Archives for posts with tag: mindfulness

Talking to a therapist, going for a run and practising mindfulness meditation are all well-established ways to deal with emotional trauma. However, these three practices typically exist in isolation from each other. Someone dealing with emotional pain might see a therapist to talk about the relationships in their life, go to the gym to exercise their body, and download a podcast on meditation.

Psychotherapist William Pullen has developed a new form of therapy entitled Dynamic Running Therapy to fuse these practices together. He has published a book called Run for your Life to explain this new method. I spoke to William to find out more…

Kate: What exactly is Dynamic Running Therapy?

William: DRT is a fusion of mindfulness, running and regular talk therapy. Like most therapy it is open-ended: there is no set limit on how long the therapy will last.  One of the things I try to avoid in my work is striving – I think there is already so much of that in the world. With DRT, we see what happens and when it happens. The practice is client-led: they decide when to run or sit or walk. This is important as the body is highly informative: it can tell us about what’s going on deep inside. I look out for changes in movement such as acceleration or slowing down. Sometimes a client’s stance helps me to see how they address the world or a particular topic.

Kate: Who would benefit from this kind of therapy?

William: DRT can be great for people suffering from depression, a debilitating condition that can be very difficult to shift. The client often feels helpless and angry. Taking proactive action, through running and so on, helps the patient to feel more in control. Clients with anxiety can benefit a great deal from the mindfulness aspect of the therapy: again, it is an opportunity to take proactive steps to manage their condition. Clients with eating disorders should speak to their doctor before embarking on DRT, as the exercise programme may not be appropriate.

Kate: Why should someone with depression or anxiety try DRT rather than simply talking to a therapist? 

William: Because DRT uses the body, a greater sense of commitment and progress is often experienced. There is a strong sense of  both engagement and progress. Of course the office and the park offer different benefits, and then there are the peculiarities of the client to take account for. DRT isn’t for everyone, but in my experience DRT is more engaging – the movement involves greater investment and has a more identifiable sense of accomplishment. But as ever, its all down to what the client is comfortable with.

Kate: Tell me about your book – is it designed to be used alongside therapy? Or can it replace therapy? (I’m aware that many people can’t afford to see a therapist.)

William: “Run for your Life” is not for use alongside a talking therapy. The book offers programmes for various conditions, including a programme for running with your kids and getting closer to them, and ideas for establishing a mindful running or walking practice.

For someone with a common mental health condition, DRT is an excellent choice – it’s very practical and you can do it anywhere. It’s also a great way to establish a mindful running or walking practice, which offers a myriad of health benefits and can be continued once the patient has recovered from their condition. Mindful running is enjoyable and can be a lifelong practice, not just a short-term solution for someone dealing with a crisis.

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Dr. Julia Kim at Central Hall Westminster, London

Dr. Julia Kim at Central Hall Westminster, London

In July I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Dr. Julia Kim (Senior Program Advisor at the Gross National Happiness (GNH) Centre in Bhutan) at the rather grand Central Hall Westminster. I always had a feeling that I’d like to visit Bhutan, and this lecture very much reinforced my enthusiasm to visit this beautiful country.

Myself and maybe 80 or so other wellbeing professionals were invited by What Works Wellbeing, a new government-funded organisation set up to build on the work of Lord Gus O’Donnell, Lord Richard Layard and other high profile wellbeing policy advocates. The central goal of What Works Wellbeing is to investigate, through an evidence-based approach, which policies genuinely boost the wellbeing of communities throughout the UK. This evidence can then be used to both inform government policy and persuade the public of the central role that wellbeing plays in a healthy society.

There is an opportunity to radically alter the policy-making process here and enhance wellbeing on a grand scale: it’s an exciting possibility. I attended an APPG on Wellbeing Economics at the Houses of Parliament last summer, and remember Lord Gus O’Donnell describing wellbeing as “the most important issue the public sector faces”.

However, it won’t be a quick or easy journey. While the Office of National Statistics began gathering wellbeing data on a national scale in 2011, the UK is still very much focused on using Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the central tool to measure how we are faring as a nation. It is worth remembering that GDP came to prominence as a quick fix in the US during the chaos and anxiety of the Great Depression in the 1930s. It was designed to assist a nation in a state of emergency. The intention was never for GDP to support the long term social and economic development of nations, and many economists point to the shortcomings of GDP as a tool to measure socio-economic progress. For example, GDP increases when sales of heroin, crack cocaine and prostitution services increase. If we pollute our natural environment or go to war, GDP will most likely shoot up. When local volunteering, social trust or grassroots political engagement goes up, GDP doesn’t budge an inch.

