Can Mindfulness help improve Mental Health?

Mental Health is has been given a lot of exposure recently, its being covered in the media and even government policy. But do we really understand mental health?

What is Mental Health?

We all have mental health, it’s just the other side of physical health, sometimes we refer to it as emotional health or well being. We all suffer from poor mental health at some point in our life, it is natural, just like breaking a leg or getting the flu; we are all susceptible to injury and illness, physically and mentally.

Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also harder to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden. It is easier to say “my tooth is aching” than to say “my heart is broken” - C.S Lewis

There is no single cause for mental illness, it can be biological, psychological, environmental or a combination.

What does Poor Mental Health Feel and Look like?

This is where the lines blur, how do we identify poor mental health, when do we attach the label “illness?”

Some may show signs of declining mental health through a change in personality, how they process thoughts and interact with others. Often there is no outward signs, it is easily concealed, for others it is very outwardly expressed.

Poor mental health affects how we feel about ourselves and people around us. It influences our ability to make and keep friends and relationships. It hinders our ability to learn from others and to develop psychologically and emotionally.

Of course much of this is subjective, how do we really know if someone is “mentally ill” or if it is just their character? It is hard if not impossible to accurately diagnose mental illness. Our views of mental health have changed so much over history; there were times when a woman was “insane” for disobeying her husband. Therefore mental illness is still very much undiscovered and likely to change as we evolve.

How we treat Mental Illness

Until recently the most common way to “treat” mental illness was by the use of drugs. One could argue that we are only treating the symptoms not the illness. We also have many other therapies such as counselling, psychotherapy and recovery programs. All beneficial in their own way, for some it works for others it doesn’t.

I am not my diagnosis

What I’ve always struggled with is the question; do we become our label? Growing up I challenged the labels people tried to impose on me, what purpose do labels have in establishing who we think we are? I’ve watched children I taught as a secondary school teacher be labelled “bright”, “slow”, “academically challenged” and the list goes on. I wonder how many of these children grew into their labels?

In my experience, I have found people who suffer from mental illness as very emotional, deep thinkers. Some are creative, expressive and think out of the norm. Look at how Einstein was described:

Einstein's primary-school teachers reported that the child had a powerful and lingering distaste of authority. Coupled with his late-developing speech, some medical professionals have suggested this behavior as symptomatic of either autism or Asperger's Syndrome. 

I am sure there is plenty of cases similar to Einstein. In society we see anything that is different as being a problem, even to the point that recently “disobedience” is being labelled as a mental health problem. That has got to be worrying?

Mindfulness and Mental Health

Finally we have come to a place of understanding that mental health needs a different approach. I won’t for a second suggest that Mindfulness is the cure for all mental health issues, nor will I say it’s appropriate for everyone. As we have already established, mental health is too personal too have a one fit solution for all.

These are the reasons that I think Mindfulness can help improve Mental Health:

“The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden” - C.S. Lewis

In Mindfulness we are taught to turn towards our pain. This can be extremely difficult for some and maybe even the first time that they are asked to do this. It is essential that when learning to practice Mindfulness you have an experienced practitioner to guide you, so that you can be supported to know when to turn towards and when to move to a different place when it gets too much. Mindfulness is a process of self regulation, at first we need someone to help us learn how.

Why turn towards our pain? - simply because when we pay attention to it, give it room to do what it needs to do, it can also begin to dissolve. This doesn’t mean it goes away, it just becomes less of an issue. We learn to be with it in a different way.

You can’t tell just by looking at someone what they are dealing with inside - Danielle Rupp

Mental Health is such a personal experience that the only real way to improve it is to work on ourselves. This can be really difficult for someone in the grips of a mental health problem and I guess this is where the use of drugs may help, temporarily in any case. Mindfulness is about self-discovery, self-acceptance and strengthening inner resilience. Through our Mindfulness practice we learn to accept that life isn’t going to always go our way, we learn to accept our failings and befriend what we see as our weaknesses.

In short, Mindfulness is coming to terms with the fact that we are only human

The practice of Mindfulness teaches us to pay attention, to see for ourselves what we are doing and why. With this increased awareness we start to take steps to change our behaviours, we can see and therefore we can do something about it.

The deepest pain I ever felt was denying my own feelings to make everyone else comfortable

What would happen if you suddenly accepted yourself just as you are? What if you could start to be kind to yourself? - this is what we learn through the practice of Mindfulness.

You cannot recover from anxiety by just staying calm

Some people are under the impression that Mindfulness is about learning to stay calm and relaxing. I’d argue that this is the biggest misconception. To learn to relax is a temporary feeling, useful at times but not life changing. It may help to stop the anxiety taking over but it won’t stop the anxiety.

