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Changing Minds, the Arts and Mindfulness. Interview with Dr Tamara Russell

In February the Southbank Centre launch Changing Minds - a new weekend festival about mental health and the arts.

As part of the programme, Dr Tamara Russell, clinical psychologist, and leading mindfulness trainer from the Art of Mindfulness will be on a panel discussing contemporary mindfulness.

Can this ancient Buddhist practice be just as effective as modern medicine? Can mental health and artistic endeavour benefit from the increased awareness, clarity and acceptance that mindfulness can nurture?

Ahead of the festival, we caught up with Tamara to delve into this - plus we dived deeper, exploring her area of expertise: mindful movement.

For those of you curious to experience mindfulness with Tamara in person, we’ve listed below details on Changing Minds, plus the Art of Mindfulness 5-week course, and a new 4-hour workshop on mindful movement.

But first, right here, right now - enjoy this informative and candid interview with Tamara. Word of advise - keep your ‘Judging Monkey’ in check!

Affly Johnson: In modern medicine the treatment of mental health issues commonly combines oral medicines, talking therapies and self-help. How does mindfulness differ from these approaches?
Tamara Russell:
Mindfulness has been referred to by some as a type of medicine and a growing body of research indicates that training in mindfulness helps individuals with a huge variety of mental and physical health complaints. The majority of the evidence focuses on chronic pain and recurrent depression, but studies with other clinical complaints have also showed promising results.

While the practice of mindfulness itself does not introduce any external chemical “medicine” to change how we are thinking or feeling, there is evidence that repeated, intentional, self-directed attention to mental and physical experiences alters both our neurophysiology (the structure and function of the brain structure) and physiology in the body (altering gene transcription, hormone production, and the production of important chemicals used by the immune system). From this, it is clear that we can use our minds to help us heal, or at least be a part of the healing process.

Medicine, talking therapies and self-help are all offered to those who are struggling with mental health difficulties. There is not enough treatment available to those who seek it (let alone those who are suffering but not yet engaged with services or just “making do”). It is also important to give people choice as to what treatment works for them, and, in the case of recurrent depression, there is a need for therapies that can help those who have not been helped in other ways. Mindfulness training initially had this aim, as a treatment for those who had not found relief from more mainstream therapies (such as antidepressants, cognitive behavioural therapy).  

Affly: Can Mindfulness be combined with Western medicine or is it a stand-alone cure?
Every individual has a choice about how they approach their health.  The key questions is “is this working for me and moving me in the direction of how I want to live?”. Working with individuals with more severe mental health conditions such as bipolar or schizophrenia there is no doubt that medication can help them to cope with the acute phases of the illness. When individuals are highly distressed and agitated, this is not the time to start learning mindfulness. It’s a bit like asking someone to run a marathon without doing any training at all. However, in a period of remission or when things are more stable, learning mindfulness is a great way to increase self-awareness, begin to learn the signature of different emotions in the body and know how they arise and fall and are linked to certain patterns of thinking. These insights will certainly bear fruit in the future when the inevitable stressors of life can derail a vulnerable individual.  

Does it stop a mental health crisis? Not necessarily, but in my experience the person might be able to catch a downward spiral that bit earlier, might seek help in a more appropriate and less damaging way, and the duration/intensity of the episode can be shorter. One individual who completed training with me who has a diagnosis of bipolar (and had a very regular and deep meditation practice in the Buddhist tradition) commented that he was able to “surf” the edges of manic episodes in a different way due to his increased sensitivity to changes in his mind states. However, sometimes in these modes he was also able to see that he needed to visit his psychiatrist to increase his medication/treatment. I thought this was a great example of how a Western treatment and meditation practice could augment one another and support a strategy of “minimum medication”.

I believe it may be possible for some individuals, with a regular practice, extreme gentleness and a willingness to be with difficult experiences to reach a state where even chronic distressing mental experiences can be observed as mental phenomena and create less havoc in the body and mind.  
It is also important to ensure that anyone making changes to their medication does so with the support of a medical professional.

Affly: Secular Mindfulness courses are growing in popularity and studies show positive results in people from all walks of life, why is it so widely effective?
My understanding of the growing popularity of mindfulness is that when we are working with mental processes (mental habits) rather than content (“what” you are thinking about) then actually, we discover that we all roughly share the same sorts of processes. What distinguishes those with “mental health problems” from those without is likely the intensity of the experience and the ability to monitor and disengage from those experiences.  For example, when we begin to practice mindfulness, everyone will discover that they have a “judging monkey”. This is the mental habit that often starts with the phrase “I should” or “I shouldn’t”, it has a quality of someone else making a judgement about a thought, a behaviour or an emotion. The judging monkeys are very prevalent, very fast and the more we observe the mind, the more we see. We even find that we even judge our judging! E.g. “I shouldn’t be judging”.

Mindfulness training helps us to see this and become curious, asking is it helpful for us to judge that we are judging or judge ourselves negatively when we feel sad? Mostly it’s not – and especially if we want to learn about our mental habits – judgement gets in the way of being able to observe, learn, pull back and discern what comes next that will help us. In the more extreme cases of judging (as seen in chronic depression these ‘monkeys’ are rampant and often focused on negative judgement about self, the world, emotional states etc). We know from the research on chronic depression that it changes with self-compassion; the development of gentleness towards ourselves and our mental experiences, is related to the reduction of depressive symptoms, and particularly re-activity.
Being able to change how we react to life’s challenges whether they be external (in the world) or internal (in how our minds deal with situations) can significantly alter our experience. From a brain point of view, reduced reactivity means we are wasting less brain energy with mental struggle and have more resources to put into activities that nourish us. Everyone can benefit from that!

