Podcast Episode: Mindfulness in practice
Category: Social work (general)
What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.
MD - Michelle Drumm
SG - Sandra Gyalsten
JK - Jane Kellock
MD In this episode, Iriss.fm hears from Sandra Gyalsten, Learning and Development officer at Dumfries and Galloway Council and Jane Kellock, Senior Manager of Children and Early Intervention at West Lothian Council on the subject of mindfulness and its application to Social Services practice. Firstly they gave us some background on their interest in the subject and define what mindfulness is.
SG My name is Sandra Gyalsten and I am the Learning and Development Officer in Dumfries and Galloway Council, and I have become involved in Mindfulness in my own Mindfulness practice about 17 years ago and have always been interested in how to bring Mindfulness into the workplace and I began a Masters 3 years ago, a Masters in Mindfulness with the view of bringing it into Social Work and I have been given the opportunity to do that, so I have run some Mindfulness base living courses for Social Work staff and linked that in with my Masters, looking at some quantitive and qualitative data.
JK Like Sandra, I came onto the first year of the very first cohort of the Masters programme at Aberdeen University and was interested at that point in bringing Mindfulness into the health improvement agenda, but since then I am now working more in Children and Families area of work, so I am very interested in how we might use Mindfulness, particularly with our populations of looked after children.
The core of Mindfulness has been present in the moment, so being mindfully aware of what’s happening in the moment, so there’s particular practices that individuals are invited to practice, so to become aware of the sensations as they are there in that moment, feelings, thoughts and become more present and less reactive, so be able to be more responsive and not to be on autopilot, which we tend to be in life, so this autopilot where ‘off on one and we arrive somewhere perhaps to a destination but we don’t know how we have got there. So the Mindfulness is about actually being more present and being able to be fully aware of what is happening in that moment.
One of the core aspects of Mindfulness is about being embodied, so it’s being present in the moment in our bodies, so there’s a spatial element to it and a lot of the practices help to bring the practitioner back into a sense of being in themselves in seat in the moment, and it’s a very, very powerful practice, very grounding practice. The Mindfulness Based Living Course also has several practices that help people to become kinder to themselves and more self compassionate, so there’s an element of teaching of the concepts of that, but then the practices themselves very much help people to get in touch with their own innate sense of compassion and kindness. So it’s not about trying to pretend anything or to force a false kind of sense of kindness and compassion, it really is about getting in touch with the innate compassion that’s within us all and that’s one of the kind of founding principles of Mindfulness, we all have within us the ability to be present in the moment and the ability to be compassionate, so all the training is about getting in touch with that.
MD Sandra tells us about a Mindfulness for Scotland Conference that she co-organised and we also hear about the workshop that herself and Jane hosted at it.
SG In my own time, myself with another co-organised the conference, Mindfulness for Scotland Conference, and that was triggered off from a conference that I had been to in Cambridge, which was Mindfulness in the Workplace, and some of the key note speakers had talked about the evidence that they gathered in relation to Mindfulness being beneficial, bringing it into the workplace, so myself and another decided to put on a conference and we had key note speakers and part of the conference was to offer workshops and we wanted to offer a workshop, Jane and I, on Mindfulness in the Care and Workplace, because we had both brought Mindfulness into the Workplace to Social Work staff and others and we wanted to share what we have already experienced and what we found.
The workshop gave a background to the programme that we ran, which was called the Mindfulness Based Living Course and that’s based on the work of Rob Nairn, who is a leading international Mindfulness expert, and it also combines some very innovative and recent research that’s done around compassion. So the programme itself combines Mindfulness and Compassion, which we believed makes it more accessible and relevant within Social Work, where you need to have that element of compassion, self compassion and as you become more mindful, the self compassion helps you to be able to bear with some of the more difficult things that come up.
MD We hear more about the Mindfulness Based Living course and the impact it has had on practice. Jane also offers some information on the Masters programme.
JK So we had run the Mindfulness Based Living Course simultaneously, a course in Dumfries and Galloway that Sandra ran, and a course in West Lothian that I ran, to more or less the same populations, Sandra’s more social work staff and I had a combination of social work and health and education staff at mind, but the idea was that we would be building capacity in those people who attended the programme to see how they would then live that out in their work. So we were looking for them to be developing their own Mindfulness skills and self compassion skills, but also to be telling us something about ‘what’s this like for you, how does that then extend itself out into your work and into your own lives?’
SG It might be useful to say that what we used to gather our findings, so we had pre and post course standardised validating questionnaires, there were 5 questionnaires that we used, Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale, which is mass, Perceived Stress Scale, Acceptance and Action Questionnaire, Self Compassion Scale and Compassion Scale. And that allowed us to gather data that allowed us to see where people were at before the course and after, and certainly there was, for ourselves, we were able to identify that there was a reduction of stress from the findings, there was an increase of compassion for others and there was also an increase of acceptance and also of mindfulness, awareness.