So what’s the alternative? This is the question What Works Wellbeing will investigate over the next three years. Bhutan has been collecting wellbeing data and implementing successful wellbeing policies for decades. The concept of wellbeing is integral to the history of Bhutan. The following phrase was written into the Legal Code of Bhutan in 1729: “if the Government cannot create happiness (dekid) for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist.” 

Dr. Julia Kim drew on her many years of experience as a physician and global health advisor for the UN and elsewhere (in addition to her current work as a senior advisor at the GNH Centre in Bhutan) to describe the nature of the wellbeing crisis we are facing not just in the UK but in many societies across the globe.

What does a truly developed country look like? Dr. Kim cited research by social epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (authors of The Spirit Level) that revealed just how damaging social and economic inequality is for wellbeing on a national scale, regardless of increases in GDP. For example, the US is one of the richest economies in the world, but ranks only 17th in life satisfaction league tables. Research shows again and again that wealth does contribute to life satisfaction but, above a basic level, increases in personal wealth come with rapidly diminishing marginal returns on happiness/life satisfaction. Economic inequality harms the rich as well as the poor, according to this research by Wilkinson and Pickett. Health and social problems, such as literacy levels, homicide, imprisonment, drug and alcohol addiction, obesity and mental illness are all far more prevalent in unequal societies – the ones that prioritise GDP above all else.

In 2012 Dr. Kim attended a UN high level meeting in New York on ‘Happiness and Wellbeing: Defining a New Economic Paradigm’. More than 800 delegates attended, including government ministers, diplomats, economists and Nobel laureates. The delegates largely agreed that the current paradigm of nations pursuing perpetual GDP growth, on the assumption that this will lead to happiness and wellbeing, is deeply flawed. It was also agreed that a new paradigm, one that reconnects economies with society and nature, and views sustainable wellbeing of all life as the purpose of development, is urgently needed.

In terms of following the Bhutanese model, Dr. Kim stressed that ‘happiness’ and ‘wellbeing’ need to be properly defined. These terms should be used to describe a deeper sense of connection, contentment and flourishing for each individual in society. Similar to the ancient Greek concept of eudaemonia. It should not be used to describe fleeting positive moods or emotions, which cannot be managed by government policy.

Dr. Kim described how the GNH survey the population of Bhutan in order to understand their lives and levels of wellbeing better. The national survey looks at 33 different indicators of life satisfaction, of which income is just one indicator. The government then uses this data to inform its five year plan and implement policies that will support the true development of Bhutanese society.

Critics may wonder how much all of this wellbeing work costs. However, comparative data suggests that over the past decade Bhutan’s GDP growth rate exceeded that of most emerging Asian economies and, unlike many European economies, unemployment remains low (less than 4% since 2005). Over the past two decades, life expectancy has increased by 20 years and is higher than any country in south Asia (including India). Infant mortality rates have halved (1990-2011), fertility rates have fallen from 6.5 to 2.4. The government provides free basic healthcare and free primary and secondary education.

Unlike other countries with strong economic growth, Bhutan prioritises environmental conservation and has increased forest cover from 65% to 80% (1990-2010). Over half of Bhutan’s land mass comprises protected areas, biological corridors and conservation areas.

Mental illness has become an enormous problem in developed societies, particularly the US and the UK. Depression now ranks 1st in the list of contributors to disease burden in high and mid-income countries. In Bhutan, there is a strong belief throughout society that happiness and wellbeing can be cultivated, through practices such as mindfulness and also through citizens nurturing their personal relationships. Essentially, wellbeing is viewed as a skill which must be practised in order for the individual to experience it – it is not something that simply happens randomly to some individuals and not others (as is often thought in western societies). So practising mindfulness meditation, being a good citizen, caring for the environment and resisting consumerism (public advertising is very scarce) are all part of the culture in Bhutan, and these practices are clearly having a powerful effect on the wellbeing of the population as a whole.

