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Walking retreat - second reflection

Mindfulness - the mindfulness I experienced walking and camping in the hills was different from what I was expecting. This triggered thoughts that I classify under four headings: a.) mindfulness and simplicity. b.) what makes mindfulness helpful? c.) mindfulness & creativity. d.) the value of other altered states. I could write many blogs (and maybe I will) about altered states of consciousness and aspects of ‘inner focus'. The handout ‘Four aspects of inner focus' sketches in one way of subdividing this territory.

a.) Mindfulness and simplicity. It is much easier to work with classic forms of mindfulness practice when one is engaged in relatively simple activities - for example, sitting quietly attending to the breath or the body, or walking simply noting one's environment. Early last year, I and some friends went walking for five days with guides and camels in the Sahara. I didn't have to think about route finding or almost anything else. Hour after hour, in silence, I could simply walk through the desert noting my breath, the movement of my body, the surroundings. Gradually, over days, I quietened more and more. Very special. Extraordinary. Similar to more formal meditation retreats that I've been on where one spends many hours a day just sitting. I'd thought walking alone in the mountains might have similar qualities. It does a bit, but only a bit, for me. Partly this is because I need to pay attention to route, to the unevenness of the ground, to taking responsibility for staying safe and on track. It's a different quality of mindfulness, of paying attention. I don't find it allows me at all easily to sink into such depths of ‘being'. It's fine, but walking alone in a challenging mountain environment is not the same as walking with few responsibilities following guides in a desert.

b.) What makes mindfulness helpful? This paragraph is partly ‘sour grapes' and partly touches on important issues. As I realized that I wasn't going to have a Scottish version of the deeply peaceful Sahara meditation walk, I spent a bit of time thinking about the value of mindfulness. In certain sections of the psychology world, mindfulness has swung from being a concept that was considered too wacky to be given any serious academic attention to an area of interest that is being studied for a whole series of problems - from its value in reducing depressive relapse, to managing chronic pain, to coping with catastrophic illness, to dealing with stress, and so on. In fact the enthusiasm for mindfulness has at times run well ahead of the current evidence base supporting its use. A good article in yesterday's New York Times (Carey 2008) describes the situation well. Like any swinging pendulum, probably the interest in mindfulness will balance out and we'll end with a better informed sense of its value and how it can be integrated well with other important interventions. A further note of caution over mindfulness is the lack of clarity over what it is about mindfulness that actually makes it helpful. This is nicely looked at by Ruth Baer and colleagues in their paper (Baer, Smith et al. 2006) exploring whether mindfulness is better thought of as just ‘one thing' or as ‘several things'. They assessed nearly 900 students and found their results were best explained by seeing mindfulness as made up of five facets which they called Non react, Observe, Act aware, Describe and Non judge. (See the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire and the shortened Three Facet Questionnaire). Fascinatingly the strongest association with reduced psychological distress was demonstrated not by Observe or Act aware, but by the facet of Non judging of one's inner thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness starts to overlap even more with the burgeoning work on self-compassion.

Baer, R. A., G. T. Smith, et al. (2006). "Using self-report assessment methods to explore facets of mindfulness." Assessment 13(1): 27-45. [PubMed]
Carey, B. (2008). Lotus Therapy. New York Times, New York Times Company. [Free Full Text]

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