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Six short posts about mental health 6: Alternatives - self-care and compassion for all

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Sunday, 16 Oct 2011, 15:40

In the preceding posts I have argued for a complex understanding of suffering and distress which is very cautious of applying diagnostic criteria and of dividing people into 'ill and well' 'us and them' boxes. Perhaps a better model of distress is of a continuum which we all go up and down during our lives, and where we are not fixed at any given point. I've also emphasised the importance of not splitting up the bio, psycho, and social in our understandings of distress, and suggested that we must not neglect the social aspect of the biopsychosocial because societal ways of understanding people (which we internalise and which, no doubt, are represented on a neurological level) are involved in our difficulties. This is particularly the case in the way in which we are encouraged into self-monitoring, and in the way in which individuals who are in conflict with societal norms tend to be pathologised as disordered individuals.

If we resist the temptation to 'us and them' thinking then perhaps we can make more of a connection with people when they are distressed (rather than attempting to distance ourselves from them in ways that maintain them as 'them' and protect us from any sense that we might experience similar things ourselves). Then we might be able to ask questions such as 'what works for me when I am distressed?' which may lead to more helpful responses when others are struggling (although, of course, we must be cautious of assuming that everybody works in the same way that we do – perhaps the question is more like 'given everything that I know about this person, what might they be needing right now?') We might reflect, for example, on times when we've been under chronic stress or when a crisis has occurred in our lives.

Broadly speaking, when we reflect on what is unhelpful when we are distressed we might come up with things like: taking away the aspects which makes the person what they are (things that they regard as central to their identity such as work or relationships), removing people's sense of personal freedom and choice, and regarding them as inexplicable or baffling, for example questioning why they can't just stop feeling, or responding, in the way that they are doing. On the other side, we might find that what helps when we're distressed is not being overloaded with anything else, being treated kindly and patiently and being around those we feel safest with, being reassured that we are still free (but perhaps we don't have to make lots of decisions right now), and feeling that we are understood and that our response is a perfectly explicable way of responding to this situation (which involves somebody taking the time to understand what it means to us).

The vital role of compassion (from others and towards oneself) has been emphasised by many recently, and is part of the reason, perhaps, why various forms of mindfulness-based therapies are suddenly so popular (as they often encourage practices of self-care and compassion). Compassionate treatment of self and others is, perhaps, an opposite to the judging-comparing-monitoring mode which is so culturally encouraged at present. Rather than fearing that we are lacking, pretending that we aren't, and trying to prove that we are better than others, we accept that everyone is imperfect, are open about our struggles, and move away from a competitive way of relating with others.

Vitally, an alternative compassionate, or self-caring, form of working with distress does not present this as something that is necessary just for people who are struggling (reinforcing that 'us and them'). Rather it is seen as something everybody needs to engage in to counter those omnipresent self-monitoring messages (which affect us all) and to address the struggles and distress which we all experience.

Find Out More

  • Many of the ideas in these posts are explored, in more detail, in the textbook and module for D240.

  • A very accessible book that covers may of these areas is Richard Bentall's Doctoring the Mind.

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Privilege and Oppression, Conflict and Compassion

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There's a new online article by myself and my colleague, Jamie Heckert, over on The Sociological Imagination.

The piece deals with many of the issues around conflict, kindness, honesty and mindfulness which I've been writing about here, so please follow the link and let me know what you think.

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Mindfulness: Kindness & honesty

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Wednesday, 14 Sept 2011, 12:28

This blog follows the one posted here, where I reflect on tensions emerging from a weekend retreat about the possibilities of social mindfulness.

Kindness / honesty

The second tension which emerged, for me, over the weekend was perhaps less explicit than the other one, and harder to capture. It is about whether we prioritise kindness or honesty in our interactions with others (and with ourselves).

Of course, again, these categories are not mutually exclusive. Indeed one understanding of mindfulness could be as a form of kind honesty, or honest kindness. It is not there in the early Buddhist definitions of mindfulness, which focus on lucid awareness (which could, perhaps, be viewed as a form of honesty with ourselves), but recent western mindful therapies - for example - often bring together concepts of awareness with those of compassion or acceptance. And the kind of awareness which is advocated in mindful meditation, more broadly, is a gentle or kind one. For example, when we meditate we are encouraged to be aware of the thoughts and feelings that bubble up, but not to become too attached to them. However, we are also not meant to squash them or try to eradicate them. Rather the aim is to be compassionately aware of them, and to gently bring our attention back to our breath or other focus of meditation. This kind of practice reminds us of the sorts of stories and habits that we can get easily become caught up in.