Affly: By definition Mindfulness is about being in a state of awareness, can Mindfulness provide a pathway from the present moment to creativity or enhance artistic practice?
There is on-going discussion about how mindfulness can enhance creativity and its relationship to the states of mind reported by artists when they are “in the moment” and authentically expressing themselves through body and/or mind. My understanding is that there are two key mindfulness-related processes at work. One is the non-judgemental aspect. This means that we feel free to create without the fear of failure or worries that others might judge us in a negative way. The activity in and of itself is so rewarding that there is no need to worry what others think or whether we get it “right” or not – we are in the moment, and in the process and not wedded to the outcome.  

I am really inspired by Brené Brown’s work (her book Daring Greatly and her TED talk on vulnerability) on this topic. True innovation and creativity can only come from feeling OK in a space where we don’t know what will happen, we are not sure what the outcome will be, and we are willing to fail (and learn from that failure). Mindfulness teaches us to stay with the (sometimes) uncomfortable feelings associated with not knowing, and be able to trust that it’s within this space that new things can emerge.

Another aspect is the more cognitive function of increasing our working memory capacity. Working memory is what we use to hold “on line” chunks of information that we can organise and move around in order to think clearly and strategically, but also to make new connections between different “bytes” of information. The larger our working memory capacity the more information we can hold “on-line” giving the chance for more solutions to a problem to be considered. Additionally, the “light touch” of the mind as we observe these mental sensations within the working memory system with mindful attention means that sometimes we can get a glimmer of new combinations or different ways of viewing a problem. We might also begin to observe thoughts, images or ideas that lie just on the edge of consciousness, or which are represented as a “felt sense”, rather than a concept or an idea. As described above, the non-judging is important here – allowing the mind to play freely and to its full capacity is best done when the system is not clogged up with “I should” or “I shouldn’t” or needing things to be a certain way.

From my own experience, mindfulness has certainly help me to access information and ideas in new ways. It has been particularly challenging to learn how to tame the judging monkeys and really trust that mind states are just that. Temporary sensations that will arise and fade away, provided one does not get either too agitated or excited about them. Letting the mind play freely and without expectations makes it possible for something really new and innovative to emerge.

Affly: Your book Mindfulness in Motion explores the interaction of Mindfulness and the moving body. What are the benefits of combining Mindfulness and movement?  
My approach to mindfulness is informed by my own training pathway.  My route to mindfulness was through the body and through the moving body – via Tai Chi and Kung Fu practices. Although when I was learning these arts in the traditional way the training was mainly implicit (ie. arose through repeated physical movement patterns and slowly grew into insights) the way I teach now is using those same practices but making the learning more explicit. The program I developed from this approach is the basis of the Art of Mindfulness 5-week training and outlined in my book Mindfulness In Motion. We also explore it at a more introductory level in shorter trainings.

I feel it’s important to give people a choice about how they want to either engage with mindfulness as a therapy for healing mental distress or as a general training promoting self-development. Many courses are now offered but my particular approach with the emphasis on movement is unique. What I like about mindful movement practice is that we can do it anywhere when the body is able to move. We can do it with large movement or small micro movements. We can practice as we walk to work, stand on the tube or even in line at the post office. The moving body has this property of being in the now – we cannot observe the movement we did five minutes ago and we can’t observe the movement we will make in ten minutes time. As such, sensations of the moving body are always in the present moment, they provide a strong anchor for the attentional network and the richness of the sensations can help us to focus.

Another thing I love about working with movement is that it allows us to explore a very important aspect of mindfulness which is ‘intention’. With movement (including the movement of your mouth as you are about to speak) we have the chance to develop our sensitivity to the intention to move, the moments just before what is in our mind becomes enacted in the world. Developing our ability to tune into our intentions, even something basic like the intention to shift position in the chair, to lean into a conversation or turn away, can train our awareness of habits of mind and the underlying “why?” of our actions and speech. With this awareness we have more choice and with practice we can even see that we can start to orient our minds and our intention to actions in the world that are more nourishing and more gentle.

Lastly, I really believe mindfulness of the moving body can help to keep us more physically healthy. We can learn more about our posture, our co-ordination and timing. All these are trained in martial arts but even right now, as you are reading this article, you might bring attention to the posture. Just experiment and see how you feel when you are slumped over the screen versus when you sit up tall. Some related and interesting work on this topic comes from Amy Cuddy who has looked at how posture influences our mood and our impact on others. I encourage you to test it out for yourself!

So for me, it's obvious – mindful movement can help both body and mind.  However, each person has their own preferences for learning and practice and this is one of many ways that we can develop our mindful capacity.

For more information on the rationale behind mindful movement and it’s relation to psychosis check out Tamara’s paper, ‘A neurophysiological and neuropsychological consideration of mindful movement: clinical and research implications’.

Tamara Russell

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

Art of Mindfulness

Coming up:

Art of Mindfulness with Dr Tamara Russell
5-week mindfulness course
6.30-9pm, Tuesday evenings
26 Jan – 23 Feb | All levels
Free Word Centre
60 Farringdon Rd
London EC1R 3GA
Info and booking here

Changing Minds festival
Saturday 6 and Sunday 7 February
Featuring Dr Tamara Russell on Sunday 7 Feb, for 45-minute panel discussion
Southbank Centre
Info and booking here

Art of Mindfulness with Dr Tamara Russell
Mindful Movement Workshop
1-5pm, Saturday, 19 March | All levels
Anatomy Museum
Kings College
Strand Campus
London WC2R 2LS
Info and booking here

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