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Interview: Dr Tamara Russell talks to Jo Childs about The Art of Mindfulness

Dr. Tamara Russell - she takes meditation flash mobs onto Brixton streets, conducts Mindfulness sessions on the Barbican stage, and has been in dialogue with his Holiness the Dalai Lama. A neuroscientist, author, clinical psychologist, martial artist and pioneering Mindfulness expert, Tamara is truly a mixer of worlds, a courageous free thinker transcending the boundaries between the arts, science and beyond. Ahead of the September launch of the new Art of Mindfulness series (secular mindfulness courses and workshops open to all), an exciting collaboration between Tamara and Run Riot Projects, she chats to us about all things Mindfulness: how it can help us shift perspective, boost creativity and experience Art in a whole new way…

Jo Childs: So what is Mindfulness, and how can it help us?
Tamara Russell:
Mindfulness is the ability to know what the mind is actually doing. It is a change in perspective that that gives us more choice and freedom about how we spend our mental energy. When we are fully present - in the body and not lost in mind wandering - we feel different, we react differently, and our whole experience changes.

JC: Why the recent explosion of interest in secular Mindfulness?
One reason is that there a real need in today’s society for something to help us with problems of inattention [1] that many of us now suffer from. Technological advances have in many ways reduced our ability to concentrate, focus and regulate our mental activity, which also affects our ability to regulate our emotions (the attention and emotional systems of the brain are intimately linked). Our great strides in multi-tasking have come at a cost.

People find that mindfulness training helps them to be less distracted - to pay attention, focus and concentrate for longer periods of time.

JC: Isn’t mind wandering a good thing for the imagination though?
Unless you are making a vocational commitment to mindfulness or meditation practices (i.e. becoming a monk!) then I can guarantee that your mind will always wander. You don’t need to be worried that you will lose this mental faculty. Some people think that mind wandering is what happens when people are being creative, and to some extent, ‘day dreaming’ can help us open up the mind and explore beyond the realm of everyday. But now, imagine that you could do this, but with full awareness…able to observe not only your mind wandering, but also all that surrounds it (associations, proliferation, even origins or triggers). This Mindful “bird’s eye view,” gives us access to a much richer, more extensive source of creative material.

JC: So can mindfulness boost our creativity?
Although there are notions that creativity and flow is something that just magically arises and is out of our control, I strongly believe mindfulness training can enhance this process. Mindfulness and the ability to sit with uncomfortable and unpleasant sensations in the body and mind, allows us to go deeper into our own experience, without being afraid. When we can really face the “dark side” without getting overwhelmed (or going mad!), we can discover some real nuggets of human experience. Sometimes working through the fear means we can open up to even more in our lives. Enter the void as we say in Tai Chi!

The other benefit of mindfulness of course, is that you don’t need to wait for creative flow to arrive. It doesn’t have to be something that just “happens” to you. With mindfulness training, you can drop right into this mode of working when you need to, and be better prepared when it does arrive.

For many creative projects, the work needs to unfold slowly over time. Seeing what lies beyond our initial perception is at the heart of mindfulness training. With practice, our refined sensitivity to our mental experience increases, enabling us to go beyond the surface and reach the best part of ourselves. Here, is where we connect more to our common experience of being human – experiences that transcend race, culture, and gender.

JC: Mindfulness can seem at odds with everyday life – what advice would you give anyone considering the practice?
It’s certainly true that much of our modern living is the antithesis of mindfulness, but this in my view, actually makes the whole of our lives perfect for mindfulness practice!  It is only by truly noticing, observing, understanding, and becoming familiar with mindlessness that we can develop skills in mindfulness. Through regular observation, we can really learn to understand how the mind moves between these two states. The first task is to get into the habit of noticing. Once you have developed even a small amount of ability to observe what is really going on (in the body, and in the mind) you have already made a significant change that will alter your experience. Just this process alone can often be enough to shift behaviour into something more skilful and nurturing, more in line with our core values.