Dr. Kim praised the work that has already taken place in the UK around wellbeing policy development, and urged individuals and communities to play an active role in bringing this vision of a healthier society to fruition.

She emphasised the importance of baby steps and small shifts in thinking, in addition to large-scale political action, and quoted Albert Einstein: “The world as we created it is a product of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

In the age of smartphones and social media, amateur photography is everywhere. But if we slow down and connect with the present moment, can taking a photo on our iPhone become a mindful experience? I spoke to professional photographer Lee Aspland to find out more…

KB: How can mindfulness be applied to photography?

LA: Mindfulness applied to photography is being present with the visual moment and the process of photographing that visual moment. The essence of this practice is seeing. In the same way that a meditator sat on their cushion uses the breath as an anchor, we can as photographers use the visual experience as our anchor.
We walk with our camera and we see the world. We do not search for a photographic opportunity, but we notice if our mind floats away with thoughts, plans and ideas. We then return to what we can see. As we walk we observe. Then, in a moment of visual stimulation, something is noticed.

At this moment we stop and stay with the visual experience. We try to remain free from thoughts, ideas, action or internal dialogue. We notice any photographic thinking that creeps in. We practice just being with the visual experience.

The final stage of the practice is receiving the photo. Before we bring our camera up to our eye we consider how we will frame the equivalent of what stopped us. Do we need to move in or out? What is in the frame? What is not in the frame? We try not to over think the photo to create a ‘better’ image. We press the shutter and receive the photo. Then we walk on.

Image by Lee Aspland

Image by Lee Aspland

 

KB: Does incorporating mindfulness into the process of taking a photograph help to improve the final image? And if so, how?

LA: Yes, mindfuI photography brings us into the present moment. I love how Henri Cartier-Bresson described photography as “putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis”. Mindful photography is a practice that can support this intention.

If we take ‘the eye’ as the seeing practice described in question one, then the alignment of ‘the mind’ is being aware of how the mind interprets our visual stimulation and how it guides and influences our technical and compositional choices.

The alignment of ‘the heart’ is essential if we are to create photographs that share something of ourselves. Connecting to how we feel whilst receiving the photo and knowing how we can share what we are experiencing through our photography raises our craft to an art.

Image by Lee Aspland

Image by Lee Aspland

 

KB: Reflecting on your own experience, how does mindful photography differ from standard photography?

LA: Mindful photography is an immersive approach to photography. It is both a practice to support our development as photographers and part of a larger practice to be totally present in all aspects of our life.

When I reflect upon the photographs I love I can only imagine that all the greatest photographers were probably mindful photographers. To be totally present at the moment of pressing the shutter; one’s eye, mind and heart in alignment, is to be a mindful photographer.

Image by Lee Aspland

Image by Lee Aspland

 

KB: Is London a good environment to practice mindful photography?

LA: Yes. Mindful photography can be practiced anywhere. We can practice in busy environments (that represent the busy mind) or we can practice in quieter locations (to encourage a quieter mind). Mindful photography can be practiced on the street, in the park, at the river or on the London Eye. Wherever you and your camera go, there you are and there you can practice.

Image by Lee Aspland

Image by Lee Aspland

 

KB: Can anyone practice mindful photography?

LA: Yes. Just as anyone can practice mindfulness, anyone with any type of camera can practice mindful photography.

Image by Lee Aspland

Image by Lee Aspland

 

KB: What can students expect to learn on your six week online course?

LA: My online course, The Mindful Photographer is an introduction to the ideas and concepts we have discussed here. Firstly we look at how we can establish a seeing practice as the foundation to becoming a mindful photographer. We then build upon this, considering how we can hold the technical and compositional ideas gently as we learn our craft. Finally we practice techniques and approaches that encourage the development of a non-judgmental mind and a strong connection with how we feel.

The course is different to many online courses that are just video-driven. There is a strong emphasis upon interaction through practice and assignments. These are provided weekly with guidance and I provide supportive comments for every photograph submitted to our private pages. Students are able to see and comment upon each others’ photos, which I believe fosters a group ethos.

Lee is also delivering an Introduction to Mindful Photography one-day workshop at The Mindfulness Project in London on Sunday 22nd March.

