Union StUnion St

By Matt


These days it can seem like ‘Mindfulnesshas become the latest buzzword. We know it means something about being in the moment, but were a little hazy on the details. Management gurus are fond of flinging the phrase about, and someone somewhere at a trendy party right now is swearing it worked wonders for them and their dog. I do know theres an app for it.

Mindfulness is not a new concept, however – nor is it a trend. It has its roots deep in Buddhism and has been practised for years as a means of both focusing and calming the mind. Its key tenet is awareness: of oneself and of the world around us. A simple enough idea, but one that can take a lifetime to truly master – like chess, perhaps, but with more action.

Breathworks is an organisation that brings the Buddhist lessons of mindfulness into a secular world. It was developed by Vidyamala Burch, who has lived with chronic pain most of her life since suffering spinal injuries as a teenager. The approach has a distinctly practical focus for dealing with physical pain and psychological stress in everyday life; but it is also anchored in the spiritual roots which it came from.

For Jane Mitchell, a learning disability specialist nurse and student of the Breathworks Teacher Training Programme, an understanding of these empathetic foundations is crucial to the practice of mindfulness.

“I worry that there are courses out there where it’s being done as a tool to change people or to have an outcome through a workplace,” she says, when we meet over an after-work drink at a local pub. “That really isn’t where it’s coming from: it should never be done without the compassion element.”

“I’m interested to see the different types of people that might come,” she tells me. “I feel like it’s a good fit with Union St, attracting different sorts of people. I think there can also be a sort of stigma around people that sit around and meditate, or people might see it as sort of serious – but I want the workshops to be really informal.”

The benefit of meditation and of mindfulness is one that holds personal resonance for Jane. She moved down to London after she qualified as a nurse – but after returning to Sheffield in 2007 she realised that much of the initial move had been a running away, and began focusing on squaring up to the elements in her life that she had been turning away from.

“I just had this realisation that anxiety and stress had been a big part of my life – but I hadn’t really acknowledged or understood how much that was influencing the way I was, the way I was interacting with the world.”

Mindfulness was one of several avenues she explored. She came to it via the Sheffield Buddhist Centre – but it wasn’t until she did a Breathworks course that something really clicked for her.

Of the divide between spiritual and secular approaches she notes: “Although it’s a secular organisation, they are doing it very much with a lot of knowledge and background of where it’s come from; and that’s really important.”

Again, the need for compassion – towards oneself and the world – is crucial. Mindfulness is not about getting anywhere else: it is not about accelerating. In many respects, it is the antithesis of our accolade-heavy, achievement-driven world, where the outcome is king.

Jane cites the analogy of a snow-globe. When the globe is shaken, the flakes of snow are in chaos. That, she says, is our mind in its unharnessed state. Mindfulness is when the flakes come to rest on the base: they are still present, but they have settled. The chaos has cleared.

“Some people think mindfulness is about emptying your mind, but that’s not possible at all. It’s awareness: awareness of your thoughts, of your body, and of your emotions; and it always incorporates all of those things and it’s about looking at all of those things in a non-judgemental way.”

As a learning disability nurse taking care of children with neuro-disabilities, Jane is no stranger to the effects of either stress or chaos. The Breathworks training and her meditation practice has made her aware not only of the benefits for herself, but for others as well.

“In my job I see people that are carrying an awful lot of stress and how that impacts them. I think the modern world is a very stressful one to be in – there’s a lot about achieving and people are very busy, so there’s very little time to think about what you’re doing. People are operating on a kind of autopilot.”

The idea of setting oneself apart from achievement is very important: the notion of not fixating on an end goal, but appreciating the present moment in its singularity. Observing yourself, rather than being absorbed by it, is our ticket out of here.

“The focus of the workshop is about becoming an observer of what’s going on in your mind and body,” says Jane. “So instead of being within it and wrapped up in it, you’re taking yourself outside it.”

After the success of Jane’s taster sessions (fully booked within just a few days of the release of tickets) Jane now plans to launch the full length eight-week Mindfulness courses at Union St. The longevity of the M-word’s hype may be hard to predict, but the benefits of its practical application hold out the test of time.

For Jane, who is reducing her hours at work to devote more time to being a Mindfulness teacher, the impact on wellbeing is indisputable.

“I feel really passionately that mindfulness works. I became aware that it gives me energy and was positive; whereas my work can leave me depleted at times. I felt it was about getting that balance right.”

“I see that people benefit from it – and if I can help with that in any way then, bring it on.”

More details of Jane’s new Mindfulness For Stress course are here, and you can follow Jane’s new MindBodyFeeling project on Twitter here and on Facebook here

About Matt
Matt co-ordinates Union St and Champions Enterprise Nation in Sheffield. For feedback, questions or suggestions please email matt@union-st.org
Tea Break with: Jane Mitchell of MindBodyFeeling