Mindfulness is a practice that can greatly enhance how we live our life. It takes time and commitment to cultivate a moment to moment awareness of what we are doing, when we are doing it. We have to learn and apply Mindfulness practices, not for a day or a week but for the rest of our life. And in a society that is used to quick fixes, this doesn’t always sound ideal.

However if we really are serious about mental health, if we really want to learn how to live in a world that is constantly changing, to take better care of ourselves and be content, then perhaps it’s time to make a bigger commitment to ourselves?

If you want to know how we can help you bring Mindfulness into your life, school or workplace, please do get in touch.

Acceptance isn't giving up

Acceptance is a difficult one to work with when you are going through a tough time. When your world is falling apart, you have a painful illness or you just can't see anything positive in life, how does acceptance help?

Well, firstly it's good to understand what we mean by acceptance because it is very often confused with giving up and resigning ourself to our current situation.

Acceptance is nothing to do with giving up, it is much more about seeing it clearly, about facing whatever your current challenge is and just saying "well it's here, I might as well face it". In Mindfulness, we say we turn towards it because it is through this process that we can begin to deal with it.

A Beautiful Mind 

It may be useful to look at the story of John Nash, a Nobel Prize winner with a remarkable mathematical mind who has spent a lifetime living with Schizophrenia. The film a Beautiful Mind documents John's story and how he was able to finally find a way to live with his delusional state of mind without medical intervention. To clarify, John Nash had invented three imaginary people who played a major part in his life and that led him to behave irrationally, sometimes dangerously. 

It is in this scene that he gives us some insight into how he has come to terms with his condition. After years of working on his confused, irrational thoughts, John Nash finally shares how he was able to transform his life. Let me share this insightful conversation with his old (real) friend Martin:

Martin: "Have they gone?" (referring to his imaginary friends)

John: "No, not gone, maybe they will never be gone. But I've got used to ignoring them, and they've kind of given up on me"

He then goes on "I think that's what it's like with all our dreams and nightmares, you have to keep feeding them to stay alive"

Martin: "John, but they haunt you?"

John: "They're my past, everyone is haunted by their past" 

What John's story teaches us is that it was only when he was able to accept his delusions, was he able to help himself.

Acceptance is not giving up

Pema Chodron refers to our constant battle with "what is" like us constantly kicking the wheel. We can't have peace of mind if we keep on kicking the wheel, or if we bite the hook so we get caught. In Tibetian, the word "Shenpa" is used to describe that sticky, uncomfortable feeling we get when we are experiencing something we don't like or want. 

Shenpa - An unwillingness of human beings to let go of certain thoughts, particularly those that cause suffering

So what is the difference between acceptance and resigning yourself to your current situation?

In Mindfulness, we practice staying with our current feelings and emotions, even though our instinct may be to run or distract ourselves so that we don't have to feel what we feel. But we can't change the movie if we don't see it, we can't solve a problem until we understand it, we won't know the root cause if we don't explore deeper.

So we learn to stay, even if it is uncomfortable. We bring in loving kindness to the situation, we give ourselves the support we need to sit with the uncomfortable feeling. Until we can develop our inner resilience we are always going to be caught up in life's ups and downs, the slightest thing will upset or agitate us.

By staying and accepting what is happening at this moment you are able to get to the root of the struggle. We do this through meditation or by simply sitting with your breath, becoming fully acquainted with whatever is going on right now.

Taking John Nash's story as an example, we could narrow the process down to three simple steps:

First you must see.

Face your struggling. And recognise the thoughts you have around this uncomfortableness. Question your thoughts, are they real? Do they really reflect the whole situation? In the film Beautiful Mind, at this stage John Nash shouts at his imaginary friends "you are not real" because our thoughts are not a realistic reflection of the whole situation, are they?

At this stage you are curious, you are exploring and you are asking all the questions. If you are suffering from an illness, are your thoughts helpful or are they causing you to suffer more? What are the facts and what are the delusions? 

Making Friends with Your Struggle

The next step is to stop fighting, to surrender to the fact that maybe your challenge will never go away. Now that sounds very fatalistic, doesn't it? Well, actually it's not because when you let go of the struggle, suddenly it has less of a hold on you. For those of us who've experienced childbirth, we know that the only way to bear the pain is to stop the struggle. Adding pain to what's already a painful experience doesn't help anyone.

And always remember to be kind, yes I know this is a whole other subject!