In May 2014, the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group began its eight month inquiry into the potential for mindfulness training in key areas of public life: health, education, the workplace and the criminal justice system. The full report will be published in June 2015, but today sees the launch of the interim report at the Houses of Parliament.

Houses of Parliament

Houses of Parliament: image by Jon Adair

The interim report, Mindful Nation UK, urges all political parties to consider a series of recommendations for inclusion in their manifestos for the 2015 General Election. These recommendations include:

  • Widening access to mindfulness-based interventions (such as MBCT or MBSR) for people with long-term health conditions.
  • Access to MBCT should be substantially widened for adults with a history of depression.
  • More mindfulness pilot projects linked to good evaluation and research should be set up.
  • Mindfulness in schools should be made a priority for development and research.
  • Bodies such as Public Health England should work with public health teams and Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) to promote mindfulness-based programmes in schools.
  • Public sector employers such as the NHS and civil service should pioneer good practice and set up mindfulness pilot projects, which can be evaluated as part of their responsibility to combat stress.

The Mindfulness APPG is co-chaired by MPs from all the major parties: Chris Ruane (labour), Tracey Crouch (conservative) and Lorely Burt (liberal democrat). The interim report describes mindfulness as a “transformative practice, leading to a deeper understanding of how to respond to situations wisely,” and urges government to widen access to mindfulness training in key public services, where it has the potential to be “an effective low-cost intervention with a wide range of benefits.”

The Mindfulness Initiative, a collaboration of the main mindfulness training and research centres of Oxford, Exeter and Bangor Universities as well as the Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust and the Mental Health Foundation, are leading the inquiry.

Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation, Jenny Edwards CBE, said: “We have been advocating the benefits of mindfulness through our Be Mindful campaign since 2010, providing online courses for individuals and companies…we now want 2015 to be the year of mindfulness, and are delighted to formally join the Mindfulness Initiative in translating those benefits more specifically into policy recommendations.”

This is all excellent news. Thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers show that mindfulness enhances mental and physical wellbeing and reduces chronic pain, and as this report states it is an effective low-cost intervention that can improve wellbeing and productivity across many areas of public life, including health, education, the workplace and the criminal justice system.

It’s great to see that the mindfulness APPG is co-chaired by representatives from all the major political parties, but time will tell whether that grows into genuine support for mindfulness within the three parties in terms of resource allocation. I’ll be keeping an eye on the election manifestos to see which of the parties takes these recommendations on board!

This week is ‘Live like a Stoic’ week in London. But what does it mean to be stoical? Doesn’t it involve being miserable and repressing your emotions? No no no. Jules Evans, Policy Director at the Queen Mary Centre for the History of Emotions, explained to me what Stoicism is, how it can benefit busy Londoners, and how it relates to mindfulness meditation.

KB: What is Stoicism?

JE: It’s an ancient philosophy that originated in Athens in 300 BC before spreading to Rome and around the world. It inspired Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and still helps many people today to cope with adversity and live a good life.

KB: How can adopting a stoical outlook on life help busy Londoners cope with the demands of living in a chaotic, capitalist and at times dangerous city? 

JE: It helps people focus on what is in their control while accepting what is not. It helps them become aware of how their opinions and perspective can create their emotions and how they can change their perspective and thereby change their emotions. And it helps them think about virtue – what does it mean to live with fortitude, patience, kindness, integrity?

Live like a Stoic Week 24-30th November

Live like a Stoic Week 24-30th November

KB: Can Stoicism help Londoners to observe the beauty in their own city? 

JE: There’s an idea in Stoicism of living in the now, bringing your attention to the present in order to appreciate the beauty of nature for example. There’s also the idea of sometimes widening your perspective, getting a bigger picture, through the contemplation of nature. That might best happen outside of London, but I find Hampstead Heath a good place for contemplation!

KB: Would a stoic practice mindfulness meditation? 

JE: Yes many do. Both Stoicism and Buddhism share the idea of the importance of mindfulness, of learning to be conscious of one’s automatic thoughts and desires and to avoid hasty attachment or aversion to external things.

KB: What does Stoicism have in common with Buddhism?

JE: Well, mindfulness for one. Overcoming attachment and aversion. Focusing on the present moment. More fundamentally, both think of philosophy as a form of therapy or medicine. And both share the cognitive theory of the emotions – the idea our emotions are connected to our thoughts and beliefs.

