your mindful life podcast with sarah silverton
Jul 5, 2019
In this podcast I’m delighted to be interviewing Sarah Silverton, a highly experienced mindfulness teacher, trainer, mentor, supervisor, and writer. She is also co-creator of a mindfulness curriculum for schools, as well being the co-author of a new and inspiring programme called The Present, designed to support teachers into weaving mindfulness practice into the learning experience. I’ve had the privilege of attending courses and retreats led by Sarah, and I’ve always wanted to invite her on to YML, so I’m truly grateful to her for her time and the opportunity to hear the story of how she came to cultivate her own mindful life. I’m also curious about what her sense of mindfulness is, as well as learning in more detail about this pioneering work she is doing in bringing mindfulness into schools and the workplace.
In this first part of the interview Sarah discusses with us how she came to mindfulness – the journey for her – as well as how she came to be the teacher she is now.
Christopher: The podcast is called Your Mindful Life. And the idea behind that is, you have a mindful life, it’s just a question of whether you want it. And it is here, and it’s available. I call it an intimate quest.
Sarah: It’s an adventure.
Christopher: It’s an adventure. A sort of unfolding narrative. It’s a bit like being Harry Potter. You’ve got to crash into that wall, but hopefully with less luggage. You might come through that wall, but with less luggage.
Sarah: It’s interesting to just let it amble and open and turn direction and come back full circle. I think that’s a bit like my mindfulness practice, really. Not having it must go there, but it might go there! Or it might go there, but I don’t know yet. A bit like Harry Potter, walking through the wall. Just being willing to bump up against things and see whether you go through.
Christopher: But I guess you can go there, or there, or there, if you have a solid foundation?
Sarah: If you’ve got a clear intention of what you would like it to offer. Start at that place and let it then meet the people who are in those situations and find out how it relates, how does it connect, what is it that people take from this? And then let it grow from there, as that might be different in different environments.
Christopher: So how about the story for yourself, in terms of what brought you to mindfulness?
Sarah: I think much of what brought me was just complete accident. I was just in the right place at the right time. I think there were a number of factors that came together that meant that it stuck for me. It was back in the mid-nineties, I’d been unwell; I’d had chronic fatigue for a while. So I was sleeping a lot, low energy, unreliable energy. I was working as an OT (Occupational Therapist) in a community mental health team in North Wales and then Mark Williams arrived as head of clinical psychology and his office was literally a hundred yards down the road from our team base. He was expert in this new thing called CBT. He used to invite us down to do case presentations and he would tell us about the CBT way we might work with our mental health team.
Christopher: And that’s Cognitive Behavioural Therapy? And that was a new thing then? Because it’s quite in the mainstream now.
Sarah: It was relatively new and there were a couple of people in our team who were interested in it, so they’d made the connection: this guy knows a lot about this so we could learn from him. And then all the time that he was in Bangor near us he was beginning to discover mindfulness, going to the States, he’d been asked to with John Teasdale and Zindel Segal to develop the programme for recurrently depressed people. So he was wondering about it himself. And their idea – what they were going to do – was kind of 90 percent CBT, with a little bit of mindfulness, because John Teasdale had done a bit of meditation practice, and they’d heard about Jon Kabat Zinn. So they all kind of kept going over to the States to get this little bit that they were going to add into their CBT programme. And it was kind of over the period of him discovering all of this that it kind of flipped and became mostly mindfulness, and less CBT. And we were just hearing him wonder about it, excited about it, unsure about it – just really hearing him wondering about the whole thing, and sharing what he was learning with us. And then when he finally agreed to be part of it and develop the programme and then do the research teaching. We were his first participants for his first 8 week course so the people in our CMHT (Community Mental Health Teams), and there was one in Llandudno.
Christopher: And were you asked, or were you told?
Sarah: No, I think we were invited.
Christopher: And were you intrigued by this?
