Groups in Mindfulness Based Training

Last week I made my first visit the Oxford Centre for Mindfulness. After a bleary eyed start at 5:30 I stepped of the bus close to Oxford Brookes University and made the short walk to the centre under the cherry blossom and in the company of Mark, one of the course participants.

This was to be a whole day in the company of other trainers looking at our work with “groups”. How they enhance learning, how they form, develop and dissolve. We were lucky to have one of the most experienced trainers in the field, Trish Bartley, leading the day. Trish works in groups with people diagnosed with cancer. She has literally written the book on the subject (see links) and movingly read out some quotes from her group members at a couple of points during the day.

Groups have always fascinated me. I have lead and taught them in work situations and in community arts contexts, and over time developed an some understanding of group work and game theory.  Whilst I’ve participated in mindfulness and therapy groups and lead many smaller mindfulness courses, I wanted to know more about leading larger groups.

Trish, of course, used the group itself to illustrate many of the points she was making She had us running/moving around at many points to emphasise how the body as well as the mind can be engaged in practice and learning. Regular “grounding” points brought us back again and again to our own perception of the moment.

The aha! moments, for me, were when she spoke about the “mutual” learning that takes place in a group. All too often we think of training as being one way transmission, but if the “trainer” is open and confident he or she is learning at every point too. Trish also asked us try and describe a group’s status as an animal: is it a plodding horse or an anxious meerkat? and what would it need? One for reflection but may be not sharing with the group in question.

Taking leave of the group Trish invited us to take a single bright red bead on a string bracelet away with us. Something she does with her groups to help the participants connect back to the learning and maybe prompt some practice. I wore mine on the way home and it now swings from my backpack a little reminder each time I zip and unzip my bag.


About Trish

Trish’s book

Master Classes


All Party Parliamentary Group – the mindfulness session.

Thanks to my friend Mark Jordan (from Herts County Council)  last week I was able to grab myself a place in Committee Room 9, in our very own Houses of Parliament, to witness a significant moment in the mainstreaming of mindfulness in the UK.

The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Wellbeing and Economics (APPG) has been meeting since (tbd) discussing and taking evidence on the role areas, such as culture and labour markets might have in relation to the improved wellbeing of citizens.

This meeting, on April 8th, focussed on what was described as “a potential policy solution – mindfulness programmes”. In particular the application of mindfulness in the areas of health and education.

I shan’t attempt to cover the content of the meeting in this post. The APPG website already has an overview, including one of the presentations, and promises “full notes” of the discussion soon. (see links below)

What struck me was the very passionate interest from both the people that packed the room (about 150) the speakers and the parliamentarians who were involved. I knew that mindfulness sessions were being offered to MPs but didn’t realise just how popular they have become and what a fine mindfulness champion we have in Chris Ruane MP.

It turns out that over 50 MPs have participated in courses held in Westminster and that new courses are oversubscribed. In a recent article Chris says he hopes it will eventually start influencing policy “the more we can develop mindfulness at the heart of government the more mindful policies we can develop”. Heady stuff perhaps given the very unmindful nature of our political system, yet we know there is a growing appetite for a different way of doing things both among the electorate and the elected.

Prof Willem Kuyken (Exeter) gave a lightening introduction to mindfulness (see his slides on the APPG site) and was followed by Dr Jonty Heaversedge who described his own experience of introducing mindfulness within the London Borough of Southwark, where his practice is based. Later on in the question session it was telling that a participant from LB of Brent voiced dismay that in her borough almost no such availability of mindfulness existed for its inhabitants. This I feel just points up just how patchy availability is in the UK. Similarly we learned that schools around Bangor (close to the Centre for Mindfulness) are involved in a project to make mindfulness widely available. Clearly very different from the rest of the country.

This theme of availability and capacity came up again and again during the meeting. It was one of primary challenges identified: Developing a “stock” of experienced mindfulness teachers, whilst maintaining standards; developing public awareness and building a sound evidence base.

Regarding an evidence base someone made the remark that because the benefits were often diffused say across mental wellbeing, family and relationships as well as life long health, that this made it hard to build a business case in the usual way. It seems to me that business cases can have wide objectives but perhaps the point is that responsibilities are split across agencies who are looking for benefits in “their” area.

The session gave Richard Burnett, from the Mindfulness in Schools, a great opportunity to talk about his brilliant project. dot.Be is the name of the programme they have designed and training courses for teachers are being held across the UK and in Europe. Richard had everyone make an energetic hand clap and asked them to stop and fully become aware the resulting sensations. This is one of the exercises used with school pupils to explore attention and focus. A novel way of working experientially, I thought.

For me the meeting was illuminating in many ways: for example some discussion focussed on the danger of mindfulness being a “happy pill” or “sticking plaster” that is used to help people cope with the symptoms of an unhealthy society whilst lowering their motivation to improve the situation.

Chris Ruane pointed out early on that nothing (including mindfulness) should hinder all our efforts to change a society that creates mental and physical health issues in the first place. Prof Kuyken commented that mindfulness far from bringing about “happy states” often illuminated uncomfortable ones. The point was made that mindfulness well practiced, developed feelings of empathy and that empathy can drive action.

I left the meeting and walked out past the oddly wrapped up statues of the great and the good (?) of previous centuries wondering what they would have made of mindfulness. We have had no (major) revolutions in our history .. could it be that this is the start of a deeper revolution .. one starting in each individual. One can dream 😉


Interview with Chris Ruane

Mark Leonard @ London Mindful Practitioners Group

Remember how sunny last Sunday was? Well yours truly spent it deep under Swiss Cottage Library attending another of the excellent seminars organised by Nick This is for people delivering mindfulness training in London.

Mark Leonard is a founder in The Mindfulness Exchange, a spin off company from the Oxford Centre for Mindfulness which he helped establish.

Mark talked about his TME and their approach to teaching mindfulness in the workplace. He also involved the group in some exercises to illustrate the methodology. TME takes the Mark Williams book “Finding Peace in a Frantic World” as their main text book. Their approach is is to present the scientific basis and evidence for the efficacy of mindfulness meditation right up-front. He strongly advocates this explanatory and transparent approach and sighted some recent unpublished research that shows that people are more motivated to engage in something they understand (very clearly) from the outset.

Mark contrasted this with the classic MBSR approach of focussing on the experience first and letting the benefits reveal themselves through experience and enquiry. He was also critical of those practitioners that mystified the process to put themselves in a power relationship – being the one who knows the secrets.

In an animated chat in the cafe after the meeting there was a good debate about the approaches arising from different schools. One of the views (I am glad to say) Mark and I shared is that the Buddha gave the clearest and most direct explanation and instructions. He (the Buddha) would have no problem with a science first explanation but I think he would have no time for what for some reason got referred to in the meeting as “Woo Woo!” (the mystification of the dhamma)

So I’m going back to my diagrams and explanations but for now I’m holding on to my meditation bowl/bell – it just sounds kinda cool 🙂