Thursday, 31 August 2017

Alumni Spotlight: Gwen Adshead

Gwen Adshead is a forensic psychiatrist and psychotherapist who completed the Master's in MBCT in 2012.Below she discusses how the course encouraged her to explore new professional pathways, whilst also supporting her own personal understanding of mental health. 

I am grateful for a chance to say 'hello' to those who are interested in the Oxford MBCT course; and to say "thank you" to those wonderful teachers and fellow trainees in the class of 2012. What I'll try and do is explain how I came to do the course and what I learned from it: bearing in mind that I have limited word count!
I'm a forensic psychiatrist and psychotherapist, who works with people who have committed crimes of violence when they were mentally ill or distressed. I therefore work in prisons and secure mental health services, with people who suffered high levels of chronic depression and hopelessness. I looked at John Teasdale's original research and Mark Williams' trials of MBCT in chronic depression; and I thought this intervention might have potential for helping the people whose problems I know best.

I had two other reasons for studying MBCT. I was involved with a friend in a discussion about how cognitions are different, or change, between states of well-being and states of sadness. We wondered if these incompatible cognitive states of mind mirror incompatible states in quantum physics; I know nothing about quantum physics but I thought I could learn more about depressive cognitions, which might help his work.

Finally, I could have been a subject in the MBCT treatment trials. Postnatally, I had developed a relapsing depression which had responded to antidepressants but had also come back three times. I was intrigued about what I could learn personally about mood regulation as well as professionally.

So, what happened? Well, I obviously learned an enormous amount about the clinical value of MBCT. I went back to work and set up mindfulness practice groups for staff and patients: and we got a good response from those who could engage. Engagement was a serious problem though for forensic patients, possibly because of their repeated experience of trauma in childhood and adulthood. Still the program was successful for those who could engage, and so it remains to be seen whether and how forensic patients can learn mindfulness: work in progress.

However, I have to say that the most important outcome of the course was its impact on me personally. I found the practice painful and difficult at the start, but the compassion practices helped me to take psychological pain seriously, mine and other people's. I haven't had a relapse of my depression since 2012: and I've got a better understanding of how avoidance of pain is a major contributor to psychopathology. I got interested in how health care professionals manage the pain of others’ distress, and with two other marvelous colleagues (both of whom are experienced mindfulness practitioners), I set up a series of retreats for doctors who want to learn about self-care and resilience in their practice. I've now been to Ammerdown many times, with deep joy and thankfulness.

So, the course changed me in many ways; life changing is not too strong a phrase. It helped me professionally and personally: and set me off on new clinical paths and new ways of thinking of about psychological therapies. I can't thank the teachers enough, and they feature in my practices regularly. And I learned enough to help Roger get his paper published in a quantum physics journal; but don't ask me to explain it to you!

Alumni Spotlight: Darko Lovric

Darko Lovric completed the Master’s in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy in 2012, and now works in innovation and people analytics in New York. 

Below, Darko discusses three aspects of the course – personal meditation practice, scholarly detachment and teaching – and how he continues to use the skills developed during the programme in his everyday life.


Three ways MBCT helped me to take mindfulness into the world 

Mindfulness often implicitly implies a separation from the world. Sitting on a mat removed from everyday habits of the mind and body. Attending a retreat. Retreating to a mountaintop. Spirituality is frequently contrasted with the everydayness of life, and the path forward entails leaving our normality behind and entering a different space. 

While certainly a time-tested tradition across spiritual practices, such an approach leaves most of those interested in meditation with an obstacle and a challenge. An obstacle in creating a separate space for meditation, and a challenge in understanding how exactly this practice will benefit the lives they do not plan to leave behind. 

The Breathing Space meditation has fundamentally transformed my practice – the simple act of cessation of everyday frantic activity and turning inward while remaining within my everyday context has enabled me to see and live mindfulness woven within the fabric of the everyday. Breathing Space has for me been the bridge between my mindfulness practice and my practice of daily living, reminding me again and again that mindfulness is not linked with a posture, place or space but rather by the quality of internal attention, that can be helpful anywhere and everywhere. 

Secondly, MBCT has helped me was to skilfully separate the practice of meditation from a belief system. While seemingly easy, this task required great skill - for the best instructions about mindfulness (how and why to practice) come from within existing belief systems and are connected with it in myriad ways, with threads that both illuminate and bind. Too many approaches either accept the belief system completely, or ignore it to their detriment - and it is in this area that scholarly detachment and nuance becomes invaluable. To preserve the teaching while not requiring a subscription to the belief system is a hard task - but essential if mindfulness is going to become a more established part of life across our diverse world. 

Finally, MBCT course was designed for a dual purpose - to develop one’s own practice whilst learning how to facilitate the practice of others. Shifting back and forth between these perspectives is immensely helpful, turning what is by necessity a solitary practice into a communicable and shared experience that binds groups together. Much like advice for mastering any subject centres on explaining the topic to others, so deepening one’s own practice benefits from the task of crystalizing it to others. Conversely, the act of skilfully teaching from personal experience without becoming too didactic is a great test of an experienced meditator (and one with which I certainly struggled) - the temptation to escape into words and a teaching role and away from the unfolding inner experience is strong, and mimics well the pull of the everyday. Learning how to expertly engage with such pressures has been a great way to ensure my mindfulness practice becomes deeper and more resilient. 

While by no means the only things I’ve learned, these three aspects of the course have undoubtedly made me a better meditator and a better teacher. 

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

What would a typical teaching block involve?