When it comes to our interactions with others it seems that a prioritising of kindness can take us away from being honest, and a prioritising of honesty can take us away from being kind. For example, a mindfulness activity which I brought to the weekend (based on some writing I've been doing with Jamie Heckert) was about two different common strategies for dealing with situations of conflict where one person or group has more power than the other because of their social status. One of these strategies focuses more on kindness, where we try to compassionately understand where ourselves, and the other people, are coming from in the conflict and focus on reaching an understanding, being gentler with each other, and perhaps forgiving and accepting. The other strategy focuses more on honesty, where we look at what is going on in the conflict (perhaps explicitly and implicitly) and we name it publicly, drawing attention to the power dynamics which are at play and the privileges which one person or group has which means that their voice may be more heard than the others.

As I see it now, the dangers are that kindness-focused strategies may fall into 'niceness', whilst honesty-focused strategies may fall into 'rudeness'.

When we are trying so hard to be kind that we prioritise compassion over honesty, we may find ourselves ignoring or avoiding tensions which are there in order that everybody gets along. We might fail to see the power dynamics and marginalisations that are happening because we do not want to have to face difficult conversations, or even irresolvable conflicts. We might lose our critical awareness of the complexities of the situation, and the differences between us, in a comforting sense of our shared humanity and connection which may well not be there for everybody. We might find ourselves accepting what we take for granted rather than questioning it in a critical way. In our attempts to be kind we might end up causing harm as we silence some voices and flatten the hierarchies that exist. If our aim is to increase kindness in the world, we may find ourselves doing the exact opposite as people feel even more hurt and raw and less inclined to engage with one another, or we ourselves behave passively-aggressively because we are suppressing any difficult feelings.

When we are trying so hard to be honest that we prioritise awareness over kindness, on a very practical level we may find that others are unable to hear what we have to say. The privileges, oppressions and power dynamics which we clearly see, and the problematic behaviours which we want to highlight, may well be so hard for others to own up to that they just respond defensively and shut down. This may particularly be the case if we communicate with them in an accusing or insistent way which doesn't include listening to their perspective at all. If our aim is to improve awareness and to encourage honest exchange, we may do the exact opposite as people feel far too unsafe to speak openly, and put up their defences such that it becomes even harder for them to see the problematic things that they are doing. It may be much easier for them just to dismiss us as rude people, or over-the-top activists, and walk away from the exchange. We may, ourselves, become so aggressive in our manner that others are scared or hurt by the exchange, meaning that we are perpetuating the very violence which we were trying to address.

There is a danger, in mindfulness, that we prioritise compassion to such an extent that we close down debate and difference and – unwittingly perhaps – prevent ourselves from seeing some of the problems that we are so keen to address. There is a danger, for those of us who are critically socially engaged, that we fall into judgement of others and shoring up our own sense of 'rightness'. Without compassion we may be unable to see our own potential for harming others (because it is too hard to face when we aren't being kind), or the personal and painful reasons which may lie behind other people's actions.

Perhaps this is social mindfulness: the attempt to be honestly kind, compassionately critical, and gently aware.


Where is the social?

I hope that these explorations may go some way to answering my colleague's question about 'where is the social' in mindfulness. To summarise, I think it is (or can be) in there in the following ways, and probably many more:

  • In recognising the inherent socialness even of our very internal experiences: the ways our interactions with other people throughout our lives have shaped who and how we are, and how much of our internal life is devoted to our interactions with others and the wider world.

  • In employing meditation, and other practices, to 'swim against the stream' – noticing how wider assumptions and accepted behaviours operate through us, and committing to do otherwise.

  • In mindfulness as a methodology – individually and in group processes – for understanding the complexities of how social aspects such as power and privilege operate through us.

  • In mindfulness practices which are explicitly social. One example would be writing about how we, ourselves, experience being on two sides of an opposition (for example when we feel marginalised, or when we marginalise others), in order to understand the other perspective better. Another would be mindful dialogue, when we have conversations with the explicit intention of listening, hearing the other, and being aware of what we bring to the situation. A further example is in ways of making people's stories available in ways which illuminate what their lives are like within the current social context (e.g. of healthcare systems, or global politics).

  • In 'retreating' in ways which leave us more able then to engage, rather than feeling too ragged ourselves to intervene in ways which may be useful to others.

  • In using mindfulness to bring an ethics to our work on social issues which might mean that we make more of a difference, because we understand better how to communicate what we are saying in ways which can be heard and acted upon by others.


Find out more:

  • Thich Nhat Hanh's community of interbeingrepresents one very social version of mindfulness.

  • Gregory Kramer's 'insight dialogue' is an example of a social mindfulness practice.

  • Steven and Martine Batchelor's website is another interesting way into mindfulness which considers many of these issues.

