Tag Archives: mindfulness

Backlash against mindfulness

Mindfulness has been written about loads in the last few years. From some of the articles you’d think it was a magical cure all, and perhaps inevitably, it seems to me that recently the worm has turned, and people have got bored, or irritated, with mindfulness.

Only a few weeks ago I was interviewed by a CQC inspector who rolled his eyes when I said that I ran a mindfulness group on the ward where I work. He was fed up of hearing about mindfulness, which reminded my of this piece a few weeks back by Eva Wiseman, on how she’s had enough of mindfulness colouring books being sent to her. To me, the backlash is interesting for a few reasons:


  1. Reasons behind the backlash. The pattern here feels familiar to me – setting something up to be brilliant then rubbishing it, when the reality is somewhere in the middle (as the evidence base suggests).
  2. The experience. The boredom and irritability that people describe feeling about mindfulness actually reminds me a bit of what it’s like to sit and practice mindfulness sometimes. It isn’t about having a blank mind, it’s about having your mind as usual, watching your mind do its thing, which often is boring, or annoying, and not always calm and peaceful.
  3. The idea of mindfulness having grand claims. Mindfulness itself has never claimed anything – it just is. It isn’t mindfulness practice that has big promises, marketing strategies and glossy packaging. That’s what we, as people, do with it. Mindfulness is just being in the here and now, instead of getting caught up in the past or the future.
  4. Mindfulness aids. You can use a colouring book to do it but you don’t have to. There are a growing number of mindfulness resources, like these books, available, and they are not for everyone, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to use new ways to help people meditate.

One group who are brilliant at explaining mindfulness to children using clever resources (and no colouring books) are the mindfulness in schools project. They use this clip from kung fu panda to explain what mindfulness is. Check it out if you want to see what Ugway is talking about.

If you aren’t bored or irritated by the idea and you want to give it a go then you could try the ubiquitous Headspace app or Mark Williams‘ down to earth introductory book: Finding Peace in a Frantic World.

Mindfulness might not be a panacea, and it might be boring sometimes, but I’d still really recommend it.

Why is our inner critic often so harsh? And what can we do about it?

I saw the film Birdman recently, where Michael Keaton’s critical alter ego looms so large as to become quite corporeal (and visually reminiscent of the amazing wings in the Digital Revolution exhibition described below). It got me thinking about the idea of the inner critic, how difficult inner criticism can be to live with, and what solutions contemporary talking therapies have to offer us.

An inner critical voice or a bent towards perfectionism can be helpful in some situations, to make us try to perform better, to keep us trying to improve… but it can get out of control so easily. This type of critical inner voice is a very human feature, and one which is sometimes linked to impostor syndrome, or many clinical diagnoses such as depression and anxiety.

Image by Professor Joseph Ciarrochi www.acceptandchange.com

Image by Professor Joseph Ciarrochi http://www.acceptandchange.com

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a type of talking therapy with some really helpful ideas around managing a rampant inner critic. ACT is one of the ‘third wave’ cognitive behavioural approaches, more recent than CBT but drawing on some similar foundations. “ACT focuses on helping people to live more guided by their personal values, rather than their fear,” says Eric Morris, clinical psychologist, ACT expert and Director of the La Trobe University Psychology Clinic, Australia. “ACT is a practical approach – encouraging you to consciously choose and act – and to learn from your own experience.”

ACT encourages us to try to identify key values we want to live our lives by, and use these as motivations for what we do, rather than listening to the negative chatter of an inner critical voice. So instead of listening when our inner monologue says things like: “don’t bother trying, you’ll just make a fool of yourself, everyone will realise you’re crap”, ACT would encourage us to notice these thoughts but not change our actions because of them.

But why is all this criticism there in the first place? Is it normal? Eric thinks it is – that it relates to part of what has made us evolve to be such a dominant species – our human ability to think, to problem solve, and to be influenced by ideas from other people. “Our ability as a species to use language is both a blessing and a curse.” says Eric. “This is tremendously advantageous, as we can share knowledge and build upon it. However, this ability also means that our judgemental minds can turn toward ourselves, and do comparisons, engage in unhelpful problem-solving, make dire predictions etc. It is the price of having a mind!”

