Kelly Sosan Bearer speaks with Ed Halliwell, journalist, teacher, and author, about his new book The Mindful Manifesto and its themes of mindfulness, Buddhism, and Science. Ed describes his personal experience with stress and depression and his journey to Buddhism and mindfulness practice as a way to get healthy. He defines “mindfulness” and then leads the Geeks through a ”3 step breathing space practice” meant to reduce stress.
- The Mindful Manifesto: How Doing Less and Noticing More Can Help Us Thrive in a Stressed-Out World
- The Guardian
- Integral Chicks
Kelly: Hello Buddhist Geeks. This is Kelly Sosan Bearer and I’m joined today over Skype with Ed Halliwell, mindfulness teacher and writer at the Guardian. And today we’re going to discuss his newly published book The Mindful Manifesto. Thanks for joining us Ed. I’m stoked that you’re my first Buddhist Geeks podcast.
Ed: Hi, Kelly. It’s lovely to be with you.
Kelly: Awesome. Well you have a new book out and it’s called The Mindful Manifesto. But before we dive into that, I just wanted to get a little bit more of your Buddhist background and journey and maybe you could share a bit about that with us and how you came to Buddhism and mindfulness, and you know, people that may be you studied with or maybe that influenced you in this journey. Just to give a little bit of background about where you’re coming from.
Ed: Of course. Of course. Well I came to meditation practice and Buddhism and mindfulness primarily through my own experience with stress and depression. So I was in my 20s. I was working in the media. I was working as a journalist. And it was kind of a fast paced, fairly unreflective world, I think it would be fair to say that I was in, or at least that was my experience of it. And I basically collapsed, I basically collapsed under the weight of stress and I was desperate for ways to kind of work with this. So I kind of realized that something was not okay in my world and I wanted to do something about that.
And that led me on a journey through psychotherapy and through kind of looking at how I was in the world. And kind of at several points through this Buddhism and meditation practice came up both in books I was reading and people would kind of say to me, “Ed, have you ever thought about practicing meditation?” And this happened often enough that I kind of reached the point where I thought I need to do something about this and not actually just read about it but actually investigate this on a practical level.
And I was lucky enough to live very close to the shambhala meditation center in London. It was literally a 5 minute walk from where I was living. So I went along and basically said can you help me. And what I discovered in meditation practice probably over a period of months and then years and ongoing is that it gave me a way of working with my mind and my body that I didn’t connect with in the same way with some of the other things that I was trying. It really gave me–it started to give me a freedom that I’ve not experience from anything else. So I guess in that sense I was, I felt that connection and that connection has continued over the years.
Kelly: Wow. That’s really cool. So a real personal experience with mindfulness and how that actually helps you in your day to day. What specific things about mindfulness practice helped you the most do you think?
Ed: Well there’ve been different elements to it. I mean when I came to meditation practice, I didn’t know anything about mindfulness in the form that we present it in the book, which is primarily coming from the mindfulness based stress reduction model. I was very much connecting with Buddhism and with the principles and practices of the dharma. And that was so, and remains so, and I continue with that sort of my path led me. I spent a year working at Dechen Choling Meditation Retreat Center in France. And it was actually when I came back from there in early 2007 that I started to hear about mindfulness as it’s presented in the kind of more, I guess I don’t really like the word secular versus religious, but in the kind of health world if you like.
Kelly: Kind of like the John Kabat-Zinn model for instance.
Ed: Exactly. Exactly. And so I’d already got a huge benefit. I’m incredibly grateful for what I’ve discovered through practicing Buddhism and in that form. I think then on top of that what the mindfulness based stress reduction model has brought me is that kind of synergy with a western way of approaching the mind and the body. And that combination of the great wisdom that’s been passed down to us from thousands of years of practice and practitioners then allied with the way of kind of working with the mind that comes from looking at the mind scientifically and from a western psychology perspective, that combination I found enormously powerful over recent years.
Kelly: Yeah, beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing just that background with us. The geek in me likes to make sure that we’re all on the same page with our terms and definitions. Can you share with us your definition of mindfulness and how you’re using it in your book?