KB: Where can Londoners go to practice Stoicism and meet other stoics? 

JE: We are hosting a big event in London this Saturday although it’s sold out alas. But there is an online handbook at http://modernstoicism.com/ which people can follow. Plus lively facebook and reddit pages on Stoicism, and an organisation called New Stoa. There are many local philosophy groups such as the London Philosophy Club, and organisations like the School of Life and the Idler Academy often host stoic events.

When I worked in London I used to pass through Baker Street tube station every morning. This war memorial always caught my attention.

Baker Street war memorial

Baker Street station war memorial

 

What does this have to do with mindfulness? Quite a lot I think. Clinical mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn explained at the ‘Becoming Conscious: the Science of Mindfulness’ conference that mindfulness is: “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non judgementally”.

Reading the names of these soldiers on the stone plaque who, ‘left all that was dear to them, endured hardness, faced danger, and finally passed out of sight…giving up their own lives that others might live in freedom,’ always had the immediate impact of focusing my attention on the present moment. It’s easy to be negative about public transport in London: it’s over-priced, people are rude, it’s not clean enough, there’s never a seat…the list of complaints is endless. Taking a moment to read this plaque every morning reminded me to be grateful that our country is not at war, and that my friends and family are healthy.

I would normally stand in front of this plaque for a minute or two before catching the eastbound circle line train to euston square. I would then rush to the office and begin multi-tasking until the end of the day, but those two minutes were important.

It’s not easy to find stillness when you’re travelling through London, particularly in rush hour, but if you look hard enough then opportunities like this are dotted all over the city. The key is to stop inwardly complaining, stop rushing, stop checking your phone for a moment and look around – for me this plaque was a daily reminder to be present and grateful.

 

 

I recently discovered tai chi and kinda fell in love with the practice. I found it to be very similar to dynamic flow yoga, the style of yoga I teach in Cambridgeshire, in that it incorporates mindful movement, using the natural breath cycle to improve posture, heighten awareness and quiet the mind.

I attended a tai chi class at the East London Community Wellbeing centre, a new social enterprise in Bethnal Green, set up to offer low-cost yoga, Pilates and wellbeing classes to the local community. Read my review of the class for Healthy Living London here.

 

 

Les Goddesses, Moyra Davey

Les Goddesses, Moyra Davey

“It’s a messaging device that delivers your SMS letter by letter over the course of the day…”

This is Carolyn Strauss, Director of slowLab, an organisation that studies and promotes ‘slow design’ as a positive catalyst for individual, social and environmental wellbeing. Carolyn is describing one of many slowLab projects that examines our fast-paced, capitalist society, and attempts to come up with ways to challenge materialistic values and improve our everyday experiences by resisting instant gratification.

In some ways I thought this idea was quite charming: almost like receiving a love letter or a birthday card, the SMS would be treated as something thoughtful and considered, possibly even poetic. However, I can also see how this could be pretty frustrating: if you’re waiting for directions to a meeting, or the result of a test, the last thing you need is a painful, day-long drip-feed of dull information!

Carolyn was speaking alongside three other experts at the Camden Arts Centre on Saturday, as part of a talk on ‘slowness in the digital age’, a key theme in Moyra Davey’s work on the everyday passing of time: ‘life without sheets of paper to be scribbled on is masterpiece’, currently on show at the centre.

Richard Kerridge, Director of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, encouraged the audience to try ‘slow reading’. Richard described the technique as “a willingness to read with an openness in which there is a commitment to a long term engagement that will give (the text) the chance to answer back, repeatedly. This is an alternative to the rapid consumption of the text…” Richard argued that the regimented structure of our education system is partly to blame for students racing through texts, extracting a couple of quotes and then arranging them in a formulaic essay. Rather, we need the time and space to read and re-read, pause, reflect, and come to our own conclusions about the stories we read.

It’s also about accepting that life, and therefore stories about life, don’t normally fit into neat little structures. Richard said: “slow reading accepts and values the text’s resistance to interpretation, seeing this resistance as an opening out of space…we need to be willing to lose ourselves in the ‘nowness’ of reading, as an immersive experience, and pay explicit attention to the stages of decompression”.