In my work, I like to stress that ‘mindfulness’ is not a magical place that we get to when we sit very still and meditate for hours on end. Rather it is a state of being that you can start to develop right now, even in a really small way. This might be making a commitment to be with your next activity (brushing your teeth or walking in the park) in a way that is fully present and engaged. Really noticing.  

Certainly the ability gets better with practice, but you don’t need to wait. It is possible to see changes in your life relatively quickly, if the intention is strong. My strong suggestion to those commencing mindfulness is to be clear about your intention. What do you hope to achieve by engaging with your life in this way? Why are you doing this?  This will help you get over any barriers and keep you moving forwards. I want to help each person find their own unique way of living mindfully, something that works for them.

JC: Do we need to identify with an established spritual dogma to fully engage with the practices?
It is true that the secular mindfulness we are working with today has its origins in Buddhist theory and history, but Mindfulness itself is not Buddhism.

Some people worry that if they start to practice mindfulness that they will inadvertently be converted to Buddhism, but this is really not the case. The Buddhist path is a very specific spiritual practice of self-development with teachings, trainings and practices, completed in a particular order. With secular practices, there is a greater openness to finding what works for you.

I myself am not a Buddhist but my martial arts trainings lean me towards a Taoist stance. Secular Mindfulness feels more like the Taoist approach - a much looser framework that helps us find a way of living with ease and kindness, whatever our circumstances. It is certainly true that the more you practice and engage with the mind, the more the limits of our Western psychological models of mind become apparent. For me, reading around some of the Buddhist literature has been very helpful, as it’s based on centuries of experience engaging with mental experience, and has a lot to say. As someone interested in consciousness, psychology, the brain and mind, it would be silly to not draw on these vast sources of ancient wisdom and information. But this doesn’t mean you have to buy into any dogma. You can find your own way.

JC: What can mindfulness offer the Arts?
Having worked with people in the arts over the years, the first thing that strikes me is that many creative activities are already highly mindful. As practitioners engage with their art of choice they are often in their bodies, in the moment and 100% focused. The training that artists and performers undertake helps them to access these states more and more reliably. However, what is often found lacking is a critical element that Mindfulness training brings – self-compassion and self-care. These professions often require sacrifices (financially, emotionally, and interpersonally), so I believe it’s vital that there is some training available in how to stay emotionally resilient when doing this type of work. Often, there is a lot of “unknowing” (Where is my next job coming from? Will they like my work?). Artists are constantly being judged on the very core of their being…mindfulness can help them to stay centred, grounded and firm even during such difficult moments.  

Mindfulness can also help the artist explore (safely) deeper parts of themselves, which can then be expressed through their work. With mindfulness, we become acutely aware of thoughts, feelings, mental and physical phenomena as they unfold over time, and as they change under different conditions. Our own increased ability to detect these experiences for ourselves means we are more in tune with the reactions and responses of others too. The artist can communicate to audiences from a deeper place through Mindfulness training, which will ultimately affect the quality, depth and impact of their work.  

JC: Can Mindfulness affect how we experience Art?
Mindfulness is ultimately about interconnectivity between individuals. I am very interested in exploring not only how those creating work can use mindfulness to increase their power to communicate, but also how mindfulness can change the experience of those engaging with the work too. Seeing how mindfulness helps us to “listen” in a different way.

Last year I attended an exhibition of work by offenders at the Southbank Centre called the Strength and Vulnerability Bunker. The name itself was quite mindful as it acknowledged both sides of human experience - strength and vulnerability. I fully believe that both sides are necessary to help us grow, and the only way to do this is by acknowledging them equally and without judgement.  

Before entering the exhibition, I completed a short mindfulness practice so that I could fully allow my whole mind and body to experience the work, to really “hear” with my whole being, what was being expressed. The experience was very profound - it felt like the artists were literally reaching out from their cells, through the work and connecting with me – human to human.


