Let’s Talk About…. Mindfulness

“Slowly… take the raisin to your mouth. Notice your arm knows where your mouth is. Place the raisin on your tongue. Don’t bite.”

Shit, too late. I bit the raisin. Damn it.

“Explore the sensation. Perhaps the raisin goes to one side or the other. Notice your saliva.”

I’m noticing, I’m noticing. I’m so bored I’m squirting it through my teeth.

I hear the sound of a proto-snort beside me. He’s holding his breath. He’s about to erupt.

I open quarter of an eye. That’s not allowed.

Ha! He’s doing the same. Sneaky!

We lock eyes and he pops a raisin half-way out his mouth.

That’s it. The pair of us are helpless, rolling around on the floor in fits of childish laughter, unable to stop. It’s all too much. I’m choking on a half-chewed raisin.

We are ejected from the mandatory antenatal mindfulness class.

A chagrin midwife chides me.

“Are you sure you’re ready for this baby, Dr Lloyd?”

If you hadn’t heard of mindfulness before the pandemic, you are bound to have been sold this solution to life, the universe and everything by now.

People from different religious, cultural and philosophical background have expounded the benefits of meditation for years.

The practice of mindfulness, ‘paying attention to our experience in a non-judgemental, accepting way’ – promises to help us escape the tyranny of our thoughts, boosting our mood, performance and health along the way. Excellent!

Mindfulness has made it to the mainstream, a multi-million-pound business with shiny corporate courses, online tasters and thousands of apps available to download to your smartphone. It’s prescribed by doctors, being sold to schools as a solution to the deteriorating mental health of our children, to employers as a solution to increase productivity and reduce absence rates. It’s our way out of COVID 19, don’t you know. We’ll meditate ourselves into a healthier, post pandemic society.

I can’t help feeling these are grand expectations of a raisin.

I also feel a little cheated. The core assumption is that suffering is rooted within us, rather than in the inherently unequal, unjust, political and economic frameworks that govern our lives. Have we learned nothing about how unfairly COVID has treated the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ over the past eighteen months? Do we not demand something radically different rather than meditate ourselves through the injustice?

As an example, the Headspace app (brainchild of Los Angeles-based mindfulness company, Headspace) has been downloaded more than 62 million times in 190 countries, with hundreds of companies using it to help ‘manage mental health’ in the workplace.

Why wouldn’t they? It’s a cheap way of avoiding the fundamental causes of stress at work: lack of training and proper signposting/referral; workload pressures; institutional bullying, stigma, discrimination; issues of leadership, culture and empowerment; lack of decent mental health at work policy and practice.

But not particularly effective when you consider that 94% of people stop using mental health apps after 15 days (when they don’t seem to be working).

Turns out raisins are cheap, but no substitute for mentally healthy workplaces and properly resourced mental health services.

Raisins are really shit at listening to us, validating our feelings and instilling hope which is what most of us need after eighteen months of fear, uncertainty and loss (of loved ones, of income, of routine, of pleasure, of freedom).

The Science Bit

Does mindfulness have any benefits?

That’s a difficult question to answer as no-one has properly defined what mindfulness is.

An analysis of 136 trials including more than 11,000 participants published earlier this year found that mindfulness interventions are generally helpful for anxiety, distress and negative mood, with small to moderate effects. That’s a good thing. It offers alternatives/additionality to drug treatments and talking therapies.

Introspection doesn’t suit everybody however. It’s estimated that around 1 in 12 people have a negative response including heightened anxiety, panic and low mood. In rare cases it appears to have precipitated a psychotic episode. Sometimes bits of our brains are closed down for a reason.

Self-help apps appear less efficacious than peer/trainer supported sessions, although not all apps are the same. A 2015 review found that out of the hundreds of mindful apps available, less than 5% offer interventions of any quality.

The consensus seems to be that mindfulness can be useful, but that the effects aren’t necessarily greater than those of other proven treatments. There is also considerable variation in how people respond, for reasons that we don’t yet understand. Possibly unsuited to people who laugh when they shouldn’t and who find raisins amusing.

My antenatal mindfulness experience was 18 years ago.

My son is now about to start medical school himself. I suspect he achieved greatness (as well as a drive to care about people and change the world) despite his wayward parents, rather than because of them.

When he’s asked to mouth a raisin to help him cope with the rigours of hospital life, I suspect he too will laugh and point at rising demand, health inequalities and poverty, capitalism and chronic underfunding of the NHS – probably far more eloquently than his mother ever did.

I let him read this blog. His response?

“Nice that you’ve written an article that’s quite so currant.”

Gautama Buddha say, “The wrinklier the raisin, the sweeter the fruit.”

For anyone interested in finding out more about mindfulness, please look up my good friend and colleague Martin Stepek, a gentleman, poet, philosopher and one of the leading lights of mindfulness in Scotland.  www.tenforzen.co.uk

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