulness should not be adopted as a “panacea” and that it would be “token-istic” if a school were not embedded in mindfulness, through the thorough training of staff and the gradual development of a mindful culture within a school, a process that needed time to evolve and to be effective, and to grow in to place through the principles of established practice.

Anthony Selden, the biographer and historian,  then chaired a lively  panel discussion with children and teaching staff of schools where mindfulness has been successfully introduced, with an inspiring and realistic discussion of the challenges of introducing mindfulness to schools and the deep benefits it brings, not only to the  core well-being of staff and  children, but also to  the children in terms of their capacity to handle their emotions, stresses and difficultes through the effective skills that mindfulness practice  gives them for approaching life in general, as well as encouraging a creative response to learning with greater focus, resilience and increased performance ability, confidence, and emotional self-regulation A teacher who had experienced the 8 week course for staff said: “It was really holistic. It helped me with everything I had to deal with”.

The panel discusson was then followed by Tim Loughton MP who had worked on the All Party Paliamentary Group “Mindful Nation Report”, and cautioned that the increasing mental health issues of young people were “at risk of being seen as normal rather than as  a crisis”. He highlighted  mindfulness as “non-stigmatising, practical and popular” and that it wasn’t just a potential add-on in education, but something that needed to be “mainstream at the heart of education” with its researched benefits in supporting” health, creativity and productivity” and that this was “firmly on the radar of government now” as an important innovation in education policy.

A comment that summed up the potential for mindfulness supporting future generations came from a young girl, possibly aged 8 or 9, who sat calmly and quietly on her chair on stage in front of the 700 delegates and listening attentively throughout the long banter and  discussion between panel members. When finally asked how mindfulness helped her in her school day, she  simply replied “it just helps me  to feel calm”.

For further information, go to www. mindfulnessinschools.org.