Tamsin Bishton, Brighton
In 2008 I was doing a job that I loved in digital communications and working with people I counted as friends. But there was a culture of overworking, pressure and burn out. I kept going by taking anti-depressants, but I stopped them because of the side effects. I hardly slept and when I closed my front door at night I was swallowed by panic attacks. One day I realised I just couldn’t make myself go back to the office without something changing radically.
My CBT counsellor suggested a course of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, and it changed my life. From the first shaky breath, I felt the possibility of reconnecting with my breath, body, thoughts, and feelings. There was something inexpressibly powerful about just stopping and, having felt trapped and powerless, a pathway opened up. It led me away from my depression, fear, and anxiety by taking me right up close to them. It wasn’t an easy path to follow. It’s hard to look your demons in the eye and say, “I’m afraid of you, but I am more than you”. But instead of feeling overwhelmed I felt in control for the first time in years - and it all came from stopping, sitting and breathing.
Finding time to practise every day is still difficult, I’m married with a child, and I never take it for granted. But five years on I’ve taken ownership of my wellbeing and changed how I work. I respond to stress more constructively, and my ambition is to take what I’ve learned back into the workplace to help others like me.
Anu Gautam, Manchester
I was a dynamic 26-year-old high-achiever when I was diagnosed with advanced stage Hodgkin Lymphoma. I never imagined this would happen to me. My health deteriorated and I underwent several years of intensive treatment. It was hard to cope with the physical impact. But I also lost my independence and ability to function, and I felt angry and desperate.
Once the treatment was completed I tried to get back to what I’d been doing, but health problems kept getting in the way. The Breathworks mindfulness course showed me how mindfulness applied to the difficulties I was facing. The caring environment was important and so was the inspiration of the teacher, who had really embraced her own health situation.
I learned to get a distance from my thoughts and see that they weren’t necessarily true. That had a massive impact. I also saw I didn’t have to be pushed around by the ups and downs of illness. I started to experience a kind of peace that was always accessible, whatever was going on. A couple of years later I was asked to choose between a bone marrow transplant which could end my life, or having just a few years without it. It was the hardest decision of my life. After the treatment, I spent six weeks in isolation knowing my life might be ending, but I just stayed with what was going on, including the prospect of dying. It was an amazing time.
My cancer came back last year. That was upsetting but I knew that it was OK to be upset. I still can’t lead a very active life, but my priorities have changed. The most important thing for me is continuing this journey. I feel happier and more whole each day. And it’s great.
Anaya Ali, 14, UCL Academy School, Camden, London
When I first started mindfulness, I was 12, and I thought that it wouldn’t benefit me as much as they said it would. But the lessons always managed to settle my mind and made me feel better. Once mindfulness became clear to me I became used to it and tried it at home a lot more often. The main reason mindfulness means a lot to me now is that I have moments when I can become stressed easily or over-think things. I go to my room, sit there and remind myself what my teacher would say: “Focus on your breathing and be aware of what is happening now – ” Once I open my eyes everything seems to fix itself back into place somehow.
I’ve been given advice like “go and revise, it will clear your mind”; or “do some school work”, but none of it works as well as mindfulness. It gives people the chance to look at everything from a different perspective, a better perspective. Personally, I would recommend mindfulness to anyone who struggles with the small things they come across. Not only can they calm themselves down using mindfulness, but it reduces the extra stress you create.
Yogesh Patel, 46, teaches physics at Urmston Grammar, Manchester
I’ve always been keen to please others, and my perfectionism went along with feelings of failure. Discomfort was the norm for me; I’d convinced myself that it made me a better person, but I wasn’t being kind to myself and that affected my teaching.
Recently, the Academy asked for someone to attend an eight-week mindfulness course at a nearby school. After each session, I would rush back and tell my partner what I’d learned. Normally in teaching, we’re asked to engage with countless initiatives; but on the course, we were being asked to do less – and do it mindfully. It reassured me that you can’t get it wrong and that you can only get better with practice.