Manu Bazzano, zen monk, writer and psychotherapist, noted that many people use speed and ‘busyness’ as a distraction. From his own experience of attending silent retreats, where time really does seem to slow down, there comes a point where fear sets in, as there are no external props or distractions to prevent you from simply sitting with your own experience, which can be tricky to deal with. Manu argued that we shouldn’t slow down our life experiences simply for the sake of slowness, rather we should find an ‘appropriate speed’ that serves us well – something all the panellists agreed on.

Marcus Verhagen, art historian and critic, discussed how we experience time when engaged with art. Marcus questioned whether works of art that clearly took a great deal of time, skill and precision to create encourage us to also take more time to pause, observe their beauty and decide for ourselves what meaning we can attribute to the work of art. I’m inclined to think yes: works that truly inspire wonder, like the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, do seem to encourage people to be more reflective.

So should we all unplug our laptops, switch off our smartphones, and spend all our weekends in art galleries and silent retreats? Surely not. During the final Q&A with the audience, the idea that social media simply reflects our restless, distracted state of mind was raised. We choose to check our emails, Facebook walls and text messages several times a day…if these distractions weren’t available, surely our minds would simply latch onto something else? This relates to an idea that yoga and meditation experts have known for thousands of years: focus is a skill which requires disciplined practice. If we don’t train our minds to be calm and focused, through mindfulness or other practices, then we won’t cultivate these qualities.

Another member of the audience also pointed out that social media and the digital revolution have actually been hugely positive for our wellbeing, pointing to the Headspace app as an example of an online company bringing mindfulness techniques to a mass market. This is a very good point.

It’s also worth noting that without the digital revolution I wouldn’t have found out about this panel discussion today, or about the Headspace app. I wouldn’t have been able to find the Camden Arts Centre without buying a paper map. I wouldn’t be writing this blog post, and I wouldn’t have known about the new yoga class I went to this weekend, or been able to catch up with friends outside of London at the click of a mouse. The digital revolution has certainly given us a lot to be grateful for: but I agree with the panel experts in that we need to ensure that we approach it mindfully, and don’t allow it to distract us from what’s really important.

Earlier this month I went to a talk by Roman Krzanaric, one of three talks on ‘health, wealth and happiness’ held by Salon London at the Adam Street club, just off the Strand.

Image by Geraint Davies

Image by Geraint Davies

Roman told us all about the six habits of highly empathic people, and how empathy, “the imaginative act of stepping into the shoes of another person and viewing the world from their perspective“, is not only a good (in the moral sense) thing to do, but it is also good for you. Roman argues that practising empathy will improve your relationships with your friends, partners, family, colleagues (even your enemies!) and enhance your understanding and appreciation of the world around you.

Empathy and social connection are also good for your health: Professor John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, observed dramatic differences in the rate of decline in physical and mental health as people age, and found that these differences can be linked to the quality of the individual’s personal relationships. Loneliness can even shorten life expectancy.

Before I go any further I should explain that empathy is very different from sympathy. Sympathy is the recognition that someone else is in a bad place, but it stops far short of what Roman describes as the ‘imaginative leap’ required to empathise and really step into the shoes of another person and understand their concerns, their challenges and their vulnerabilities. Research professor and best-selling author Dr. Brene Brown created this fantastic three minute ‘RSA Short’ animation to explain the difference between sympathy and empathy.

Roman urged us to start cultivating curiosity about strangers, and to use this curiosity to challenge our prejudices and better understand the uniqueness of individual experience. For example, in London a lot of people work in financial services, and suffer under the stereotype of ‘greedy banker’, a hangover from the post-credit crunch blame mentality. The mainstream media created a stereotype of bankers as a ruthless, amoral group, cut off from society with no concern other than their own self-interest. But this is an unlikely, ‘panto baddie’ style evaluation of a career path that attracts a wide range of personalities, from the deeply conscientious and socially responsible, through to the ‘selfish capitalist’ stereotype. In order to understand and empathise with someone, we need to strip away any pre-concieved notions and observe that person as a unique and complex individual.