JK One of the things that we wanted to do was to test out the effectiveness of the Mindfulness Based Living Course and have some way, maybe not of directly comparing it, but of at least looking at it alongside more established and Mindfulness based stress reduction programmes. So that’s why we used the questionnaires that we used, the standardised ones that appear in the Mindfulness literature. So we had a group in total that numbered 36, so it was a reasonably substantial group of people, and we did, as Sandra says, we did the questionnaires pre and post and as we had expected, there were, where we expected increases in terms of mindful awareness, self compassion and acceptance, we found that and where we expected there to be a decrease in stress and some of the more difficult sort of embedded ways of being in the world that aren’t troublesome to people, we found these sorts of decreases. So certainly the results showed what we wanted to show. What surprised us, I think, was the extent to which people found positive changes, it really was quite overwhelming in terms of what we had seen in comparison with some of the other research programmes out there, and certainly the experience of colleagues who are delivering this programme anecdotally at least at this point in time is also very positive.
Sandra and I are affiliated to the University of Aberdeen and the Master students there are doing research, Social Science research programmes in schools, within social work, within the NHS, and some of the Masters dissertations that are coming out of that programme are looking very positive. It would be really nice to see over a period of time what the evidence, as the evidence starts to build in terms of the relevance of Mindfulness within Social Services, I think that would be very interesting.
SG Mindfulness, the programme, is a mind training, so it’s a particular training of the mind and as Jane says, we have that within us, and there’s times where we can actually be fully and totally present and then we lose it because we have become distracted, become distracted or involved in particular storylines in our mind or we ruminate, so it’s about training the mind and using these particular practices to be more present and the more that you do practice this, the more that you will become less caught up in the distractions, because you will notice it, so you are losing the focus and you notice and then you can use the particular practices to bring yourself back into that moment, which is really useful when you are working in social work, because we want to be as present as possible with the people we work with, so we are in tune, so we are relating, so we can hear what’s being said fully to the full capacity.
I have a really good example actually because I just ran a focus group about 3, 4 months ago, with a group of the social work staff who undertook this programme and what came through, one of the key themes that came through was this attitude of acceptance, and also in how that was impacting on their relationship within the workplace with others and personally at home. But one particular practitioner, which is a key piece of information that came from that discussion, was able to reflect and see that because of the acceptance and the letting go, which is a lot of the attitude is brought into this programme, that this senior social worker was able to actually allow herself to offer a personalised approach, opposed to being in control, I need to fix it, there was a letting go, so this conversation, because I know personalisation is about having meaningful conversations, was allowing herself to actually have this conversation with another person and enabling that person to look at solutions themselves and bringing it back to them, as opposed to maybe a care management type of approach in a sense of, I need to fix this, I need to be in control, I need to … so that was one of the things that came through really strong and it was a useful finding.
JK One of the foundations of Mindfulness is that everyone is a human being, so it brings a human quality into the interchange that the practitioner might have with the people in their lives, it’s not a … it can often be seen in the research literature as being a treatment for specific mental health disorders, but at it’s heart it isn’t, it’s a way of connecting with your own inner human ‘messiness’, I suppose, and then being able to connect with other people.
SG Some of the examples that we received in relation to how Mindfulness, what’s been the experience of Mindfulness in daily life from practitioners were, ‘I am feeling a lot calmer and the course has created an awareness and techniques of being in the here and now’, which would make sense, given that we are talking about being in the present moment. ‘Focus seems to heighten all senses and greater awareness of external distractions, while acknowledging and accepting how things can be handled internally’. So being able to be aware of what’s happening, but also having the insight about internally what needs to happen, so Jane talked earlier on about compassion being a key part to this programme, and that’s because of the inner critic, people tend to find and tend to notice the more that they become aware of what’s happening in their minds, they become aware of a particular inner critic, and that can be quite self destructive for some individuals, so the compassionate aspect allows the individual to be compassionate to themselves and there’s nothing wrong, it is how it is for most of us, human beings is to be distracted. Another one was, ‘I am definitely feeling calmer and more aware of me, not sure if others have noticed any changes, I find it hard to fit in the daily practice’, so that was a key theme we found was although people weren’t able to do what was required, invited to do, they were still able to do some of the practice and lots of individuals were finding that it was easier to bring it into their daily life, into their workplace, as opposed to sitting formally every morning for half an hour. So one particular person would use the breath before they answered the telephone in their workplace, so they were actually bringing it in to be practical for them. And this person was saying that they’ve become more aware of automatic pilot and the need to be more mindful in daily life, so there was an awareness reason there about how it was for them in themselves.
JK Certainly very interested in how we bring Mindfulness into, more overtly, I suppose, into the social work workplace, but I think the difficulty I think with something like Mindfulness, is that it can be seen as just a set of techniques, and it isn’t, it’s a whole embedded way of being in the world and in order to teach Mindfulness and support Mindfulness, you have to do it yourself, you have to be trained well and you have to also be trained in how to train other people in Mindfulness, so although there isn’t an absolute legal requirement to do that, the UK Mindfulness Teachers Network have a set of standards of practice for Mindfulness teachers which certainly we would recommend.