  • My papers written in collaboration with Steven Stanley and Jamie Heckert will both be appearing online and explore some of these ideas further. I will link to them when they are available.

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Mindfulness: A strategy for social engagement?

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Wednesday, 14 Sept 2011, 12:29

Mindfulness: A strategy for social engagement?

People who read my blogs and other writing will know that one of the things I'm heavily into is mindfulness. This is, broadly speaking, the practice of cultivating awareness, often through meditation where you gently focus on your breath going in and out, or on the sounds around you, or on your bodily sensations as you walk very slowly back and forth.

My excitement about mindfulness may seem a bit peculiar to those who know that the other areas which I'm passionately engaged in are all very social: issues around relationship structures, discrimination of marginalised groups in society, and power and conflict. Mindfulness seems such an internal, individual thing, how can it possibly be relevant to these matters. As somebody asked in an Open University seminar on the topic: 'where is the social?'

Such questions were the motivation behind a weekend workshop/retreat which I attended earlier this month. Steven Stanley and I put together the weekend with a group of colleagues to address the question of social mindfulness. The weekend consisted of a combination of periods of meditation and other mindful-type practices (such as Qigong), together with presentations and discussions linking mindfulness to various social issues including sustainability, interpersonal and intergroup conflict, prejudice and discrimination, mental health and communication.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the weekend was the way in which the kinds of challenges we were discussing were so live within the group itself. Perhaps - particularly as a relationship therapist - I should have expected that these psychosocial issues would come up in the process of our interactions as well as in the content of them. But I really didn't anticipate it, and I found it tough indeed to notice how much my thoughts, when meditating, kept returning to niggles about my exchanges with other people, and how many of our group discussions themselves became conflictual or manifested some of the very power dynamics which we were trying so hard to address.

Mindfulness retreats, in my experience, are often humbling experiences in this way: in the silence and stillness we are forced to confront the kinds of petty judging and competitiveness that we fall into a lot of the time, and it is not a comfortable experience. At times I found it frustrating. Perhaps on some level I wanted us to prove to everyone how socially beneficial mindfulness could be by having some wonderfully experience of perfect connection, simply because we were all being so mindful! But perhaps what really happened was a lot more useful because it reminded us that what we really were was just a group of human beings, with all the messiness that entails. The inevitable tensions, scratchiness, miscommunications and disengagements – if we are courageous enough to face them – provide a perfect arena for thinking about how all our mindful ideas and practices could usefully be brought to bear on other social situations.

In my next two blogs I want to focus on two tensions, which emerged for me, from the weekend, which I think are key to this question of how mindfulness ways of understanding the world, and living our lives, might be useful in terms of wider social issues. The first is about whether we focus inwards on ourselves or outwards on the world around us. The second is about a tension between kindness and honesty. In both cases, of course, these are not mutually exclusive things, and perhaps the important shift is from an either/or way of seeing them (either I can focus inwards or outwards, either I can be kind or I can be honest) to a both/and way of embracing each 'side', or perhaps bringing them into dialogue with each other, or seeing what it is like to oscillate between them like a pendulum rather than prioritising one 'side' over the other.


Focus inwards / focus outwards

Perhaps the most interesting discussion of the weekend, for me, was one about internal or external focus.

Some of us found ourselves arguing for the social benefits of very internal mindfulness practices because – if we do not look into ourselves in this way – we may well find ourselves intervening with others in ways that are harmful to them. One way in which we are all social is that our exchanges and interactions over the years (with close friends, wider groups and society at large), leave us with painful feelings, fears about ourselves, and uncomfortable habits. For example, we may have grown up in a family where it was expected that everyone be tough, or we may have been bullied at school for being a misfit, or we may have taken on board a wider societal habit of judging people by their appearances. If we are not aware of these things we may find ourselves just acting on them when we interact with others (e.g. trying to be the tough guy all the time). Or we might try to suppress them and keep them hidden, but find that they blurt out, or that we project them onto other people (e.g. using an appearance word like 'fat' as an insult without meaning to, or viewing somebody else as a misfit because we're trying not to be one ourselves).

The extreme 'internal' position might be that putting our 'stuff' onto other people like this is so inevitable that the best thing we can do is to focus inwardly a lot, and just endeavour not to cause harm in these ways. Trying to intervene with others is just too dangerous and will likely involve us imposing ourselves, or our society, onto them in ways that are deeply problematic because we can't ever know enough about their situation.