This course suggested that pupils, too, might benefit from simply sitting, calmly and focusing on their breath. When I first tried it with my form, they said it was weird and that “was I trying to brainwash them?”! But they enjoyed it and asked for it more frequently.
Since the course, I feel more peaceful, less agitated and more able to manage and respond to external demands. Mindfulness helps me approach tasks calmly, prioritise them and complete them with greater focus. I’m more willing to accept outcomes that don’t go my way and recognise when I am powerless. I try to take my time over things: to walk slower and not have hurried conversations. Whether it’s brushing my teeth or planning for work, I put all my energy into that one moment. The moment gets my full awareness and I try to see its richness.
Kate McGregor, Team Manager RWE npower – Customer Service Domestic department, Houghton le Spring, Sunderland
The nature of my job means that I have to juggle multiple tasks and work with people on customer calls. The volume of work left me feeling rather stressed and anxious. Then I joined a new department and had the opportunity to participate in mindfulness sessions guided by a mindfulness advocate. They were a completely new experience to me.
The CEO of RWE, Peter Terium, has been a mindfulness practitioner for more than a decade. He supported the rollout of the mindfulness programme in RWE npower call centres and in its top management team, aiming to reduce stress and increase performance. 18 Mindful Advocates in its Customer Services Domestic department have taught mindfulness to over 760 of the 2,400 call centre employees across the company so far.
Mindfulness taught me to take a gap – a breathing space – between activities. I learned to step away from the situation in my head and to focus on what was happening right now. Then I could revisit what I intended to do, but with a more calm and relaxed approach.
Terry Rumble, Manager Operational Support, Tata Steel, Port Talbot
For our organisation, identifying hazards and reducing risk are critical. Many people are familiar with tools designed to help staff pause, reflect and identify before acting. Yet, in major industrial disasters such as Bhopal, there were good processes and systems in place, but still the events happened. Following a mindfulness workshop, I saw that this approach might help combat the tendency to switch off.
We decided to incorporate mindfulness into our Leadership in Health and Safety modules. Training involved blue- and white-collar workers and trade union representatives, and it generated a lot of interest. Some managers immediately saw the opportunity to bring mindfulness to front-line staff, and have requested further practical sessions. Some trade union staff members believe that mindfulness can benefit the workforce, and their teams trust these views. That’s exciting because it is not management-led.
Mindfulness has given people new ways of approaching our risk assessment strategy and encouraged deeper, more logical, thinking on “what if”. I believe mindfulness is the missing piece of the jigsaw and complements our current strategies.
DCI Mark Preston, Major Crime Team, Surrey & Sussex Police Force
I’ve been a police officer for 25 years and am now a Detective Chief Inspector in Surrey and Sussex, Major Crime Team. I’m responsible for murder investigation – the pressure can make this a very lonely role. The demands being made on public sector workers are increasing. It’s very hard being in a leadership role when you can see the impact of these pressures bearing down on your staff, for whom you feel responsible. Policing is more than a full-time job, on top of which I feel as though I have a particularly hectic private life. Since I started practising mindfulness in 2013, I’ve noticed that I’m calmer and more likely to feel compassionate towards victims, witnesses and even offenders. I think that has implications for evidence-gathering, crime detection, victim satisfaction and community relations.
Learning that I have a choice as to how I respond to something has helped remove the causes of some of my stresses in life. Mindfulness has also helped me to de-escalate conflict and to deal with everything happening in my life – I honestly believe it has helped me become a better father and husband, but also a better leader for those I’m honoured to lead.
Dave O’Brien, Manchester
I was 52-years-old, and had graduated from approved schools to Borstal and onward to prisons, full time criminality, drug-taking and dealing, and finally to long-term unemployment. I had spent a year on a journey from drug use towards recovery, when offered a place on a mindfulness course. I was sceptical at first; but after an hour doing the exercises, I got a peaceful feeling. The breathing exercises made me feel relaxed straightaway. The course was mind-changing. It taught me to look at simple things in a different way.