The Masters programme is based on the work as I said, of Rob Nairn, and Mindfulness comes from the Buddhist psychology, so leaving the religious aspect of Buddhism to one side, the psychology that underpins Buddhism also underpins Mindfulness and compassion, and how Rob Nairn treats that is that he looks at it in a very complete way in terms of peoples journey through life requiring skills in mindfulness and compassion, and insight and wisdom, which are the 2 other aspects. But it really helped to pull people through using mindfulness and compassion practices into it, then what they discover about themselves and about the world, so it’s a very deep programme, it’s a 3 year programme and there’s a lot of very in-depth information, knowledge and skills that are delivered and then people go away and they do their own practice, and the idea is that you build up your own lifelong mindfulness and compassion practices. So it’s a very grounded programme, and out of that has been developed the Mindfulness Based Living Course, which is a shorter programme, it’s an 8 week course, with some of the same elements that you would find in the Masters programme, certainly around mindfulness and a little bit around compassion. And it’s a very, very good kind of starter programme I think for people, just as the programme begins teaching some of the basic skills of mindfulness, a lot of the starting practices around body scan, mindful movement, walking, being aware of the breath, so you are spending a lot of the time really, rather than being up in your head and in your thoughts, we are balancing that out by focusing in on how you are feeling in your body, and you start to get a sense of your body and your mind as actually being connected, so you have a sense of … you know I might get a certain feeling in my stomach when these particular thoughts start arising, I really felt … a really strong felt sense of that, you know of the emotions that go along with that … So you are kind of looking at what they call a ‘Triangle of mindfulness’, thoughts, sensations, physical sensations and emotions, so you are paying attention to those 3 aspects within your own self. And really just by paying attention, you start to get insights about when certain thoughts start to run around in your head, when you start to feel in a certain way. And as Sandra said earlier, it’s about just bringing that awareness that you find yourself not reacting quite as quickly, not defaulting into old ways of being in the world, old anxieties, and that makes a profound difference to how people are in the world and a profound difference in how they are with their colleagues as well, where there might be issues or difficulties or particular historical problems or cultural problems, it really helps people to get a little bit of freedom from all of that to be able to say, ‘wait a minute, we have been doing that for far too long, let’s make some changes.’
Finally, they both speak about how they plan to embed Mindfulness in practice.
JK One of the things that Sandra and I think is very important in terms of bringing mindfulness in isn’t that we just simply offer it as a course, run it on a sort of an ad hoc basis that we make sure that anyone that’s running it in the social service workplace is well trained, well motivated, that people come to it openly and that they don’t treat it as just something that they have to learn in their heads, this is about them actually practicing and doing something, being different … differently in the world, so it’s important that people understand that when they are coming to a mindfulness course, that it actually is very profound and can make really quite transformative change in peoples lives, that it’s not just something that you learn and then apply, it’s much more powerful than that.
We are thinking about, as I say, particularly around bringing it into services for looked after children, how might we do that, so yes, so Harry Burns at the recent Celsis conference, was talking about mindfulness as being one way of helping children who had suffered trauma and poor attachments in their life to become more resilient, and one of the things that we had been talking about at the Aberdeen University programme, is how do we bring it into children, to young people, particularly those that have already had some difficulties in their life, so we are interested in the ‘hows’ now, we know that it works, we know that the programme in Aberdeen University runs, it’s a very powerful …we really like the fact that it brings in the compassion element and now it’s about how can be bring this out into the world.
SG I think in Dumfries and Galloway, that after feedback, the findings, once I finish my report from my work base project to the frontline improvement team, but I also know there’s some dialogue going on with my manager and with the senior social work managers in looking at mindfulness. I think through time it would be really useful if we can have it under the Workforce Development Strategy, or something where it fits, and like Jane, I also agree that it’s not just about offering something, it’s about … if we are talking about a cultural shift here, then it’s about how do we embed that so how do we also then test it out with other groups, so for example I had a conversation with a team manager about developing a Mindfulness based parenting training programme and also including the children in that, so that conversations been had, but we are looking at maybe in the future, so we are constantly thinking about the how’s and how do we bring it, and this is what part of today is about as well, is raising peoples awareness in quantities.
JK It’s very interesting what’s emerging in Scotland recently around Mindfulness, it’s certainly come through the NHS quite strongly, and that’s to be expected because the Mindfulness in the West was developed in the States by John Kabat Zinn, and he worked in a clinical hospital setting with people with stress related problems and with physical pain, so the body of research really that has followed on from Kabat Zinn has been very clinical in its application, so it is interesting now that some more qualitative studies are starting to emerge that balance that, that talk about the felt benefits that people get from doing these sorts of programmes, and over time from the Aberdeen University Masters programme, there will be a number of thesis that will be carried out and we will all look at that, so it will be very interesting to see how that goes and how the body of research builds and then the kind of synergies that might be there within that in terms of looking across, maybe something that worked well in a school might work in a social work setting, so it’s really learning from what our colleagues are doing elsewhere, but there’s a real excitement around it at the moment in Scotland.
I mean thinking how important the person of the social worker is within the practice, the social worker themselves is the main tool to affect change, so it’s so important that we attend to our own, that we are not just somebody who carries out a set of techniques or a set of tasks, that we actually bring a mature, wise approach into working with people who have suffered and be quite grateful, so it’s really coming back to the basics of social work, I think.
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