Perhaps the opposite view to this is to see the social benefits only of external practices where we do actually go out into the world and intervene. This view might look at internal practices, such as meditation, and ask what good they are doing. In a world where there is so much suffering, meditation, therapy and the like seem like incredibly privileged activities, only available to a few who have the necessary time and resources. They can also appear like a kind of self-indulgent naval-gazing which encourage us to focus inwards on self-improvement or on beating ourselves up, instead of outwards on activities which might actually diminish suffering or help other people. Wouldn't it be better if all the time, energy and resources spent on such internal-focused practices was put into activism or directed towards those with greater needs?

The extreme 'external' position might be to focus entirely on intervention: to get out into the world and find out what the most pressing issues are (the threat to the environment perhaps, or poverty, or war), to develop our skills and knowledge in these areas, and to do something which might be of help. External mindfulness practices might take the form of encouraging people into mindful dialogue to resolve conflict (for example, by teaching listening practices), or they might be ways of increasing sustainability through encouraging awareness of 'conditioned arising' (e.g. where the pair of jeans we see in the supermarket came from, and what the impact is of buying them).

The well known mindfulness teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, was presented with just this challenge of inner or outer focus. In the 1970s a monk asked him what the best response was to the crisis of refugees in Vietnam after the war: should the monks stay in their monastery and meditate, or should they get out there and try to feed and house the refugees. Thich Nhat Hanh responded that they should do both, and his book The Miracle of Mindfulness was written as a fuller response to this social issue. This is why the book focuses on bringing mindfulness into all our daily activities, rather than it just being something that we do sitting on a cushion.

Steven Batchelor, in Buddhism Without Beliefs, also emphasises a kind of oscillation between retreat and engagement. He says that our practice cannot be abstracted from the way in which we interact with the world, which needs to be with integrity, but perhaps we cannot know what the ethical way to act is if we do not take time to tune into ourselves and to consider others with empathy. However, we can never reach a certainty of the impact our actions will have, so we have to act, to be open to learning from our mistakes, to notice when our habits kick in when we are acting on self-interest, and then to act again, attempting to avoid this.

'At times we may concentrate on the specifics of material existence: creating a livelihood that is in accord with our deepest values and aspirations. At times we may retreat: disentangling ourselves from social and psychological pressures in order to reconsider our life in a quiet and supportive setting. At times we may engage with the world: responding empathetically and creatively to the anguish of others' (Batchelor, 1997, p.42).

Perhaps it is useful, also, to be aware of the risk of meditation – and other more 'inner' focused practices – to become a mode of self-monitoring, done with the aim of self-improvement, which takes us away from engagement with others, as well as of the risk that externally focused activities may be done in a way that hurts others if we do not attempt to be aware of what we bring to those situations in terms of our personal hopes and fears.


My next blog will focus on another tension from the weekend – that around kindness and honesty. I'll also conclude with a summary of social mindfulness and some places to read more.

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Mindlessness and the riots

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Wednesday, 17 Aug 2011, 16:55

Mindlessness and the Riots


Following the news reports over the last few days I, like many people, have struggled over what, if any, response I can make that would be useful. As the rioting and looting which started in Tottenham spread across London and then to other large cities, it became clear that something complex was happening which could not be wrapped up in any singular, generalised, explanation. Even as a social psychologist, I don't feel that I know enough about all the economic, social and political aspects of the situation to comment wisely about this. Similarly, I can't claim enough understanding of how the current circumstances are playing out through the experience of those directly involved to talk in anything other than a patronising way about what this might feel like on an individual level.


So what can I offer? In the news reporting, one word has jumped out at me time and time again, and that is 'mindless'. As an article in the New Statesman pointed out, this is the 'explanatory cliché' that politicians and journalists are constantly falling back on: '"mindless acts of violence and destruction" and "mindless criminality" carried out by "mindless thugs"'.


As someone who is currently writing a book about mindfulness, mindlessness does seem like something that I am knowledgeable enough to comment upon, so here are my thoughts.


What 'mindlessness' does

When news reports label those who are rioting and looting as 'mindless', I don't think that they generally mean it as an opposite of 'mindful'. They are not simply pointing out that acting in violent ways displays a lack of awareness of the implications of what people are doing, and a lack of compassion for those who it affects.


Rather, dismissing acts as 'mindless thuggery' serves to distance us (the authors and readers of the accounts) from those perpetrating these acts, and to dehumanise them in the process. If we think of a 'mind' (or consciousness) as the thing that is often regarded (albeit somewhat problematically) as the defining feature of human beings, then describing somebody as 'mindless' is similar to stating that they are somehow less than human. In this way, we set up an 'us and them' situation where we are individuals with humanity who could never act in ways which would be so violent, so potentially harmful to others, and they are people who don't have the capacity – the mind – to respond in a human way to the situations they find themselves in.