Ed: Yeah. First of all I’d just like to say that I’m a little kind of leery of definitions. I think for meditation practice is something that you have to experience. And mindfulness is something that you have to experience. And it is, trying to sort of put it into words, really is, it’s pointing your finger at the moon, as the sort of traditional description, one traditional description has it. And if you want to actually experience it yourself you got to try it and see what happens. However, I do think the fingers can be useful as well to know where it points to. So primarily I guess we’re using the John Kabat-Zinn, one of his definitions which is paying attention on purpose in the present moment, non-judgmentally, and sometimes added onto that is something along the lines with open hearted compassion.
I also like very simple way of describing mindfulness is simply observing things as they are and learning from that. I think that’s a lovely very kind of straightforward way of describing what mindfulness is. And being somebody who kind of likes ways of remembering things that is simple, I sometimes describe mindfulness as being an A, B, C skill. The A being awareness, the B being with so actually staying with our experience, and then that leading to choice so that freedom about how we then use what we’ve learned to hopefully act more skillfully in the world. So those are some ways in which we kind of approach mindfulness in the book. I also love the word heartfulness which is sometimes use as a kind of way of describing mindfulness. I think it’s very interesting that in the West we use that word “mind”, and “mind” tends to be used to describe what’s going on in the head whereas mindfulness practice is a meditation practice is very much about relating mind and body. I’m also aware that classical descriptions of mindfulness in Buddhism may have some other connotations as well. And I wouldn’t describe myself as a Buddhist scholar in any way at all, but I am aware that there are enormously fruitful and interesting debates about what mindfulness means. So I think in the end I come back to using these descriptions as way of connecting with that experience of being.
Kelly: Great. Thank you so much for that. What I found really interesting about The Mindful Manifesto is that it brings together the themes of mindfulness, Buddhism and science. And that’s something that we’re obviously exploring day in and day out over here at Buddhist Geeks. Why is this important and how is it helpful to Buddhism in the West do you think bringing together these three themes?
Ed: Yeah. Well science is an important mode of knowing and it’s a way of understanding our world from a perspective and using a particular method or series of method. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the only way of understanding what’s going on or the complete way of understanding what’s going on. But it has great value and it’s also one that’s culturally validated.
Kelly: That’s always helpful. [laughter]
Ed: Yeah. So you know if you’re a–I quite often [am] sort of presenting mindfulness to people who wouldn’t set foot inside a Buddhist center, and wouldn’t be interested in exploring Buddhism, and you could sort of try to work with that and perhaps explore what their notions of Buddhism are and you know bring them in that way. But for a lot of people there isn’t that connection. However if you explain meditation practice from a scientific perspective and say this is what’s happening in your brain and this is what the clinical studies are showing are the potential results of meditation practice, then a whole range of people who previously might have dismissed meditation as being a bit flaky, a bit kind of new age or religious in a way that they didn’t want to get into are now able to connect with meditation and are benefiting from that. And I think that’s enormously important actually in the world that we live in where there’s so much personal distress and societal distress. And meditation practice I believe has a huge rule to play in helping us work with that. So, science is kind of a way of transmitting the dharma perhaps to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to, or wouldn’t otherwise approach it or be convinced by it.
Kelly: Yeah. It’s kind of like science is a portal for folks that are more in the secular world interested in mindfulness techniques per se but not wanting to get into the religious traditional aspect of Buddhism.
Ed: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s right.
Kelly: Cool. Well that’ really interesting. What do you think about the convergence of these three themes and how is that helpful to Buddhism in the West?
Ed: Well I think it brings a rigor to the claims of Buddhism. It’s all very well kind of saying you know as I might have done a few years ago, “well, I’ve been practicing meditation for a number of years and I’ve noticed these changes in the way I relate with my experience,” and some people might be interested in that and they go “well good for you.” But if you have the methodology and the rigor of science supporting this, then I think that brings another dimension to practice.
I mean the Dalai Lama says, I think, he said, and obviously the Dalai Lama has been supportive of this kind of dialogue between western science and Buddhism, and he said, “If science can prove tenets of Buddhism are mistaken then Buddhism will have to change.” The converse of that is that science has to and is, or scientists have to and are, starting to engage with Buddhism in a way that perhaps doesn’t have the preconceptions that might have been there you know say 10, 20, certainly 30 years ago.