Sarah: Well, we liked Mark and were interested in what he’s been saying, and I think because of my chronic fatigue I was kind of well, give it a go. See what I get from this. So we went along as participants for this first course, and in those days it wasn’t called MBCT, it was called Attention Control Training, but that changed quite soon afterwards. So that was the beginning. And there was something about it – I don’t know what I got from my first eight week course, I have to say – but there something that stuck and I didn’t want to let go of it, so I carried on practicing in a kind of Oh, I wonder where this might go? But not really sure. But beginning to recognise that being present with what was – even though I didn’t like what I was experiencing with the fatigue – was going to help me make wise choices about not overdoing it, pacing myself better. So there was something in there that felt really valid and relevant to me at the time. I’d practised yoga for quite a long time before then so it wasn’t brand new. And a lot of OT principles – you know, the theory behind occupational therapy - is very mindful so …
Sarah: Well, about balancing, about awareness, about responding, choosing wisely to live a life that you want to live. So there was something familiar, as well as coming home to it in a way. So we carried on hearing about what Mark was doing and we were referring clients to the research and hearing about it from them – you know, what were they making of it? And then at the end of the active part of the treatment – the classes – the clinical psychologist that had been supporting Mark decided that mindfulness wasn’t for her. So then Mark got in touch and asked if I’d like to be his trainee. So I was his first trainee.
Christopher: And that was mid-nineties, was it?
Sarah: Maybe ’98? Then I was involved in learning how to deliver what was still then called Attention Control Training, and then beginning to teach that within the CMHT. I had to have a massive video recorder and take the videos to Mark every week for him to watch and then I’d have a session with him to kind of explore what had gone well, what hadn’t gone well, what were we trying to do here?
Christopher: So that’s busy?
Sarah: It was.
Christopher: It’s quite a contrast to your condition at the time, to suddenly …
Sarah: It didn’t feel like that, it felt like this was dropping deeper into ‘what are we doing here?’, ‘what is this?’ And I think because it was so new to Mark as well, that he and John and Zindel were still discovering, still shaping, what this was. So it was quite a kind of creative process really.
Christopher: So, you were very curious at the time?
Sarah: Yes. And there was definitely an element of me trying to get it right. And … ‘you need to do it like this’…but then not being that clear about what ‘this’was. So it was exciting and creative. I just felt massively honoured to be part of it. And hugely doubtful: why was I there? I kept expecting somebody would say, no I think we’ve made a mistake! Somebody else should be doing this. So there was a lot of doubt in there but something that kind of kept me in, you know. I really wanted to know more. So that was the beginning really.
Christopher: So that’s twenty years ago?
Sarah: Yes. So then I carried on teaching MBCT in the Community Mental Health Team, and then Mark really generously paid for me to go and spend 9 weeks in the States with the CFM (Center for Mindfulness – UMass Medical School) so I did that in ’99. I think, in the spring. And – they don’t do it anymore – there’s an intern program, so you get to sit in on as many eight week courses as there are going – through that cycle (they’ve all got separate courses on at the same time) and you have one class, one teacher who you’d then spend time with, and a few of you spend time with afterwards just reflecting on, what was that? What happened? What’s it all about? So that’s what we did. And because I was one of the only ones that was in Worcester for the whole nine weeks (there were a lot of Americans going home, just coming up once a week), it was like a nine week retreat really, and I was doing five classes a week, and then having this extra session, and I got to do Jon’s graduate course. So there was something really beautiful about experiencing a whole range of different teachers. Whereas I’d been trying to model on Mark – and I’m not Mark – I suddenly realised I could actually be the teacher I needed to be. You know, who was I as a teacher? Instead of: I must do it like this. And that was hugely liberating. You know, suddenly: Ohh! Well who do I want to be? What am I? What can I offer this?And MBSR – having an understanding of that as a different way into MBCT was really helpful in just having a clearer sense of the intentions of the whole thing – that they had so much similarity but very significant differences too. So that was interesting, to have both. Awareness of both.