Such distancing achieves multiple things. First, it enables us to locate all of what is disturbing and nasty about what people can do in this other group: the 'mindless' thugs. This stops us from having to look into ourselves to acknowledge the potentials we have – given the wrong situation – to wish harm upon others or to act in ways which we know will hurt (perhaps ways which are less direct than smashing a shop-window, such as buying products that are the result of exploitative labour, or failing to stop and help a stranger who is struggling). Secondly, the individualising explanation that a particular group of 'others' are 'just mindless' means that we don't have to consider wider - often social, political, economic, and historical - reasons which may be a large part of why these things are happening (this is a similar point to one I've made before about why we prefer simplistic explanations of violence).


Finally (although there are probably more reasons still than the three that I have outlined), 'mindlessness' as an explanation means that we don't have to address the complexity and multiplicity in why things happen. Generally we tend to see the full situations which result in our own actions, whilst we put other people's actions down to individual flaws within them, such as mindlessness. However, it seems more likely that, as with most human actions, there are many different reasons why people act in the ways that they do. In the case of the riots, as an article in The Guardian points out, there are many different people involved in rioting and looting, with many different motivations for doing so. Even within one person, there are probably multiple motivations at work. As Dave Hill says, in his commentary:


'People who riot do have minds, and in these lie the reasons for their rioting...These may be greed, hatred, a craving for status, for battle and excitement and for an antisocial sort of liberty. Some deep, possibly incoherent rage against authority and a safer, kinder more prosperous world they can't join might be part of this story too. None of this is evidence of mindlessness, and to declare it so is to hide from reality.'


What are we when we are mindless?

Social psychologist, Ellen Langer, has studied mindlessness in depth. The first part of her book, Mindfulness, is devoted to the common 'mindless' habits that human beings share. Her definitions of mindlessness includes the following:


Being trapped by categories: Ellen gives the example of a person opening their door to a wealthy stranger who is on a scavenger hunt and who offers them a million dollars if they can give him a 3 foot by 7 foot piece of wood. Because they never think of their own door as 'a 3 foot by 7 foot piece of wood' they don't think of using that. In terms of the riots we might think of the categories of race, class, gender, and age which shape our assumptions of 'crime' and who commits it. For example, we tend to think of young men as perpetrators of crime and young women as victims, but young men are by far the most at-risk group as victims, and young women were also involved in the London riots.


Behaving automatically rather than paying attention to what we're doing: Ellen conducted an experiment where she sent an interdepartmental memo to university offices which read 'This memo is to be returned to Room 247'. When the memo looked just like a standard university memo, 90% of people complied, rather than asking themselves why the person sent the memo if they just wanted it back. If people were encouraged to pay more attention – by the memo being in a different-to-usual format - only 60% complied. When we see these events in the news it is helpful to do what we can to break from any habitual responses we might have and to pay more attention.


Acting from a single perspective: In another study, Ellen and colleagues planted an experimenter on a busy street. She told people passing by that she'd sprained her knee and needed help. When people stopped she asked them to get her an Ace bandage from a shop nearby. The shopkeeper then told them they were out of Ace bandages. All the people in the study returned empty-handed, rather than asking for advice or getting something different. Linked to behaving automatically, we might deliberately reflect on each news story from multiple perspectives. We might creatively imagine what it might be like for attacker and for the attacked, for the person observing, for the journalist writing the story for a deadline, for the politician whose soundbite is included, and for the police officer who responded.


Towards a more mindful response

In one of the most powerful responses to the London situation, writer and broadcaster Darcus Howe called for 'careful listening' to the young people who were caught up in what was going on. He had already been listening carefully for years and therefore was not at all surprised by what was now happening. Unfortunately, those interviewing Darcus did not even listen carefully to him, let alone affording this kind of respect to those actually taking part in the violence and looting.


'Careful listening' is one key aspect of mindfulness, which is generally translated as a form of deep awareness and full attention. When we listen carefully we are less likely to fall into our usual automatic responses, or to act from a single perspective, trapped in categories and ignorant of context. We are more likely to be aware of the full, complex, human beings behind various actions, and the multiple meanings that these events will have for them. As Penny Red highlights, one of the motivations behind the riots may well be a lack of listening, and Camila Batmanghelidjh suggests that compassionate listening to the human beings involved – rather than searching for a 'mindless' enemy to fight – is a more likely solution.


Mindfulness, however, is not about just listening and accepting and failing to act in any way. Rather it originally emerged in a time of social inequality as a form of political action (against hierarchical caste systems), and will hopefully have a similar impact today with all the people who are currently embracing it. The theory behind mindfulness is that suffering is largely rooted in craving. Several commentators on the London riots have linked the looting taking place to the wider economic climate: not in a simplistic way that the recession has caused the riots, but in the suggestion that the desire for consumption within our current economic system is also implicated in the desire for certain products – by people who do not have access to them - inherent in much of the looting which is going on.


