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Q&A: Dr Tamara Russell on the Art of Mindfulness and jump-starting creativity

Clinical psychologist, neuroscientist and Mindfulness expert Dr. Tamara Russell PhD. D.Clin. Psych works to bring practical, body-based mindfulness to people of all ages, abilities and walks of life. We spoke to her ahead of the next Art of Mindfulness course coming up in October (supported by King’s College London and Run Riot Projects) to find out how Mindfulness can enhance our daily lives - jump-starting our creativity, and helping us to be compassionate in times of political unrest.

Eli Goldstone: For those who are totally new to mindfulness, how does it help nurture our sense of self?

Dr Tamara Russell: Fundamentally, Mindfulness helps us relate to ourselves differently. A critical aspect of Mindfulness training is learning that when life is not as we want it to be, we often react in ways that make things worse. Practicing Mindfulness doesn’t mean we will stop meeting challenges but it can help change how we relate to these challenges and minimise unhelpful reactivity - making it easier for us to cope. We learn that we can be ok, even when things are not.

Also, when we practice Mindfulness we are also training a non-judgemental quality of awareness. The tendency to judge ourselves harshly seems endemic in our western culture. Many of us could benefit from a training that helps us be less harsh with ourselves. It seems our cultural conditioning is to be critical and perfectionist. Being more non-judgemental does not mean we don’t care or achieve the results we want, but just check how many times you beat yourself up within an average week and consider...is this actually helping me right now? When we are less judgemental we can see things as they really are. We can make decisions that are more in line with our true needs and values.

Eli: Can you talk about the evolution of secular mindfulness over the past year?

Tamara: What’s referred to as ‘secular’ mindfulness is penetrating many areas of life. The work from the Mindfulness All Party Parliamentary Group [1] continues with different working parties exploring what is possible (and desirable) across various sections of society. Many more companies are integrating mindfulness into their staff wellbeing programs and people are accessing mindfulness in a variety of ways, from workshops, books and apps to longer courses.

The neuroscientific work into Mindfulness also continues at a rapid rate – it’s actually quite hard to keep up with all the research! Reports suggest that we can train the brain using mindfulness in the same way that we can grow regions of the brain via repeated practice of a physical movement, such as control of fingers following extensive practice on the violin or piano.

One region of the brain called the Anterior Cingulate involved in attentional focus and conflict management seems to be particularly affected by Mindfulness training. It’s great we can grow this region as we know it’s shrinking due to our distracted modern lifestyle [2]. I wonder if the thirst for mindfulness in part is due to the recognition that we are losing our attention space?

Eli: Mindfulness and creativity are inextricably linked but is the process more important than the result?

Tamara: There is on-going debate about the link between mindfulness and creativity and there is a strong overlap between some aspects of Mindfulness training and the creative process. Neuroscience research tells us that a mindful-moment requires paying attention to the present, often using bodily sensations and, in my work, movement. When we notice that the focus on the present has been lost and our mind is wandering the task is to first notice, and then, without judging, come back to the task (present moment).

Creative training often asks for a high degree of present moment focus. This could be on the body, or on a piece of artwork. It requires the ability to get over any judging or critical thoughts that might arise during the process. If we understand from the neurocognitive model of Mindfulness that we need to attend to the present moment, without judgement or expectation, then this is certainly often happening during some creative practices. What’s different however is the intent. When the intent is creativity and the production of a piece of work rather than exploration of the self and training of the mind – these processes are happening implicitly. This is different from the explicit intention to train your present moment awareness using Mindfulness. The special qualities of non-reactivity and non-judgmental awareness that we are deliberately training through Mindfulness may not be so overtly developed in creative activities.

Eli: Does mindfulness require a lot of commitment?

Tamara: The simple answer is...what is your intention? If you want to transform your mind through this practice, then yes, this is a lifelong endeavour. You are advised to commit to formal, regular training with a teacher or more experienced person to guide you at various stages. If you want to use mindfulness as a way of reducing stress for example, then you may be able to get the effects you desire with an app, online course or shorter workshop. Some people have what we call high dispositional mindfulness, they are already quite aware and non-reactive. For these individuals a bit of fine-tuning of the specific qualities of awareness is enough to set them off. For others, the process may take a bit longer.

Fundamentally, we are training and changing our brains with these practices. Just like getting physically fit - you can dabble, or you can train to an Olympic level. Your intentions and motivation will determine how far you go and which method of training is suitable for your needs. Mindfulness is not a quick fix – so to do the deeper work you are definitely going to need to make a concerted effort to work with your mind, to be courageous and open to what you find.

Eli: What are your favourite places in London to go in order to feel connected with yourself and the city?

Tamara: My favourite places in London are the parks. I find that doing my tai chi and meditation practice in nature really helps me to be present and recognise how things change. Situations that are “bad” will change, so will those that are “good”. Watching the leaves of the trees change over the seasons is a great reminder of this.

I also love places where water flows. Fountains can provide a very helpful sound to use for a ‘Mindfulness of Sounds’ practice! I love listening to fountains and particularly like the water feature next to the Mayor’s office on the south bank. With the views of Tower Bridge there is also a real sense of continuity and history. As the water flows under Tower Bridge I am reminded of all the people over history who have used this river, travelled in and out of London, and the continuity of human experience and emotions. All the people who have passed over and under that bridge throughout history have experienced their emotional life in the body, just as we do – the same sadness, fear, anger and joy. What they were sad or joyful about was probably different, but the experience of the emotion – the same.

Eli: Can mindfulness be helpful in educational settings?