At the end of every teaching block we ask all students to complete a short survey providing feedback on the teaching they have received during the few days they have spent in Oxford. We really appreciate any comments or suggestions, and we take everything into consideration, from seemingly minor issues, such as teaching rooms and meditation mats, to recommendations on guest speakers, suggestions on expanding the teaching of particular topics, or proposals for incorporating new material into the programme.

One of the aspects of the course which students consistently praise is the combination of the experiential and the academic, the variety of experience and learning contained within each teaching session. Each block aims to provide a balance between allowing students to experience MBCT from the inside, as participants, and providing rigorous theory on relevant themes, for instance on the clinical background of MBCT, current research in neuroscience, or embodied cognition in Buddhist psychology. 

A typical three-day teaching block in the first year would normally begin with an experiential day, during which participants have the opportunity to follow guided meditation practice and deepen their personal commitment to mindfulness meditation. Since there would typically be a break of six-eight weeks between teaching blocks, many students find this shared practice a very apt way to re-engage and focus on the fundamentals of MBCT. Feedback from current students has indicated that participants see these experiential days as not only an opportunity to cement their own practice, but also a chance to nurture themselves, a fundamental step in MBCT teachers personal and professional development. Students are encouraged to reflect on their own practice throughout the day, to be aware of their experience, and are also encouraged to keep a diary of their practice throughout the year, which will eventually form the basis for the reflective analysis, a written piece integrating personal experience of meditation practice with research and clinical principles covered in the course.

The second day would typically involve teaching from a guest speaker on a relevant topic, for instance on cognitive science. A recent visitor to Oxford to teach on the MSt in MBCT was Professor Norman Farb from the University of Toronto who presented a psychological model of mindfulness, speaking on A Practical Neuroscience of Mindfulness. During his visit to Oxford Professor Farb also presented his research at the Department of Psychiatry, speaking on Trajectories of Vulnerability and Resilience in Recurrent Depression. If you would like to get a taster of Norman Farb’s work, you can view his talk online below:

The third teaching day would normally cover a further specialist area, for instance Buddhist theory and philosophy. John Peacock, who is Co-Director of the Master’s Programme, is also our resident expert in this field, having been a Buddhist scholar and practitioner for thirty years. The MSt programme covers a wide range of topics from Buddhist theory, from embodied cognition, to the proliferation of thought in the construction of experience, to the concept of dependent origination. If you would like to listen to John Peacock on a range of topics, you can find podcasts of some of his talks available here.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Alumni Spotlight: Clare McLusky

Clare McLusky completed the Master’s course in 2012 and now works as a mindfulness teacher at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre and for the cancer charity Yes to Life. Below, Clare discusses her decision to apply for the Master’s, her experiences of the course, and how she has used the skills and experience she acquired during her studies in her personal and professional life.

Embarking on a Masters in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy
When I heard about the Masters in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) I was really excited.  Here was an opportunity to bring my personal and professional life together.  I had been practicing meditation for about 3 years, was trained as an occupational therapist and was working for a cancer charity.   I knew for myself how the simple practice of meditation, created space in my life that allowed me to make wiser choices in each moment.  The practice, and insights gained from Buddhist texts, were key to turning a life challenge into a healing journey.  I was passionate to offer this wonderful practice and teaching to people going through similar challenges and I was ready to deepen my own practice.  Furthermore, I felt I needed help with the discipline of daily practice.  I looked to the masters to provide the rod!

I was ecstatic when I achieved a place on the course.  However, on the first day and for quite a while afterwards I was thrown back in touch with that old familiar voice “I’m not good enough”.  We were warned at the matriculation ceremony that many students experience this at Oxford University.  I compared myself with my course colleagues who were very bright and accomplished professionals, some with long held mindfulness practices. Thankfully, the course was taught with great gentleness, wisdom and humour and I never felt uncomfortably put on the spot.  And of course, it was the perfect subject matter to help me gradually be able to see these habits of thoughts for just that, habits of thought.

The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven
John Milton

I did feel very privileged to be in a cohort of just 14 people with the constant presence and input of a teaching team of four experts including Professor Mark Williams.  What I loved most was the continual weaving together of theory and practice, and time for discussion and reflection.  Learning from these experts, and from books and papers, whilst at the same time being curious about my own experience within the practice itself and in my daily life, really allowed for purposeful learning during this time.  It was perhaps this aspect that I found most valuable but also being able to study in more depth areas of particular interest. Doing the project in year 2 was an incredible experience.  I designed and delivered an adapted MBCT course for people living with cancer.   It was a journey of growth as I committed to open myself up to my own pain and suffering in order to be present to that of others.  The written project, describing the design, delivery and evaluation, and my reflections on it, is something I still draw on now.

And afterwards
Since gaining my masters, I have enjoyed being able to offer mindfulness courses to people living with cancer through various cancer charities, to my friends and neighbours. I have an ongoing weekly meditation group at my house with friends I taught 3 years ago and others who have been practicing like me for a while.  Three years ago, I joined the teaching team at OMC, teaching on the public courses.  This was quite a different experience to the size of groups I was used to.  There are normally 25 participants and 2 teachers.  It is a wonderful learning experience co-teaching with more experienced teachers and gradually developing in confidence and trust in the teaching itself.  It is so inspiring to see the insights and shifts that people make in just 8 weeks.  And for me too – each time I prepare for and teach a course it is as though I begin again and I may suddenly experience something at a different level.

You teach best what you most need to learn

The teaching and practices are an incredible gift that I am more and more able to give myself to stay grounded in the present moment when it is uncomfortable, when often it feels an easier choice to suppress or avoid it.