Our minds have evolved to be good at spotting potential problems because of developing in a world where we weren’t always safe, and where we needed to be clever to spot danger and avoid predators. This contrasts with the situation most of us are in now. “Many of us live in environments where we are pretty safe, while also having these minds that are still focused on checking for threats,” says Eric. “Because of the many advantages of “being in our heads”, we can be a little blind to discovering when it is useful to pay attention to your mind, and when it is useful to be guided by your direct experience, here and now.”

Easier said than done right? Try these six suggestions from ACT to try to sideline your inner critic.

  1. Remember this advice from Eric: “The inner critic is there, because you have a mind that likes problem-solving and judging everything, including you. The trick is to consider this as just your mind doing it’s thing, and that you don’t have to follow it.”
  2. Eric suggests trying to view all the different inner voices you have a bit like advisors: “It’s like you are the President of a country – the United States of You! – and all these different parts of yourself – the optimist, the pessimist, the father, the daughter, the music-lover, the critic – are like government advisers.” Instead of only listening to the loud and bossy voices, we can try to listen out for other points of view as well.
  3. ACT encourages us to try not treat critical thoughts as a problem (your inner critic can also criticise itself!), but instead to gently notice them, be curious about them, appreciate them as part of your ability to problem-solve. “Your inner critic is along for the ride,” says Eric “you don’t need to worry that it will disappear – you can use that perspective when it is useful, as well as notice and connect with life as it is being lived.”
  4. Forget trying to ‘fix your mind’ or push away critical thoughts (they often get louder).
  5. Try to practice noticing what your mind is doing, like an observer, watching your thoughts without having to get caught up in them. Mindfulness is fab for practising this.
  6. Identify your key values, the ones you want your life to stand for, and try to call these to mind when you’re making decisions about what to do or how to behave. Use these as a compass instead of immediately doing what your inner critic would suggest. 

“This is not to say that life will get easier,” says Eric. “However it may get more meaningful.”

Eric Morris is co-author of ACTivate Your Life: Using Acceptance and Mindfulness to Build a Life that is Rich, Fulfilling and Fun, to be published by Constable & Robinson in February 2015.

‘Slow Science’ manifesto argues science should take its time

A mysterious webpage has caught my eye in the last couple of weeks. Slow science.

A one-page website, it contains simply a manifesto, beginning with the paragraph: “we are scientists. We don’t blog. We don’t twitter. We take our time.” And ending with the phrase: “bear with us while we think”.

I initially felt irritated by Slow Science’s post. I wasn’t sure what it was protesting against and I thought it was negging science communication. I don’t see anything wrong with scientists blogging and tweeting about what they are up to, in fact I think it helps people understand and engage with science. But I don’t think Slow Science is trying to argue against communicating science clearly. I think it is trying to argue something broader about science being allowed to take its time to come to conclusions rather than being pressured into discovering something quickly.

It called to mind an interview I watched recently, at the Guardian masterclass on science writing, where Alok Jha asked various scientists about what the point had been of finding out about the Human Genome. One of the questions he asked was something about what benefit this had had, after all the billions of pounds that had been spent.

A fair question. And also one which we can’t answer yet. Perhaps we should be evaluating science in terms of its wider benefits, especially when it costs so much. But maybe there is also something valuable about the search of knowledge for its own sake. Studying without necessarily knowing the longer term benefits allows for the fortuitous tying together sometimes, of tiny bits of theory and evidence which on their own mean nothing but which woven together make a life-changing difference.

Slow science’s manifesto reminds me of mindfulness, the practice of being in the here and now rather than trying to rewind to the past, or more pertinently for this, fast forward to the conclusion. Perhaps Slow Science is also Mindful Science.


Amazing pictures of snowflakes

Matthias Lenke's pictures of snowflakes give you a different perspective on the world

Matthias Lenke’s pictures of snowflakes give you a different perspective on the world

The recent death of Sir Patrick Moore, along with his magnificent eyebrows and his passionate enthusiasm for the stars, got me thinking about perspectives on the world. We seem to love looking at things that are either much bigger or much smaller than us.

Maybe playing with perspective: looking up at a far-reaching sky or looking down through a lens at something tiny but close-up, helps us to get our thoughts and feelings in perspective too.

Or maybe the surprise of seeing something so differently from our everyday viewpoint encourages us to be in the moment instead of being caught up in our own train of thoughts about the past or the future.

Either way, these pictures of snowflakes from the art and design blog Colossal are pretty amazing.