By blog user, posted on 8th February 2013
The following is an interview with an audience member of Professor Mark Williams’ recent talk on Mindfulness at Blackwells. Professor Mark Williams is a Wellcome Principal Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, and Professor of Clinical Psychology.
What made you decide to attend the talk?
I’ve been to Blackwells author talks before and always found them interesting even when I wasn’t familiar with the subject so I tend to keep an eye on their events page. I spotted the Mindfulness talk listed on the page and was particularly intrigued by the description of the talk because it mentioned that the technique could be helpful not just for depression but “for people who are not depressed but who are struggling to keep up with the constant demands of the modern world”. I had recently been suffering from an ache in my jaw that the doctor diagnosed as being caused by this very thing – essentially just being very busy had caused me to habitually tense my jaw and 12 months of this had resulted in an insistent pain. I was also intrigued by the technique as I had experienced depression in the past too, although thankfully it was never bad enough that I sought treatment for it.
I also mentioned it to my sister who has studied Psychology and has counsellor training and she encouraged me to go as she has heard of the technique being useful for various things and explained that it was now used in schools too, which reassured me that it was well-respected.
What were you hoping to get out of it/take away from the talk?
I’m quite sceptical so I didn’t really expect that learning about the technique would be life-changing and wasn’t even convinced I’d find it useful, but as it sounded like it was a respected technique I was curious enough to want to find out more. I was hoping that it might be helpful for the pain I’ve been experiencing.
Having attended the talk can you explain the concept of Mindfulness?
Professor Williams explained that the technique originated with a friend of his, his co-author Danny Penman, who was in a paragliding accident and ended up stranded on a Cotswold hillside in agonising pain. He had been taught a simple meditation technique at school to cope with exam stress, involving breathing in and out, focussing on the breath and envisioning being away from his current situation. The process worked and helped him to cope with the long wait for help, and then with the lengthy recovery process after his surgery. Professor Williams has finessed the technique into an 8-week program where patients follow his instructions for meditation and slowly build up the length of time that they are able to meditate for. Professor Williams stressed that the technique was not about attaining an altered state of consciousness but simply about centring and focussing oneself in order to cope with whatever difficulty, stress, or depressive state you’re encountering.
To be honest Professor Williams only had an hour to explain the technique and although he went through a couple of simple exercises with us it was difficult to really see exactly how this technique translated into coping with depression. I suspect that I would have to read one of his books, or go on the course, to fully appreciate this. He was also very honest about the fact that it doesn’t work for everyone, or that for those with depression it may have to be used in conjunction with medication, and also, as with everything, you have to want it to work and be willing to spend the time to learn the technique properly.
You can find out more about the concept of Mindfulness on the Oxford Mindfulness Centre website: http://oxfordmindfulness.org/about-mindfulness/.
What did you think about the talk more generally? What did you find helpful or not helpful, for instance?
I definitely enjoyed the talk and was glad I’d attended. Blackwells author talks are very reasonably priced and it’s always a nice atmosphere; as there were so many people in the audience (the most well-attended talk I’ve ever been to there!) it was held in the Norrington Room which was a lovely venue to be sitting in for an hour.
Professor Williams was an engaging speaker and peppered his talk with funny anecdotes and examples to support what he was saying. Despite facing a very large audience he came across as friendly and informal. I could appreciate why he was so good at teaching the technique as he had a very calming presence and wasn’t at all pushy or prescriptive. As I said I was sceptical and suspected claims of a ‘cure all’ technique, but he was pretty honest about the technique and also seemed authoritative and academic when he was speaking. He took questions from the audience at the end and was very patient and provided good answers to even the most obscure queries!
Having said that I wasn’t completely persuaded by his technique. I can see that, given time and practice, the simple meditation exercise would be a good relaxation tool, and I do plan to keep trying it to see if it can help with my habit of tensing up when I’m busy. However, he obviously only explained it in very simple terms and from that hour-long talk alone it was hard to see how it could help people with severe depression or pain. In his answer to one of the questions at the end he explained that the technique was best learnt when the person was feeling stable – recovering from depression, rather than being in the midst of it. This suggests to me that it is most useful as a preventative measure, rather than an active cure. He also, when introducing the technique, made some slightly sweeping statements about people not living in the moment and explained that this technique teaches us that. I can’t say that I necessarily identified with this problem and was a little put off by his assumptions. However, I can appreciate that some people would identify and would therefore be reassured by his empathy with this problem.
The fact that there was such a large number of people at the talk was testament to the fact that it is popular, and it has been proven to work for some people. I suspect that the 8-week course would involve taking the technique further and using visualisation, which Professor Williams only touched upon in the talk. I attended the talk with two friends and we all agreed that we would like to find out more, but weren’t convinced by all of his claims. I will, however, persist with trying out the meditation as it seems like a good thing to do, and I think taking focussed time out, of any form, does help with coping with a busy life.
That was very interesting – thank you!