As well as careful listening to those involved, we can also do with turning our attention to the multiple implications of living in a culture which advocates striving for more and more consumption, which encourages people to believe that they are lacking without it, and which only makes this available to certain people.


Find out more:

Useful book on related topics include:


David Loy: Money, Sex, War, Karma

Barry Magid: Ending the Pursuit of Happiness

Marshall Rosenberg: Non-violent Communication

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Self-Care - for Depression Awareness Week

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Monday, 11 Apr 2011, 13:15


This week is depression awareness week (11-17 April). The most important thing I have to say in relation to depression is about self-care.

Towards the end of this week I'm going to an event about which asks, among other things, how people can nurture practices of 'self-care'. Towards the end of last year I ran a weekly workshop on self-care practices, and I'm running a day for therapists on the same topic this Autumn. The first chapter of the book I've recently written about relationships focuses on self-care. Here I want to look at why I think self-care is so important, what it is, and how we can build it into our lives (both when we are depressed and when we aren't).


Why Self-Care?

There's something wrong with me that needs fixing.


The most striking thing, for me, after several years of working as a psychotherapist, has been that virtually every person who comes for counselling or therapy believes that there is something wrong with them which needs fixing. A big part of this is the sense that everyone around them is managing life fine, whilst they are really struggling. There must be some lack or flaw in them in comparison with the rest of the world and they are desperate to put it right. Why can't they just be normal? What is wrong with them? Why aren't they like everyone else?


Sound familiar? I was certainly extremely grateful for this experience of person after person expressing sentiments that I had felt myself so many times. I now try to imbue therapy sessions with this sense that what is normal is to feel abnormal and wrong in this kind of way.


Reading about this sense of lack I've recognised that much of it is down to the difference between the image we present to others and our own inner experiences. The reason that people feel that there must be something wrong with them is that they are comparing themselves against the perfect, shiny people they see every day at work, on television, in the shopping mall, on facebook. But of course they themselves are likely also presenting a similar image to other people. When someone asks how we are we generally say 'fine' and accentuate the positive. Recent research has found that we write about the good stuff in our lives on social networking sites far more than what we are finding difficult. We know the messy, ugly and frightening stuff of our own selves because we live in them, but our point of comparison is a bunch of people who are unlikely to reveal that similar stuff to us unless we are very close to them indeed, or perhaps their therapist!


There may have been an element of this kind of comparison through history, but it is certainly exacerbated at the time we currently live in. Just think about the number of times each day that you receive the explicit or implicit message that there is something wrong with you which needs fixing. Maybe try counting for just one day. The explicit messages are easiest, although we don't often think about them. Every billboard advert and commercial on television, radio, or at the cinema, tells us that we need to be younger, more attractive, more successful and happier by owning more products or have more experiences of the kind that they are offering. This is also an implicit message in many newspaper articles, Hollywood movies, and reality television stories which tell accounts of the achievement of happiness, success or beauty through doing certain things, or sometimes of failure to achieve because of not having done such things as going on a diet, buying a lottery ticket, starting up a business or appearing on a television show. And we are certainly encouraged to compare ourselves to the airbrushed images in magazines, the snapshots of people we get in a brief news story, or to the characters who are being acted out by professional performers. We become used to comparing against a selective version of somebody's life rather the full warts-and-all picture. We could also think more widely about educational systems and organisational processes which are about comparing people against each other and striving for 'excellence' rather than being good enough.


Clearly there are important political conversations to have about this socioeconomic situation which underlies a good deal of current human misery. This is something that is frequently ignored by solutions which focus entirely upon the individual, including many forms of therapy, drug treatments, and people suggesting that we 'pull our socks up' (not that these things can't be helpful in their place, but if they obscure the wider context then there is a danger that they reinforce the idea that there is just something wrong with the individual person). In addition to addressing the wider context, what can we do as individuals to protect against this kind of toxicity, to help us to see these process as they operate through us, and to support each other better?


One suggestion is self-care.


What is Self-care?

It could be argued that, at the same time that society has become so consumer-oriented and focused on individual improvement, we have also lost some of the means we had in the past for caring for ourselves and for reflecting on our lives. It is very easy now to go through days and weeks without ever having a moment of quiet alone. We can easily fill our lives with noise, work and distraction such that we are always playing games on our phone, listing to podcasts, emailing, watching television, meeting people, getting tasks done, or socialising. When we do this it often gets increasingly frightening to be alone with ourselves. We can be anxious about what we will find. If we are struggling this means that it can often reach a crisis point before we do anything about it.


