Student on a performing arts course (Mindfulness for Students 2015)

Personal Meditation Journey

I had practiced yoga regularly for most of my adult life off and on, starting with the weird line diagrams from Teach Yourself Yoga at a time when no-one I knew was at all interested. I have no idea why it attracted me but I approached it as a form of physical exercise, and the striving and competitive way I tackled it is about as far from mindfulness as it is possible to get. I was totally impatient with the breathing and relaxation, just wanting to get to headstands. However, despite myself, I found the classes had calming and somewhat "other worldly" effects. At one point I wandered into a Buddhist meditation class and spent an hour doing metta practice (I now realize), which led to an extraordinary, blissful—and, it transpired, sadly one-off—transcendental experience of feeling at one with all beings for much of the following day. I thus had meditation on my bucket list, aware that my driven, perfectionist, and somewhat overbearing personality would benefit from some kind of antidote, but one day, not yet.

In 2002, in the middle of a successful academic career and a thriving social and personal life, I hit the buffers—as so many people do. My husband and I had adopted a family of three children who were eight, seven, and three—blithely imagining our competent personas would enable us to rise above the gloomy prognostications and produce a happy, balanced family of (possibly grateful!) children. Laughable in retrospect, and the stress of the reality of dealing with early trauma and the sequelae of attachment disorder and mental health problems (in all five of us) was almost certainly what led to the development of a mysterious and barely understood autoimmune condition. This condition, complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), is pretty well impervious to any treatment or even painkillers, prevented me from walking, was constantly and excruciatingly painful, and was spreading. In the depths of suicidal despair, in the face of a problem no-one could "fix," I was directed to mindfulness by a pain specialist, who himself had no experience of it but had heard it was helpful. I tracked down a local and wonderful calm, patient teacher, Mark Bowden, and began the journey into mindfulness—starting with one-to-one sessions—which saved my life, and did so much else.

My day one discovery was the extraordinary ball of physical tension that constituted my body, followed by the dawning realization that I had been driving myself and the rest of my family into the ground with unsurfaced neuroses from my Catholic childhood and deep-rooted mind-states of shame, guilt, self-dislike, and striving. In the face of gentle mindfulness practice, the pain and the CRPS condition started subsiding fairly quickly to become manageable, and have diminished steadily since so that now they are hardly present. I experienced the "eight-week course" several times over, and resigned from my post at the university to focus on my personal life, as all this was far more compelling than becoming Dean of the Faculty. I enrolled in the University of Exeter's postgraduate diploma in Mindfulness-based Approaches to train as a mindfulness teacher.

Since then I have taught and practiced mindfulness "as best I can" in a wide variety of settings. My professional life has revived but now with mindfulness integrated into it (my specialty is child well-being and social and emotional learning, so the links are pretty obvious). Trained at the University of Exeter, I am working to develop teaching and research on mindfulness in schools in various contexts and to move it into public consciousness. In the course of this work I have been fortunate to work alongside some extraordinary people, in academia, in schools, and in the contemplative world. They include my fellow Exeter students, now colleagues, and particularly the redoubtable Willem Kuyken, Professor at the University of Oxford and role model of the mindful approach to a huge workload and the longed-for ability to write cryptic e-mails. Also the phenomenal minds and authentic presence behind the UK mindfulness in schools program, Chris Cullen and Richard Burnett. Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village monastics, who are the sanest people I have met. The quiet wisdom of the staff from Mind and Life, such as Arthur Zajonc, and the talented people their meetings attract, such as the brilliantly gritty Guy Claxton. I sit with the effort to find them all inspirational, but noting my "imposter complex" arising constantly.

It is not all nirvana. I struggle with deep aspects of my own shame and guilt, which come to greet me on the cushion, especially during lengthy retreats, my impulsiveness, and my ingrained tendency to turn everything into smart-ass words. I try to use mindfulness myself, to help my children and arrive in a state of calmness. And mostly I manage it, in the face of some extraordinary difficulties, although sometimes the attunement and openness of mindfulness goes the other way and I find myself being drawn into their trauma, self-dislike, and brain fog, with which my mind can easily resonate. I remind myself that writing about and talking about mindfulness do not in themselves constitute mindfulness, and you do actually have to do the daily practice if you are to be able to live it. I remind myself that mindfulness is not the universal panacea, that it will not in itself make you thinner, fitter, and on top of your workload; that it can alienate friends if it turns to smugness; and that it works best if part of a balanced life. The best single piece of advice I have is from the calligraphy from Thich Nhat Hanh on the wall over my bed—smile and breathe—and if I do nothing else in the day that is at least the way it starts.

 
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