Mindfulness Leighton Buzzard

What is the difference between mindfulness and CBT?

You may have heard me mention that I’m studying psychology with the Open University and I was lucky enough that my mindfulness experience gave me an advantage during my last assignment!  The assignment was to compare and contrast cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness as approaches for working with and understanding fear and sadness.  Catchy title!  While I knew next to nothing about CBT before the study topic I do have a good understanding about mindfulness so was able to approach the assignment with a little more confidence than normal and I thought you may be interested in a summary of how mindfulness is both similar and different to CBT.  Don’t worry I won’t bore you with my actual essay!!

Firstly I will briefly (and certainly not expertly), describe CBT as a therapeutic approach that looks at the way that we think and how that might affect the way that we act.  We may have attached positive or negative emotions to particular situations based on our past experience which then influence how we behave in similar situations in the future.  This in turn can lead to repeated patterns of behaviour which are reinforced each time we experience them and can become problematic if they result in phobias and anxiety.   Hopefully if you’ve an interest in mindfulness you will already be aware that mindfulness is the practice of focussing on and being aware of the present moment rather than being lost in thought, thinking about the past or the future. 

CBT generally involves one-to-one sessions with a CBT therapist identifying which thoughts or situations may be a problem and working together to improve or change a particular way of thinking.  This may involve making sense of thinking patterns and using behavioural experiments to help consider alternative ways of thinking and behaving.  Mindfulness is more of a skill or technique that can be practised individually with the help of books, apps, websites etc. or as part of a workshop, course or practice group.  It normally involves either an exercise or a meditation where you practise choosing where you are going to place your attention – every time your attention wanders you practise bringing it back – and you try to do this without judging, liking or disliking.

Both CBT and Mindfulness encourage you to be aware of your thoughts and feelings rather than push them away or ignore them.  This can sometimes be an uncomfortable experience so not always the Zen, calm experience that mindfulness is sometimes portrayed as!  Those of you who come to the monthly practice group will be familiar with the range of emotions that we can be aware of and that come and go just within a few minutes of some of the exercises.  During a mindfulness practice we might acknowledge a difficult emotion such as fear or sadness, but also broaden the attention to include noticing what else is also present for example, sounds smells, sights and our breath.  This practice of noticing more than an emotion creates a sense of space so that the difficult emotion is no longer the only thing we are aware of.

Similarities of the two approaches in facing difficult feelings has led to the combination of mindfulness and cognitive-behavioural therapy known as mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness has become known as the third wave of cognitive-behavioural therapy.   So how do they both approach fear and sadness?  CBT has been developed with psychological research as a way of problem solving difficulties with negative emotions.  Mindfulness approaches negative emotions as a normal part of a human experience so rather than problem solving or curing them, mindfulness notices them and allows them to part of the present moment. 

Which one you feel works best for you may depend on what you are struggling with, along with personal choice.  They are both used extensively by therapists, counsellors and psychotherapists helping people to cope with difficult emotions.  Whichever you experience one of the main advantages is that both approaches can be practised independently once the techniques have been learnt.  This makes them useful skills to manage difficult emotions for life, not just during a therapy session or workshop.

Mindfulness Leighton Buzzard

Silent or quiet?

I often get asked questions about the periods of silence on mindfulness retreat so wanted to share my personal take on why we practice silence and what it's like.  The periods of silence on retreat are actually my favourite times, for me the opportunity to not have to make conversation with other people around me is great.  I find myself releasing my inner introvert to run around gleefully without restraint and relish the freedom that it gives me.  It makes me realise how exhausting I sometimes find conversation.  Personally I never feel alone, we make eye contact with each other, smile by way of greeting and I feel quite content in going about my meals, breaks, meditation periods in the company of others all doing the same - I realise it isn't quite the same for everyone but then my Myers Briggs personality type is ISFJ the sociable introvert!

For the group that I share a retreat with the silence is held with a light touch.  We don't have to be silent in everything we do - I happily bash my boiled egg and stir my coffee and it is the lack of conversation which enables you to be more aware of the sounds around you that you may not have noticed before.  If someone says something because they've forgotten or they've dropped something, or would like you to pass the butter/juice/salt, nobody scowls or tells you to ssssh, its just more to notice, particularly those little flares of physical sensations if you were the one who spoke.   We don't do elaborate miming, (I have seen this at other day retreats) - surely everyone finds that more distracting than saying a couple of simple words, I know I do.  And if we see people who aren't on retreat we don't ignore them if they speak to us either, however we might keep conversation to a minimum and return to silence afterwards.