I'm not saying that those kinds of activities can't be done in caring ways (see my last blog entry on mindfulness), but I'm arguing that it is useful to ensure that we have some time in our daily lives devoted to being quiet, to looking after ourselves and to tuning in to where we are at. Otherwise it becomes increasingly difficult to tune into our needs (are we getting enough rest, food, support, activity, etc.) and also to tune outwards towards other people and the wider world.


Self-care is not just another form of monitoring ourselves and finding ourselves lacking, although we are so used to doing this that we need to watch out for it ('damn I haven't built any self-care into today – bad me!'). Similarly it isn't about just giving up on ourselves and thinking we may as well do comfortable nice stuff because we are no good anyway.


People's biggest block to doing self-care is often the idea that it is a selfish or self-absorbed thing to do. My own view is quite the opposite. Constant self-monitoring and self-improvement is self-absorbed because it is so internally focused that it often prevents us from seeing the fullness and struggles of other people. It also exhausts us to the point that we have very little to give to anyone else.


Caring for ourselves means that we are more aware of the kind of painful processes going on for us that make us despondent or fearful. This means that we can tune in better to the fact that other people likely have those same processes, so we can be more compassionate with their snappiness, withdrawal or neediness. We are less likely to just feel hurt and betrayed when others treat us poorly, because we understand it better. Also, when we have looked after ourselves we generally have more energy and patience for looking after others and for engaging with the world more broadly. We are more able to open up because we are less fearful of showing the fact we are lacking and imperfect: we know that everybody is.

What kind of self-care, and how to build it in, is up to each person. Different things work for different people at different times. I'd suggest making space for two things: kindness and reflection. Kind self-care is a way of demonstrating to ourselves that we are as deserving of kindness as anyone else (even when we don't quite feel that we are). Reflective self-care is a way of checking in with ourselves, tuning into our body and our emotions, asking ourselves how we are, thinking through any issues we are currently dealing with, making sense of why we are finding something difficult.


Examples of kind self-care that work for some people include: having a hot bath, giving yourself a treat, taking half an hour in a cafe, spending time with friends, being in the garden or park, sharing a hug with a friend or pet, and watching your favourite programme. Example of reflective self-care include writing in a journal, having a session with a close friend where you both have time to talk through whatever is on your mind, going for a walk, and meditating.


It seems to be really hard to build these into our everyday life. Our tendency is often to leave them till last (if we get everything else done) rather than prioritising them. When things get tough we are often even less likely to do these things because we feel that we don't deserve it, and we are often scared to be quiet or to tune into ourselves because we fear that we really will find something terribly wrong with us. Gently trying to build in a daily kind act towards ourselves is often a good first step at such times, followed later by also taking some time to kindly listen and reflect upon what is going on in our minds and bodies.


Given the world that we live in it is likely that we will keep forgetting self-care and needing to remind ourselves, and that we will easily slip into beating ourselves up about it or doing it with the secret hope that it will make us all 'better' or stop us from ever struggling again. When those things happen it is just another reminder of our imperfect humanness, and of the messages that surround us and others that make this so hard.


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Meg-John Barker

Mindfulness: It ain't what you do it's the way that you do it

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Wednesday, 17 Aug 2011, 16:56


Mindfulness: It ain't what you do it's the way that you do it

I've been interested in mindfulness for several years now and will be writing a book about it in the next year or so, building on the chapter that I wrote for the OU counselling module.

Mindfulness is the big idea in counselling and psychology at the moment. The 'gold standard' of counselling - cognitive-behavioural therapy - is turning to mindfulness as its 'third wave'. If you go to a mental health services it is likely that they will offer some kind of mindfulness training. Self help books for depression and anxiety are increasingly mindfulness focused.

One conclusion that I have come to is that there is no such thing as an inherently mindful or non-mindful activity. People (including myself at times) often have the idea that only certain activities could be mindful: like meditating, walking in the countryside, perhaps painting or other such tranquil pursuits. There is definitely a notion that certain activities are anti-mindful, including things like watching TV, commuting or social-networking. As with the idea that you are doing meditation wrong if you don't have a completely 'empty mind' I think this is a misconception which isn't helpful and which often leads people to beating themselves up that they aren't doing mindfulness properly (which really defeats the purpose!) Just as you can sit in meditation without being mindful at all, I think you can also be mindful as you are texting or surfing the internet.

Here I want to say what I think mindfulness is and why it is all about the way you approach activities, not the activity itself.


Mindfulness is an idea which originated in Buddhism over two thousand years ago. It involves being aware of the present moment in an accepting way. The theory of mindfulness is that much of human suffering involves our being out of the present moment (going over things from the past or planning for the future) in a way which tries to make things different, and which takes us away from any awareness of the here-and-now.