Tamara: Absolutely! The work of the Mindfulness in Schools Project is pioneering in this area. A huge study funded by the Wellcome Trust will look at how mindfulness training can help our young people, measuring not only psychological outcomes but also using neuroimaging to look at what changes in the brain. A number of reviews are pointing with cautious optimism to the fact that mindfulness training can help build resilience in young people. This is really needed as teachers are reporting that young people are being so stifled by the need to achieve and be perfect, something that is paralysing their natural curiosity and creativity. They are so terrified of failing that they are constantly monitoring and judging themselves.

I’ve been developing a course for medical students at King’s College London with a colleague Dr. Derek Chase. Derek has worked with medical students over several decades and has seen the extreme suffering caused by the high expectations these students have of themselves. Helping them to see that it’s OK to make mistakes; that it’s OK to get it wrong; that they are in fact learning when this happens, is critical to the work we’re doing. We refer them to a great TED talk by Brian Goldman called: “Even Doctors make mistakes …can we talk about that?’’. We really encourage them to share in the group all the things that went ‘wrong’ – as these are in fact the real places they can learn.

Eli: There are more Art of Mindfulness workshops and a course coming up this Autumn, can you give interested readers an idea of what to expect from these?

Tamara: Yes, we’re excited to be running more day workshops and another 5-session course supported by Run Riot Projects and King’s College London – taking place at a great new location on the Strand, beside Somerset House. These are opportunities for those curious about Mindfulness who are willing to commit a little time and effort to finding out more. For those wanting to go a little deeper and approach their training from a different perspective they offer a chance for a period of committed practice with the support of a group to boost existing knowledge or skills.

Our unique teaching approach is very practical. We go deep into the neuroscience behind Mindfulness, helping participants to understand what their brains are doing as they train. But most notably, we use the moving body as one of the primary learning tools. More and more studies suggest that working with movement may be a more effective way to help people manage stress, stay physically healthy and train their mindfulness. To me, it makes so much sense to work body and mind at the same time.

In all our courses it is likely that you’ll experience some surprises and challenges. If you don’t, then you won’t really be learning anything. The group provides a space to be a bit confused, a bit unsure, but learning how to stay in, and use this space to develop Mindful awareness skills. Those in the creative fields know the power of staying with ‘not knowing’. Of course, this is a skill we need at the moment with all the changes happening in our society on a national and global scale.

This more challenging aspect of the training can sometimes be a bit of a surprise to those who think that mindfulness is, “just about relaxing”. While we know that we can get a sense of relaxation when the mind is less cluttered with habitual thinking, mindfulness is most powerful and helpful in moments when we are NOT relaxed, when we are challenged, disappointed or confused. So, come and learn to embrace these moments and really learn something new about yourself.

Eli: The current political climate could make people feel alienated or oppressed by forces beyond their control, how can mindfulness engage with those feelings?

Tamara: In light of recent political events I believe there is even more need for mindfulness. It has been particularly apparent how the nature of reactivity, judgement and fearful future oriented projections only serve to take us away from the present moment and the ability to look clearly at what’s happening and what’s needed in society. Now is the time we need to connect more on an emotional level to really understand how suffering and disconnection can perhaps lead people to act in ways that seem unskilful. It’s very easy to be mindful and non-judgemental dealing with those who think and feel the same as us. It’s much harder to do so when others are not thinking in line with our beliefs. And yet this is the very moment when we need to ask more questions, pay more attention and take the time to understand our common human experience.

Although it can be scary, these are actually the most fertile times – all the cards have been thrown up into the air – and who knows where they will land? If we are reacting we can’t choose. If we are mindful, recognise the suffering and yet still able to check back in with our bigger intentions… anything is possible.

Art of Mindfulness
The Art of Mindfulness is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to inspiring Mindfulness in everyday life through a creative program of courses, workshops, live events and other artistic projects. artofmindfulness.org

Art of Mindfulness Course and Workshops coming up:

Art of Mindfulness with Dr. Tamara Russell
5-session mindfulness course

7.15 - 9.45pm , Tuesday evenings
25 Oct - 6 Dec | All levels
Anatomy Museum
King's College London

Strand Campus
London WC2R 2LS
Info and booking here

Art of Mindfulness with Dr. Tamara Russell
Mindful Movement Workshop

1-5pm, Saturday, 12 November | All levels
Anatomy Museum
King's College London

Strand Campus
London WC2R 2LS
Info and booking here

Art of Mindfulness with Dr. Tamara Russell
Mind Wandering Workshop

1-5pm, Saturday, 3 December | All levels
Anatomy Museum
King's College London

Strand Campus
London WC2R 2LS
Info and booking here

 

Dr. Tamara Russell Phd, D.Clin Psych
Dr. Tamara Russell Phd, D.Clin Psych is a clinical psychologist, neuroscientist, leading Mindfulness trainer and author of, ‘Mindfulness in Motion'. Dr. Tamara is visiting lecturer at King's College London, has been in dialogue with his Holiness the Dalai Lama, and speaks regularly on mindfulness around the globe, appearing on stage, television and radio. drtamararussell.com

Tamara’s book ‘Mindfulness in Motion: Healthier Life Through Body-Centred Meditation’ is available in all good bookshops and online.

'Mindfulness in Motion' – ‘This is by far the clearest book on Mindful movement and just reading it puts you in the moment, it’s wonderful’ Ruby Wax


[1] Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group. Mindful Nation UK. The Mindfulness All-Party Parlamentary Group. 2014.

[2] Loh KK, Kanai R (2014) Higher Media Multi-Tasking Activity Is Associated with Smaller Gray-Matter Density in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex. PLoS ONE 9(9): e106698. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0106698

[3] Modinos G, Ormel J, Aleman A. Individual differences in dispositional mindfulness and brain activity involved in reappraisal of emotion. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2010;5(4):369–77.