Christopher: That’s quite an experience. Going over there for the nine weeks. Did you sense, over in the States, the home of secular mindfulness, what were the significant differences that made you feel more comfortable with MBCT, or MBSR?
Sarah: It’s interesting because I think my default setting is MBSR, because of the emergent learning. It’s much less taught. It’s much more caught. The learning always comes from where the group are at. It’s got less protocol. I know that some of the teachers at CFM have said ‘what’s a learning point? I’ve no idea what you mean by that?’ Because you would never name learning, you’d only elicit. And that appealed, from my more client centred, counselling background. That people need to discover this for themselves. I’m not very good at being told, I like to experience it myself and discover it.
Christopher: For myself as a teacher (I’m talking here about being a high school teacher), having been in a performance-led environment which is what teaching has become since the early 2000s, I would think, and also seeing my children go through it at the moment, and also being a deliverer within that, and then stepping back from that. But what is very interesting about learning is this something that’s emerging. And where shall we go with this?
Sarah: And the sharing of that, and the connections and the humanness of the whole thing.
Christopher: For you it was about this little nuance, this feels right, this is what’s emerging for me in this present moment.
Sarah: And I think with both curricula there was a sense of the courage to be with ourselves in the middle of our difficulties. You know, right in the midst of this I can create some ease, space, curiosity, friendliness. There was something quite radical, but really kind of simple about that. That felt really important. But the sense that we’ve each got our own truth and our perception and experiencing of it is valid and important to hear about, for ourselves and to share. There’s something important in there.
Commentary: So some fascinating insights there into Sarah’s journey to mindfulness. You really get a sense of the transformational value of spending nine weeks in Worcester, Massachussetts, at the Center for Mindfulness, where Sarah got to immerse herself in the whole experience of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme and also her sense of growing as a teacher – finding her own autonomy – finding her voice – which it seems was very much one of being able to facilitate emergent learning. As Sarah said she wanted to explore the humanness and connectedness of the learning experience.
In this second part of the interview with Sarah we now get into her sense of mindfulness – or, as Sarah puts it, the nub of mindfulness. How it opens up choices, how we can honour our experiences whether they be good or bad, how we can use that as a stabilising force in our response to moments as they arise. I really get a sense of the work mindfulness offers us…a sense of working towards a place of self-compassion
Christopher: With mindfulness, this idea of paying attention and how developing attentional capacity is good for one’s wellbeing, and then the neuroscience that says you’re up against this amount of history in terms of this default mode network you have. So once you understand that, that helps. But we are so assailed, all the time, by the present moment.
Sarah: And there’s something about just being able to step out of the middle of it all: to see, to feel, all of that, the pulls, the habits, the tendencies, the meaning, it’s just kind of a live piece, isn’t it? Of course, we’re going to be pulled to this, pulled to that. The sound will happen and we can’t help but the tension go there. But within that we can say well that’s interesting.
Christopher: And this is where I’ve got you. This is where, yeh, this is cool. I get this, intellectually. Because this fits in with my sensibility as a human being: I like art, I like stuff arising, and I don’t like control and I want my freedom. However, that’s the easy bit. The difficult bit is the allowing, accepting. I understand the concept of attention, but my instinct, or my habit, or my default, is to push away in the midst of difficulty.
Sarah: And humanness. It’s a human habit.
Christopher: So, if I am in the midst of say an argument, or any situation, to have that knowledge that I can find some space is very helpful, but I can’t do it. So what advice…what’s the thing we can home to when somebody comes back at you with that, because in your experience as a teacher I’m sure you’ve come across this a lot…well, I get it Sarah, but I can’t.