So I think there’s this creative dialogue going on, and that has benefits not just to people who might not be interested in Buddhism, but has benefits to Buddhism itself in that sense of I think what we’re all doing perhaps with our practice is we’re inquiring. We’re investigating. We’re testing what we’ve been told with the kind of the, you know, in the fire of our own experience if you like. And that’s how we, perhaps how we develop and how western Buddhism will also kind of develop and how it will kind of come to be in whatever forms it develops into over the coming 10, 50, 100, 1000 years and so on.
Kelly: Yeah. Great. So to dig into your book a little bit more. What’s the one key principle you hope people will receive by reading The Mindful Manifesto?
Ed: We primarily aim the book with people who perhaps might be skeptical about meditation practice. So there is quite a lot of engagement with the scientific research. We wanted to present that as clearly as we could. And we’d also at the same time try to engage with the history of meditation practice, particularly the Buddhist history of meditation practice. I think there’s a lot of books on mindfulness perhaps don’t go there quite as much. So we thought it’s very important to kind of acknowledge actually there is this wisdom tradition that these practices are coming from. And to kind of bring that together in a way that sort of can offer people a taste of the practice as well. So I guess if there’s one key principle it would be that the great wisdom of practitioners over thousands of years is now being validated by the methods of science and showing that training in meditation, whether that’s the traditional Buddhist perspective or whether you’re going to your doctor or other healthcare practitioner and learning meditation practice in that way. This practice can change our minds and our bodies and our hearts in the direction of greater awareness and compassion. That’s open and available to anybody who wants to engage with it. So I think that would be my one hope for the message that we get across in the book.
Kelly: That’s awesome. And something that just came up spontaneously so feel free to decline my offer if it doesn’t fit for you. But would you be willing to lead us through a one minute exercise of mindfulness perhaps.
Ed: Yeah. Sure. I mean what I could do is do you know the three step breathing space that sometimes used in mindfulness based stress reduction courses? We could…
Kelly: Sure. Yeah. Let’s go through that.
Ed: Okay. So this is a practice that is taught on a lot of mindfulness courses. It was first used I believe in a course called mindfulness cognitive therapy which was actually developed in the UK by Mark Williams and his colleagues. And this practice is called the three step breathing space. So this is a practice that can be used kind of anywhere any when. So it’s something that hopefully you can engage with wherever you are right now.
And so first of all taking an upright dignified posture wherever you are, if you’re sitting in a chair then feeling the connection of your bottom on the chair and your feet on the ground. So feeling that connection with earth and also sensing your body rising up into the air. So perhaps if you’re sitting on a chair then having your back away from the back of the chair so that your spine is self supporting. Keeping your eyes open or close as you prefer. And the first step is acknowledging. So acknowledging what’s present in your experience right now. What’s going on in your thoughts? What’s going through your mind?
Acknowledging what’s present also in your emotional experience at the moment. Feeling what’s present, perhaps sensations in the body. So noticing where any emotions that you’re feeling are being expressed in the body and body sensations also more generally. So any pain or discomfort or restlessness or tiredness whatever it might be. So acknowledging, acknowledging what’s here? What’s present right now?
And so the second step is gathering, and for this step gathering your attention into the breath. So come into rest your attention on the breath maybe in the lower abdomen and sensing the flow of the breath, the waves of the breath as they flow in and out of your body. Just this breath. This moment.
And now the third step is expanding. So, expanding your awareness from the point of attention, the breath in the lower abdomen, the belly and expanding that out to bring awareness to the whole of your experience in your body. So including thoughts, emotions, body sensations and resting now with this wider awareness of what’s going on. Perhaps expanding this also to space around you that’s going on in your environment. And as best as you can just being with whatever is present, being you, here in this moment.
And now letting go and coming out of the practice and opening your eyes if they’ve been closed and just connecting in with what’s around you. And seeing the possibility perhaps for continuing that connection, that mindfulness that we’ve been cultivating over the last few moments together, continuing perhaps to notice that connection through the next period of the day, whatever it is that you’re moving on to do next.