Roman encouraged us to become more empathic through practising the art of conversation, and becoming more sensitive listeners. He also gave some beautiful examples of ‘grassroots’ empathy projects from around the world, including an initiative called ‘Hello Peace’, set up to facilitate empathy between Israelis and Palestinians who are affected by conflicts over land and resources in the middle east. A free telephone line connects Israelis and Palestinians who want to talk about ‘reconciliation, tolerance and peace’. In its first five years the project logged more than a million calls.

Roman argues that empathy is an integral part of human nature, and speaks fluently about the evidence from evolutionary biology and neuroscience that supports this claim. His book Empathy Revolution draws on ten years of research into this subject, and calls on us to practice empathy in our daily lives in order to defeat prejudice and bring about positive social change in our communities (and beyond). He has also created an amazing Empathy Library, where people can post recommendations and read reviews about books and films that help us to empathise with people from different backgrounds and gain a greater understanding of the world through their perspectives.

So how does all of this relate to mindfulness? Professor Paul Gilbert OBE explains in his latest book Mindful Compassion that ‘compassion’, comes from the Latin word ‘compati’, meaning ‘to suffer with’. This has very clear parallels with how Roman Krznaric and Brene Brown define empathy. Paul Gilbert argues in Mindful Compassion that in order to cultivate compassion we must first practice mindfulness. Paul writes: “we need to be aware of where our mind habitually goes and learn to direct our faculty of attention in ways that serve us. This is the role of mindfulness in the context of compassion training.”

Researchers have also observed a greater ability to adopt other people’s perspective and manage stress by people who practice mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) techniques.

While this data is useful, I think it brings to light something that we all know in our hearts: practising mindfulness makes us calm, happy and grounded, and this is a perfect environment for compassionate and empathic behaviour. It makes you happy, and it makes those around you happy: it’s a win-win situation!

The life expectancy of a butterfly is usually measured in weeks rather than months. The complete life span encompasses birth, the transition from egg to caterpillar, caterpillar to chrysalis, and finally chrysalis to graceful winged butterfly. The latter stage can be as brief as just two weeks.

Papilio memnon

Papilio memnon, south Asia. Image courtesy of the Natural History Museum, London.

As Tibetan Lama Sogyal Rinpoche describes in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, everything on earth is impermanent: each plant and animal flourishes for a short time, transitions from one state of being to the next, and then expires. The butterfly is a beautiful example of this. The theory of impermanence could be taken as a pretty melancholy view on life, but it needn’t be. Many great thinkers, from Buddhist monks to early Greek philosophers and modern political theorists, have argued that it is only through a deep understanding of our vulnerability, and our impermanent and ever-shifting state of being that we can truly appreciate our lives and cultivate wisdom.

Papilio palinurus, south Asia.

Papilio palinurus, south Asia.

I visited the Sensational Butterflies exhibition at the Natural History Museum last week to explore how interacting with nature can be a mindful experience. I’d read about the impressive health benefits of spending time outdoors and playing with animals, and wanted to combine these experiences with learning new things and seeing some rare and beautiful animals.

Idea leuconoe, south Asia.

Idea leuconoe, south Asia.

The exhibition takes place in a specially constructed tropical enclosure on the NHM’s east lawn, so maybe it’s not exactly ‘outdoors’, but it definitely ticked all the other boxes. I bought my friend Rebecca to the exhibition, a keen animal lover, zoology graduate and gifted wildlife photographer (yep, unless otherwise stated, all images in this post are by Rebecca)!

Mindfulness blogger and exotic butterfly :-)

Mindfulness blogger and exotic butterfly 🙂

As soon as we entered the enclosure we started to see many gorgeous species of butterfly. The butterflies are free-flying and tame, if you stand still long enough you’re sure to find one landing on your back/shoulder/arm. Nearly all the butterflies are rare breeds from tropical locations across south Asia, Africa and central America.

Dot Dash Sergeant, Singapore

Dot Dash Sergeant, Singapore

This isn’t anything like a traditional mindfulness practice: we went on a Sunday and the enclosure was full of toddlers! It is a great way to spend an afternoon though, and being amongst such beautiful and delicate creatures does focus your attention and engage all the senses, so in that respect it is a mindful, calming and nourishing experience. I’d recommend checking it out: the exhibition continues until 14th September and tickets cost £5.50.

Butterfly and chrysalises. Image courtesy of the Natural History Museum.

Butterfly and chrysalises. Image courtesy of the Natural History Museum.