Sarah: And I think this is the nub of what mindfulness is, or isn’t. I think there’s a real danger these days in the world that mindfulness is a kind of clever fix. That you’d learn about this and just always do it differently, and your life will be different. Not honouring or celebrating our habits as individuals and as human beings. There may be times when we really can’t do it but the moment we’re saying I can never do it we’re not in the moment anymore, we’ve gone wider, haven’t we? So if you say well look how difficult I find this, just now, this time, so I really really want to move away from this, the energy, the pull, to get away, is really strong. And I think mindful awareness just lets us hold all of that to a point where we have a choice. And the choice may be to move away because the pull is so strong, but there may be a time when we don’t, and the seeing it clearly, that there is the possibility of a choice is the key, I think. That suddenly we’ve got freedom in that. We’ve seen that it’s not just with blinkers, I’m going to go down that path because I always go down that path, but that ‘Oh look’,there’s possibility here.
Christopher: So what I got a lot from your teaching was that, which is: let’s feel this
Sarah: And then choose…
Christopher: Yeh, possibly. But let’s just start with feeling it. But that’s only for me personally. Some people find it very difficult to stay with those feelings. Which I guess is where the mechanics of mindfulness help: knowing that you have this body, and that you have the breath that can stabilise you
Sarah: And I think there’s something else, isn’t there, you know. I was talking to somebody earlier, and there’s a sense that sometimes the message seems to be we’ve just got to sit with this. It can be excruciatingly painful, it can be overwhelming, and yet if we’re practising mindfulness, we just sit with it. And I don’t believe that’s true. You know, I think we become aware of what it is then we have a choice and our attentional control allows us to choose whether we have this in focus, or whether we have it just in the background. We know that if you shine the torch beam at something then it’s very bright just there, everything else just kind of goes dimmer. I think what we’re practising is having complete fluidity of where we can point our torch beam so we’re equally able to look at dark corners or bright, beautiful, colourful aspects of our experience. But we can choose the moment when it’s good to stay with an experience that’s here, or actually we need to move our attention somewhere else. And we’re not blocking that out but we’re just letting it be in the background. So I think we misunderstand acceptance being about passivity, actually it is about responsiveness, isn’t it?
Christopher: It goes back to it being a quest. Because we associate the quest with, well we don’t know what’s going to arrive and what demons are, and who it is we might have to slay. You know, what’s the next stage? But there’s one thing that’s for sure, it has to be met with an open heart. So when we talk about acceptance, it isn’t acquiescence. It’s not like, Oh I’m accepting this. No, this is what it is. That’s what acceptance is. This is the reality.
Sarah: This is true.
Christopher: And I think that can actually help. Actually, I have a choice, but I don’t have a choice.
Sarah: And even within that, there’s always choices, isn’t there? Think of an example…I get a bad back sometimes. So my back’s really bad, there’s a lot of pain, it’s uncomfortable, I’m cautious about moving because it might be a shooting pain. And that’s not going to go because I want it to go, but the more I focus on it as being the only experience that’s valid then actually my whole world becomes my painful back, whereas if I can choose, right, in this moment, actually maybe there isn’t that much pain. There’s a bit of a twinge, or a tightness, but that’s not pain. That I’m sitting quite comfortably. And actually put my focus somewhere else. I’m allowing that the back pain’s there but it’s not all my world. And that being true for all of it. There may be wise things I can do about it: I might take some paracetamol, or I might do some stretching. Maybe I’ve done all that, and this is still what’s here.
Christopher: So it really is that quote about finding the space between the stimulus and the choice of your response?
Sarah: Yes. And being really awake and friendly, and that compassion towards the me that’s No! I don’t want it like this. I want it to go away! And how that might be making it a lot worse. That second arrow piece. That my reactivity might just be taking me away from some ease that’s possible, in the moment.
Christopher: So what I was very interested in is this idea of getting into the body, this layers of experiencing you developed, because what I found very liberating about that is, yes, this is my bad back, and this is how I’m labelling it through the lens of I, me and mine, as Jon Kabat Zinn would say, but it actually isn’t.