JC: How important is neuroscience to our understanding of modern mindfulness?
The rapid increase in the published literature exploring mindfulness and the brain is really amazing. In the teachings and trainings that I run, participants can’t get enough of the neuroscience findings, as it really piques people’s curiosity. There is still an on-going debate in science that is heating up even as we speak about the relationship between 'brain' and 'mind'. We are finding out from studies with expert meditators (i.e. monks) as well as 'normal' people who have undergone different types of meditation and mindfulness trainings, that it really is possible to change your brain through these practices. When people learn about this, they are amazed. They have hope that things can be different and that they can do something about. It’s really empowering.  

Scholar Alan Wallace refers to this as the “voluntary evolution of consciousness” – this ability we have to deliberately choose to work with the amazing mind and brain that we already have, and actually improve it.  

JC: What areas of Mindfulness & neuroscience are you working on right now?
In my academic and clinical work, I am particularly interested in how working with bodily movement can accelerate and enhance mindfulness training, and I have created BMT (Body-in-Mind Training), a unique training framework that uses the moving body as the primary learning tool. I am currently helping to develop a Masters Course in Neuroscience and the Clinical Applications of Mindfulness at King’s College London. This is the first course in the UK to bring the neuroscience understanding of mindfulness together with clinical applications, vital as we start to use more 'brain informed' ways of working with both health and illness.

I have also been working with colleagues in Brazil recently, looking at how meditation training improves the ability to inhibit (or stop) responses in the brain that appear to be automatic [2]. Our studies have shown that meditators are better able to 'pull back' when the mind wants to make an automatic response. This means that we are better able to reduce the effects of mind wandering, and be more selective about our behaviour generally.



JC: What’s your personal experience of Mindfulness practice?
I have been practicing Mindfulness in one form or another now for almost 18 years. I use a mixture of daily practice and then what I call 'extraordinary' practices for particular issues in my life I’m dealing with.

My own daily practice is usually some Kung Fu and Tai Chi, every morning, as far as possible in the park. This is complimented by some seated meditation practices, in a quiet area, in the park or at home.

Throughout my working day, seeing clients, going to meetings, I try to check in with my body as much as possible, allowing space for whatever has arisen in one interaction and clearing the slate for the next person, so I can be fully present with them.

Also I try to be kind to myself, so if for any reason practice is not possible, there are still many ways to connect to mindfulness. Watching some videos on YouTube, listening to online talks, reading books or articles about mindfulness. But practice and theory need to go together though – just reading the books won’t get you there!

I also regularly attend different types of retreats. Some are geared towards using mindfulness in the clinical setting, and others are about specific types of meditation practices. I like to keep exploring and seeing what is out there to expand my knowledge.

JC: Did you struggle to focus at the beginning?
The first long duration practices I did were torturous. I attended a silent retreat for 7 days and kept sneaking off to my room to sleep and checking my watch during each 45 minute sitting practice! It was extremely difficult to sit still. Keeping the mind focused on the task, keeping the intention strong (even on a retreat) was really, really hard. Not only that, when you go deeper into the practice you will find the parts of yourself that you have been trying to hide from. It can be very exposing and upsetting at first. But, if you have that broader intention in mind, then you can get through it.

JC: Any practice advice for beginners?
What I have learnt over the years is that for a beginner, it is hard to imagine that you can find the time to practice (whatever your practice is), whereas for someone who has really begun to embed the practice, it is hard to imagine not finding the time. I also know from painful experience that the time when you have no time or inclination to practice, is likely to be the time you need to practice the most!

I can now really notice how the whole day is different when I have practiced in the morning and how things can rapidly spiral out of control when I don’t. If I can’t get to the park then I have some back-up practices - a mindful shower, a mindful walk to the tube, using the body as the object, or sights and sounds. These are always possible and better than nothing!

A top tip from my teacher that has always been helpful is - if you feel like practicing (and you are able to) just do it!  So you might see me in the middle of Canary Wharf doing a quick bit of Tai Chi before a meeting …when the Chi flows, just go.

JC: Some people may be surprised to learn that you have your own teacher! Tell us more…
Having a teacher or a guide is a really important aspect of this training for me. The mind is a tricky place, full of twists and turns and you will likely come across some barriers that a more experienced practitioner than yourself will be familiar with. I always say that you don’t need to be a Buddhist to learn mindfulness, but it does help to know one – as very often these practitioners have given me some good advice when I have become stuck.