Mindfulness wasn’t difficult to understand or catch on to - it simply helped to slow my thoughts and clear the mindless chatter and I practise it every day. It’s not a pressure, it is a pleasure and through it I realised I could study, learn and do things I had never thought possible.
I have a totally different outlook on life now and know that without mindfulness I wouldn’t be living the life I am today. A new world opened up for me, and it felt amazing. As a result of the mindfulness course, I started a bike club at the local community centre during the school summer holidays. Kids brought their bikes in and we repaired them. And I am now an honorary staff member at the University of Manchester researching suicide prevention and helping clinical psychologists to design and deliver suicide prevention initiatives in prisons. I have delivered lectures to first year psychologists so they can understand more about the lives of their patients and I am involved in a new research project called INSITE which is looking at appropriate interventions for mental health in-patients with complex needs and dual diagnosis. I have presented at national conferences on mindfulness, sustainability, prison health, offender wellbeing and recovery.
I am a fully qualified mindfulness teacher and am establishing a National Centre for Community Mindfulness so teachers who have had the kind of experiences I have had can take mindfulness into prisons and to those who are “hard to reach”, “challenging”, “non-compliant” and “complex”, and whatever other label we choose to put on them! I want to ensure that those who are most disadvantaged, most marginalised and those from protected groups can transform their lives and health with mindfulness. Through my own experience of mindfulness, I can spread it to those for whom nothing else has worked.
Criminal Justice System
James Docherty, Glasgow
Having survived early childhood trauma, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when aged five. For 15 years, I lived with addiction, alcoholism, criminality, homelessness and violence, and spent four years in prison. After leaving, I was introduced to mindfulness meditation by my mentor. This, together with other assistance, has enabled me to transform my life such that I’m now a healthy, contributing, drug-free member of my family and society. Mindfulness has been crucial in freeing me from substance addictions, supporting conflict resolution, and enabling me to be more fully present. It has allowed me to re-connect with Life.
Robert Falconbridge, HMP Dumfries
Prison throws up many challenges. Everybody copes in different ways in contrasting degrees and each prisoner will compile his or her individual list of hardships. The greatest one for me, aside from loss of liberty and the separation from loved ones, is a near total absence of peace.
This is a noisy place. It is an unnatural concentration of humanity and it produces lots of sounds. Most are unavoidable: voices, footsteps, innumerable doors and gates – add to that the countless hi-fis, TVs, officer radios and endless ringing telephones and you end up with a seemingly never-ceasing cacophony. You get used to it to some extent but you can never tune it out. But there is one way where, with practice, I learned that the noise just doesn’t matter so much.
Mindfulness found me in February 2014 when Lily and Gordon pioneered a group at HMP Dumfries. We were all in uncharted territory. I’ve taken part in groups involving meditation, therapy and even improvisation drama but this was different: calmer, less tangible, enigmatic.
lt seemed simple: close your eyes, settle, let the distant clamour happen. It’s OK, it doesn’t concern us in here; it’s all about the here and now. Let the thoughts come, the anxieties, the frustrations, the grudges. They are part of life, but let’s not dwell on them right now. The stresses of this world will undoubtedly be waiting for us when we end the session, leave them at the door with your shoes.
It is not always easy to hone the skills needed, but the reward is a period of time in which you can simply “be”. Mindfulness has helped me regain composure after a stressful experience, or shake off the rigours of the day. Another huge benefit of my mindfulness experience is that it has facilitated my embarking on university-level study. I always felt I had the potential to do this and had promised myself I would do it all my life, but with mindfulness I acquired the inner peace and the confidence to achieve this goal.
So thank you, mindfulness, for enabling me to turn a bad situation into a good. Thank you for affording me the luxury of peace in an environment that seems to be made of noise. Thank you for the skills I needed to fulfil my academic potential, improve my employment prospects, and yes, thank you for doing your bit in ensuring that once I get out of this place, I’ll stay out!