The advantage of periods of silence is that there is definitely more to notice with your other senses.  Someone stirring their tea sounds surpringly loud, the smell of coffee or peeling an orange is magnified and it is much easier to be aware of physical sensations in the body.  I find that I have a running commentary in my head about what is going on around me, maybe reflecting on the previous meditation session, or along the lines of "ooh this cakes tastes nice", (4pm everyday).  The lack of conversation with others means that when I go back to the next meditation session my mind isn't so distracted or busy processing thoughts and conversations but instead is ready to drop back into a calmer level of meditation.  To me the silence feels like one extended period of mindfulness, when I am aiming to be constantly aware of the present moment and what is happening around me but with different levels depending on whether I am meditating or not.

The running commentary of my own mind makes me feel like I'm getting to know myself better.  I recognise some of my thinking habits and patterns and often find myself amused at the random twists and turns that my mind takes, particularly when I think I've had a world changing insight!   I start to find little quiet areas to be on my own and seek solitude as well as silence but then I haven't yet experienced a full seven days of silence so that could be a completely different experience again.

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Mindfulness Leighton Buzzard

 

Aren't Mindfulness Retreats all about hardship & suffering?

So I'm back from my fourth annual mindfulness retreat and it's really interesting to hear different people's responses to my time away.  Questions tend to range from did you have a nice relaxing time to questions about hardship and suffering.  Friends and family know I'm fairly unlikely to go for any hardship and suffering options however it isn't quite a relaxing spa break either - being mindful is actually pretty hard work.

I have only experienced mindfulness retreats that have been organised by Integrated Mindfulness and that take place at the scenic Trigonos venue in Snowdonia. According to some of the retreat "horror stories" shared at dinner of only eating porridge, or not allowing eye contact with others, I know that I have been very lucky, and so far have no intention of going anywhere else!  

Starting with where I stayed, Trigonos is a really peaceful place to stay and feels very much like a second home now.  The house and workshop rooms overlook the grounds and lake with a view of Snowdon when the weather allows.  There are no shared chores, Trigonos look after you very well, rooms are simple and comfortable and the vegetarian food is tasty and plentiful.  The one thing everyone talks about, (not just the vegetarians), is how amazing the food is - especially the cake at 4pm each day!!

The retreat timetable is based around a weekend retreat and then an extended option for those of us who want to stay on and use it as part of our requirements under the good practice guidelines for those teaching mindfulness based programmes.  The structure allows for lots of mindfulness meditation obviously - around 5-7 hours a day so not for the faint hearted, however it is also perfectly acceptable to leave sessions early, do some mindful movement, walking or pastime of your own choice as well, (yes sometimes snoozing).  There is also a break in the afternoon to use as you like.  We do have a period of silence, including breakfast on the Sunday, and the extended section of the retreat is mainly silent as well which I will describe separately.  The main theme for the retreat is compassion, checking in to what is right for you, what you need, and acting accordingly which is surprisingly difficult as I'm certainly not used to only being responsible for myself.  There is lots of laughter and chatter between meditation sessions when we aren't being silent - in fact we've been told off for being too noisy in the past by another group.

I personally turn off all social media, email etc. etc. and with no TV either I enjoy the feeling of being in a bit of a bubble, escaping from the world and also the additional time in the day that it frees up.  I find missing my family the hardest thing to deal with and so I message them every day just to check in and say Hi which helps.  (Yes I know some retreats require you to have no contact at all but we've already established that isn't my sort of retreat).

So did I experience any hardship and suffering?  No. I probably wouldn't go again if that was the case!  I generally feel well looked after and nourished in terms of food and escaping modern day working life.  I come away reminded of why I practise mindfulness, normally with some funny, crazy insights about how my mind works and ideas about how to share that with others.  Most importantly I have time to experience lots of longer meditation practices which is the biggest challenge for me in my own personal mindfulness practice. 

My recommendation if you are considering attending a retreat yourself is to do your research first.  Make sure that the retreat you are attending is going to suit you and your personality, if you aren't sure, see if you can get recommendations from others, and perhaps start with attending a day first to see if it is for you.

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