Make Peace - Acceptance

Going back to our friend John Nash, he freed himself from the constant involvement with his thoughts. That is what acceptance is, see it for what it is, let go of the struggle and make the changes you need to make to help yourself. The pain may not go away completely, the constant negative thoughts may not disappear overnight but what will happen is that you will make peace with yourself.

If you have a personal struggle, we may be able to help. 

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What is Mindfulness?

What is Mindfulness?

It's difficult to define something that is a felt sense, an experience and not an intellectual concept. There is already so much out there about Mindfulness, that it has over complicated what should be a very simple practice.

In it's essence, Mindfulness is a way of life. It's a purposeful effort to pay attention to what is going on right this moment. In this video I try to demonstrate how you begin to develop mindful awareness in everyday situations.

Mindfulness is learning how to accept and deal with the ordinary situations of our daily life

In the West we tend to look at most things from the point of "what will I gain?"  That's why when someone asks me what they will gain from practising Mindfulness, they are a little apprehensive when I reply - "let's see!"

As Mindfulness practitioners we always start with a beginners mind, everyday is a new day, every moment a new moment. If we can stay with that fresh mind then we are beginning to practice Mindfulness. As soon as we start looking for benefits, progress and achievement, we are no longer in the present moment. We are now venturing into the comparing of ourselves to a past self or a future better self because right now we are not good enough. And this is where we lose the point, that the only moment that exists is this one.

A short video where I try to describe Mindfulness in action.

A short story to explain mindfulness in action. To learn more visit

If you want to learn more about Mindfulness, why not join our course in London starting in October. Click here for more details

What's wrong with me?

Is it normal to feel like this? Is it normal to get up one day and feel okay, then the next feel like there's no point?

With our Thoughts we make the world - Buddha

Over the last few years I've been on a journey, trying to piece my life back together after a divorce that completely knocked me. And cliche as it may sound, this made me look at life in a much deeper way. It made me pay attention to the things I'd not noticed before.

From this I started to delve into Buddhism and Mindfulness. Just to clarify, Buddhism was not something new to me, I've been interested in Buddhist philosophy from a young age. As part of my journey I started to practice meditation. I soon came to discover that contrary to popular belief, instead of finding peace, meditation was taking me to places I never expected. 

After three years of constant work on myself and a daily routine of meditation, it suddenly hit me. I'm not okay, there's something wrong with me still! It was a pretty disappointing realisation, I mean how much work must one do on themselves to finally be rid of all that baggage? 

So I started to pay attention to the feelings that were coming up, really listening to the root of the feelings. I began to see the same question from the people I work with, the one's I'm trying to help get through their own trauma, pain and suffering. That same question:

What is wrong with me?

This "what is wrong with me?" question starts from us feeling uncomfortable, sometimes it manifest into something physical, like anxiety. Your heart might beat faster, your breathing may become heavier or maybe it's just not being able to focus. This feeling of something being wrong does not escape any of us.

So I guess the better question is........

What is Normal?

If we are all unique then my intelligent response is that there is no such thing as normal. We are who we are, we think the way we think, we behave the way we behave, we are just this, just this person.

So why are we thinking something is wrong with us? Why are we trying to be something we are not? And why can we not just see that this is a passing feeling, a passing thought. It is not me, it is just passing through.

All that we are is the result of all that we have thought - Buddha

If we think there is something wrong with us, eventually we will believe it. That's just how it works. On the other hand those that always blame others or see the fault in others because their belief is they are perfect, are probably in a much unhealthier place. They have a lot less self awareness than those who at least have the courage to look within. 

No one is more dangerously insane than the one who is sane all the time - Alan Watts

How can Mindfulness help?

After working through my feelings, my thoughts and looking at it from the perspective of my clients, I came to the following conclusions.

  • First we have to accept ourselves as we are, at any given time. And that can be different moment to moment. Self acceptance does not mean we give up, it just means we accept things as they are at that precise moment. From there we can work on facing whatever comes up.
  • We cultivate our self compassion. There is no need to be harsh, critical and set such high standards for ourselves that we will fail anyway. Accept that we are just human beings, not machines, we have a heart that feels and as such our emotions will change. One minute joy, happiness and the next sad. Such is life.
  • We have to gain a deep understanding that nothing stays the same. In Buddhism this is called "impermanence" and it is such a fundamental teaching. The truth is we are constantly changing, things around us are constantly changing. How can we possibly think we can be happy all the time or that we can be okay all the time? 

And finally what does it mean to be happy? To have a more constant feeling that everything is just as it should be? That actually I am okay? 

Well it is simply learning to accept that just like everyone else, we have days when we are down and days when we are up. We suffer, we have joy, we live in this human body of constant change. 

Resilient happiness is walking evenly on uneven ground