In 2011, I was asked to participate in an experimental NHS course called Mindfulness for Depression. Back then, mindfulness was not yet mainstream. Adult colouring books promising instant zen had not yet landed on the shelves of Rymans, and living in the moment and paying attention were good ideas, rather than million dollar industries. I’d never heard of mindfulness, and the word instantly troubled me. I already felt full to the brim of ‘mind’; positively bloated with it, but I turned up at the clinic for the first session anyway and tried to keep my full mind open.
The course leader introduced herself as Doreen. She looked much too young and happy-go-lucky to have such an austere name. She skipped around, all fringe and leggings, handing out meditation CDs to her sceptical looking participants, most of whom were no-nonsense Scousers still in their outdoor coats.
The theory, she explained, was that through mindfulness, we would learn to pay attention. I winced. I have always been wary of that phrase. I associated it with stern French teachers and huffy driving instructors. Pay attention meant the end of daydreams and the beginning of strained concentration on irregular verbs and clutch control. But I kept listening.
If we pay attention to the world, she said, we can train ourselves to disengage from the direct experience of our thoughts and emotions – for it is in direct experience, apparently, that pain dwells.
Without further ado, she asked us to cup our hands. She fetched a packet of what looked like raisins – yes, yes, they were definitely raisins – out of her gym bag and placed one in the centre of each of our upturned palms. She did it somewhat reverently, as if we were at communion.
‘We are going to practice paying attention to our raisins,’ she said, with perfect seriousness. But we could pay attention to anything and everything, it didn’t have to be raisins, or indeed dried fruit of any kind. It could be the taste of a cup of tea, the scent of washing up liquid, the sensations within our bodies. To live mindfully was to live in the moment, with whatever was at hand.
‘Look at the raisin with wonder,’ she went on. ‘Imagine you’re a child seeing a raisin for the first time.’ When did I first see a raisin? I remember pouring them out when I was a kid, when I was helping Grandma with her Christmas puds. The mixture was always too heavy to stir and I always got told off for not using enough elbow grease.
‘If your mind has wandered,’ she said, ‘gently escort it back to the raisin.’ Hang on a minute, how did she know my mind had wandered? Maybe she could tell by my face. Must keep a poker face. Is this a poker face? If I was playing poker right now, could she tell what cards I had by the frequency of my blinks?
‘If your mind has wandered again, gently bring it back to the raisin. Lick the raisin. How does it taste?’ It… well… it tastes like a raisin. Do raisins count towards your five a day of fruit and veg? I know baked beans count, weirdly, but….
‘Now, listen to the raisin.’ Hmmm. I held it to my ear, but could hear nothing but the smirk of the lady next to me. Doreen could hear it too, but she merely smiled, raisin to ear, and kept listening.
‘Now,’ she said. ‘What did you notice about your raisins?’ The answer was absolutely bloody nothing. But I did notice that paying attention for any length of time was nigh on impossible.
One things I loved about the course was Doreen’s openness to our resistance. We could tell her that ‘paying attention’ bored us rigid and was too damn difficult, we could announce triumphantly that mindful meditation helped us to fall asleep (after she had told us time and again that this was absolutely not the point), we could tell her that the sight of raisins triggered traumatic childhood memories and leave the room in diva-like disgust. We did all of these things and more. She seemed to like it when we scoffed, as if she understood that our extreme reaction was merely a part of the process.
After all, resistance to mindfulness makes absolute sense. It is not necessarily relaxing. It is, at first, deeply frustrating and has no tangible immediate pay off. The first time you attempt formal mindfulness meditation (in which you’ll be asked to do something ghastly like pay attention to the quality of your breath for twenty whole minutes) your thoughts will almost certainly wander onto what else you could be doing with that time. You will ache to turn off the irritating guided meditation CD, to tell the American speaker to stop talking in cliches, turn on your laptop and do everything you’ve been putting off for six months, whether that’s spending last Christmas’s Argos voucher or switching energy supplier. But if you’re doing the meditation right, you will ‘mindfully pay attention’ to that compulsion, and you will stubbornly, indefatigably bring your attention back to your breath.
Despite our struggles, by the end of the course, we were all converts. We were getting better at something, we were progressing, and that felt good. Someone asked Doreen how to ‘go further’ in mindfulness. She answered with trademark wisdom: ‘In order to deepen your experience, you have merely got to practice it.’
I’ve tried, since the course, to practice regularly. And although it is not a panacea, living more mindfully has been beneficial in a number of ways.
To start with, it has taught me that the connection between the mind and the body is more profound than I had ever before realised. I have heard a hundred times that exercise, healthy eating, and dressing with a little thought can boost one’s self esteem. I have acted on all of these titbits of advice and discovered them all to be quite correct. But by doing regular body scan meditations (in which you sit upright and focus attention on the sensations in each area of the body in turn) I realised that I could make myself feel stronger and more dignified merely by arranging my limbs into an upright posture that embodied strength and dignity. I discovered that, by focussing on the goings on of my body as opposed to the activities of my mind, I could gain an intense and longed-for feeling of respite from the latter. Best of all I reawakened to the fact that I was more than a mind, and that my body was more than just an elaborate plinth for the contents of my troublesome skull. It was a gangly, achy, tingling mass of flesh, and was equally, if not more, interesting.
I have always known that depression’s power fluctuates, but I had never fully grasped that its power directly corresponds to the importance I placed on the what was going on around me. It is entirely relational. If the world is considered dull and unworthy of consideration, then depressive thoughts become the centre of attention, and they thrive off attention. But if the world is big and engaging, depression’s power shrinks.
Mindfulness may not be a magic cure. It has not defeated depression once and for all, but it has caused it to recede, and that’s more than I had hoped for.