Traditionally, the student teacher relationship has been a critical aspect of this training process but how this looks in the Western secular variant is not yet clear. There’s lots of material out there to help you. If you bring the capacity to engage with the knowledge in a curious and slightly sceptical way, this will stand you in good stead.


JC: A lot of your work involves taking mindfulness into the heart of the community. Tell us more
I love to take mindfulness to the streets and raise awareness in fun and engaging ways. In the Make Brixton Mindful campaign we have used lots of activities to engage the public with mindfulness including meditation flash mobs, mindful walks in the park and even inviting local Police to attend some of the mindfulness sessions.  

In my work as the Director of the Mindfulness Centre of Excellence, I am developing a, 'Dance Mindfulness' project, inspired by my contact with performers trained in Brazilian street arts. This will feature a stage performance alongside street performances activities, taking dancers onto the streets using the moving body to illustrate what happens to the mind under mindful and unmindful conditions.

Dragon Café at Borough is another creative arts projects I have been involved in for several years, consulting on Mindful management processes, training the management and staff in Mindfulness, and offering free drop in sessions to café patrons.

I’ve also been working with boxers through the Fight4Change charity – a great project led by an amazing female boxer and Muay Thai champion Rebecca Donnelly, inspiring young people to consider employment, training and volunteering through a boxing program. I recently ran Mindfulness training programs for some of these young people, weaving together Mindfulness and boxing. I hope they took away some tips on how to stay cool when things get tough!


JC: What’s your vision for the future of mindfulness?
My real hope is that as many people as possible can learn about the potential of this training, and the opportunities they have, in their own hands, to create a positive, healthy and more compassionate life experience. To effect real change, we must start with ourselves but let’s not underestimate how the ripples of mindfulness flow from us, out into our communities. So many students I work with come back to me saying, “My wife commented that I am different” or  “My patients said to me 'What’s happened to you?'” People notice when you start to do something different (“Why isn’t she freaking out?” “How is she staying so calm?”), and become curious.  

However, I also believe that the conditions for change will be created more swiftly if those in charge of the big decisions in society (our politicians and corporate leaders) are mindful. This work is underway with some 70+ politicians in the House of Commons/Lords (also check out the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics) trained in mindfulness and many corporate leaders starting to be curious as they discover that Mindfulness can enhance performance, increase productivity and promote a happier, healthier workforce. The Mindfulness in Schools Project is now starting in the UK, and there are also a growing number of young tech entrepreneurs who are fearlessly beginning to tackle the issue of how mindfulness and technology can interface in a helpful rather than harmful way.

Personally, I am really excited about launching the Art of Mindfulness course with Run Riot Projects. My wish is for participants to explore the tools and teachings and then create their own version of mindfulness, something that fits into their life, right now. There is so much to discover about all aspects of our being when we do this training  (emotional, intellectual, creative and physical life). I love being part of that process of discovery alongside my students and continue to learn from them myself. I love the ingenious ways students weave mindfulness into their lives – there is no “right” way as we forge into this unknown world of secular mindfulness

I remember distinctly during my meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Brazil in 2011 when he said, “There is no time to waste”. This has stayed with me. The time is now, there is no time to waste. We are hurtling towards an epidemic of depression in the West, we have a planet that is dying and the ways humans find to harm each other is heart-breaking. Something needs to be different and as Einstein said, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them". Mindfulness is a way to change our way of thinking, create new possibilities and opportunities, not just for ourselves but for society at large. For me, helping just one person take one small step towards something that vaguely looks like mindfulness is already a success…but what can happen if this really embeds in society?

The Art of Mindfulness
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[1] inattention: when our attention jumps from one thing to another without us even being aware.
[2] Kozasa, E., Sato, J., Lacerada, S., Barreiros, M., Radvany, J., Russell, TA., Sanches, L., Mello, L., & Amaro, Jr., E (2012) Meditation Training increased brain efficiency in an attention task. Neuroimage, 59, 745-749.