Meeting the Professor of Mindfulness

By Geoff Harris

Arguably the biggest trend/fashion in popular psychology over the last decade or so has the rise of ‘mindfulness.’

Many readers will be aware that mindfulness as a discipline and way of treating a range of psychological problems and disorders arose from Buddhist philosophy – particularly the pioneering work of the Vietnamese monk, teacher and global peace prize winner, Thich Nhat Hanh.

Put simply, the emphasis is on being fully present in the moment, and focussing on the here and now, and the current condition of your mind and body, rather than allowing yourself to be carried away by worries and anxious thoughts. Mindfulness took a lot of core ideas from Buddhist meditation and practice but removed a lot of the cultural and religious baggage, so it’s more acceptable to a 21st century audience (there are still many traditional Buddhist meditation schools out there if you want a more traditional approach). Many core Buddhist ideas were developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, whose work had a huge influence on modern counselling techniques. It also links well with popular, long-established therapies such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy).

What is also fascinating is the increasing body of research which suggests that the regular practice of mindfulness and meditation can also help change the structure of the brain in a positive way – a process called, for convenience, neuroplasticity. The jury is still out on this, but to catch up with recent thinking and developments on the benefits of mindfulness and meditation, we meet Willem Kuyen, the first-ever professor of Mindfulness of Oxford University.

Dr Kuyen, to give him his full job title, is the inaugural Sir John Ritblat Family Foundation Professor of Mindfulness and Psychological Sciences and Principal Investigator for the research programme within Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry. His work focuses on depression and evidence-based approaches to depression. In particular, his research examines how mindfulness and mindfulness-based programs can prevent depression and enhance human potential across people’s lifespan.

Speaking generally, what is the current scientific/psychological evidence that regular meditation has a positive effect on the brain? Is there concrete evidence of psychological benefits, or is it all just anecdotal?

The field is still quite young, just 40 years or so. The science in some areas is strong and well developed (e.g. the question of whether mindfulness-based programs are helpful for chronic pain, recurrent depression and addiction) and in other areas is in its infancy – for example, the neuroscience. I’d recommend reading the book called The Science of Meditation by Richie Davidson and Dan Goleman for a review of all the work which has been carried out so far.

In traditional Buddhist meditation, particularly in the Zen tradition, you just let thoughts come and go, rather than, say, meditating on a specific theme or subject. Do you think this practice brings positive benefits generally?

As we explain in our new book, we think there are three main learnings in a mindfulness-based program. First, learning to gather the scattered mind and stabilise our attention. Second, once we’ve done that, we can see things more clearly – it provides a new perspective on our thoughts, feelings and lives. This creates a bit of a space between our experience and how we react, a space that enables us to respond with greater wisdom and care. We have a range of free resources connected to this subject, which people can access here.

Finally, do you think people need to 'go the whole nine yards' so to speak and sign up to a formal and traditional programme of Buddhist meditation, or can they get the same benefits from doing accredited mindfulness training?

My sense there is not one size fits all, different mindfulness practices will be helpful for different people at different times. Nor is mindfulness a panacea, its not for everyone.

Dr Kuyen’s new book is called Mindfulness: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Philosophy and we strongly recommend it to anyone interested in this fascinating topic.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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