I wake up in the morning and immediately remember something I said in a meeting yesterday which I am worried sounded foolish. As I make coffee and eat breakfast I am going over and over how I could have done it differently and what people will be thinking of me. Walking to work I am planning for the day, concerned about how I'm going to fit everything in. I'm brought back with irritation as someone pushes past me on the tube. At work each task I undertake I am concerned with getting it out of the way so that I can get on with the next one. I keep refreshing my facebook and twitter because I'm not enjoying the work. I start worrying maybe this job is no good. If only I worked somewhere else, then I would be happy. I spend the journey home daydreaming about a different life but the distance between my life and that one brings me down. Once home I switch on the television and escape into my programmes.

The practice of mindfulness involves deliberately cultivating the opposite to this habitual mode of being. Instead of wishing that things were otherwise, we try to be with them as they are with acceptance. Instead of going off into past and future, we try to stay in the present. And instead of missing what is going on around us, and in our bodies, we deliberately bring awareness to those things.

That explains why the basic mindfulness practice is just sitting still and paying attention to your breath going in and out. That is a good way of practising being in the present moment and being aware of the most basic aspects of experience. Also, our breath connects us to the world in a fundamental way, and it is always there, so it is a useful focal point. But the idea that we should have an empty mind while we are practising mindfulness is a misconception because the whole point is to be present to whatever is here in the moment. Inevitably that will include sounds outside, thoughts and feelings bubbling up, an itch or pain in the body. Mindfulness is about embracing all these things in a kind of spacious awareness: not latching on to any of them, but equally not trying to ignore them either. And of course we will find ourselves following a thought process that is just too sticky to avoid, or forgetting our breath when the building noise outside annoys us. At those times we just notice what has happened with interest, and the impact it has on us, and gently bring ourselves back to the breath.

The real, and only, purpose of practising mindfulness (whether we do it in sitting meditation, or slow walking, yoga, painting or whatever works for us) is so that we can bring that way of being into the rest of our lives. Again, this is no easy matter, and berating ourselves every time we realise that we are not being mindful is really not the idea!

Thich Nhat Hanh, who wrote The Miracle of Mindfulness, suggests that everyday tasks like washing up and eating a tangerine are good ones to practice bringing mindfulness into our daily life. And that makes a lot of sense because, like breathing, they are relatively simple activities which makes them conducive to that kind of accepting awareness of the present.

All activities can be mindful

However, I think it is important to realise that all activities can be done mindfully, and that is really what mindfulness is aiming for (without imagining that that is really achievable all of the time, which is why every now and again it is useful to stop and breathe).

So what of those activities which seem the furthest removed from mindfulness? Isn't television always distraction and escapism? How could day-dreaming ever be present when it is all about the future or the past? And surely it isn't possible to be mindful as we dip between email, facebook and twitter, skipping randomly from one thing to another without enough time to take any of them in?

I disagree because in terms of experience I feel that there is a difference between times when I'm watching TV as a distraction and times when I'm engaged with it. Or times when I'm aimlessly wandering around the internet versus times when I'm connecting with this person and that idea in a way that is present and open to each one. There are times when I can be fully present to a day-dream.

I suspect that we do all need some time in our daily routine when we are still, or focused on a very simple task, in order to observe our usual habits and to cultivate a more mindful way of being. But I also think we can bring that into the rest of the kinds of lives we have today, noticing when we have strayed away from it and kindly reminding ourselves to come back.

I wake up in the morning and sit for a while, noticing how I am drawn to thinking about that meeting yesterday and gently bringing myself back to the breath. Making coffee I enjoy the smell as I open the tin, the feel of the warm mug in my hand, the soapy water as I wash up afterwards. Walking to work I think over what I have to do in the day and notice a knot of stress building. I gently bring myself back to the tube, sharing a smile with a fellow commuter as we do-si-do out of each others way. At work I take time to check in with a colleague, wryly noticing my desire to ask whether they thought I was foolish in the meeting yesterday. I think about which task I'm most in the mood for and enjoy devoting a couple of hours to that before moving on to less interesting things. In a break I enjoy the free-floating sense of dipping around facebook and twitter, and focus in on a couple of posts that interest me, enjoying the brief connection with someone on another continent who is thinking about such similar things to me today. Walking home from the station I enjoy a daydream about an imaginary party with all my favourite fictional characters. I can feel the evening air on my face and see the people walking past me at the same time as I'm sharing cocktails with Elizabeth Bennet and Hank Moody. Back home I make myself a meal, noticing the colours, smells and textures of the vegetables as I chop them. I close the curtains and watch an episode of my favourite show, enjoying the sleepy cosiness of the end of the day.

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