Sarah: And in doing that, if we’re only thinking about it, then we never get close enough to see it for what it really is. We limit it straight away by naming it. So, if we see a flower, then name it, then we probably stop looking at the flower then. You know, I’ve just got a bad back. Then I’ve stopped even knowing, sensing, being curious about what the sensations are that have led to that label.
Christopher: So there’s this other interesting thing about mindfulness, this counter-intuitiveness. It doesn’t quite make sense to do that. Because it’s more, I want to push away….because we live in a society of interventions don’t we? We’re always trying to fix things to produce a result. So I’m interested, just in terms of my own teaching practice, and just teaching myself, which is ‘can you just stay with that?Don’t look for anything else. Can you just stay with it, no matter what it throws up for you?
Sarah: And I think there’s another place with this, isn’t there? Where what we’re doing is practising observing, this de-centred metacognitive awareness. So if the distraction, or the being pulled somewhere becomes all of our experience – we’re just in that then – and everything else has gone, then we’re lost in that, and where we might go with difficult thinking is, you know, for people with depression, you know you can go off into quite a dark place, dig a hole, and not be able to see out of the hole. We know that’s true. So there’s something about the importance of having a place, a kind of platform, some stance, that isn’t any of that. You know, kind of ‘which me is watching me having that thought in my head?’ Which me is recognising that I’m having a dug in the hole thought?
Commentary: So this is the sense of mindfulness that I was looking forward to uncovering with Sarah. This possibility of reframing experience. That no matter what the experience is there is another me that’s inviting me to look beyond. As Sarah said:which me is watching me having that thought in my head? There’s another me that’s compassionate about that, there’s another me that’s inviting me to look beyond.
Speaking as a school teacher myself I really feel that this is an education in itself. It’s the education of which me is watching me have that thought, in my head? This takes us on to the pioneering work called The Present that Sarah and her co-authors have undertaken in helping teachers in schools (in this case, primary schools) to discretely integrate mindfulness into the learning experience, and it comes from introducing students to their feeling states. The Present is a programme of helping students attune themselves to the experience and validity of feeling states. In the next part of the podcast I invite Sarah to elaborate upon the programme of The Present that she and her co-authors have developed.
As Sarah says in this section of the podcast: how do we get teachers to share being mindful? So it’s kind of learning about mindfulness, or living mindfully in school. Teaching in a mindful way. That’s about person. It’s about everything, potentially.
Sarah: In the western world generally we’re too keen to separate and over-value conceptual experiencing, knowledge over bodily experiencing, sensory awareness…they’re just not separate, are they? But we’ve kind of done a kind of head up, this is the important part. Whatever we think is what we should value. And education has been particularly bad at just overtraining people to just think about things, so that we’re not trusting the body at all, we’re not asking the body what it has to say about this, you know. In reading a novel, why would we not be really interested in the emotional response in the body to the story, and the kind of the leaning into the exciting bit of the story, the kind of whoo, something that’s a bit frightening. So the kind of bringing them back together and valuing them equally and recognising the interconnections of them, I think, has just got so many possibilities and opportunities for children and adults.
Christopher: Well, as a person who taught English literature I never said to my students – I don’t know, Keats saying ‘beaded bubbles winking at the brim’, or something, when he’s describing this beautiful drink, or T.S. Eliot describing the sunset as being like a patient etherised upon a table,and you say to yourself, well that’s a good image isn’t it? God, he was a clever guy. No, he must (tapping chest)… there was something happening to that guy. And we never say…shall we just stop…what are you feeling there? What are you feeling in that word?So I know that you’ve recognised the value of that, and we’re bringing it into – with The Present – we’re bringing it from Reception right the way through to Year 6. So, can we talk a little bit about the story behind The Present?
Sarah: It’s kind of emerged over the last nine years, really, and from our experience of adult mindfulness teaching, of creating Paws B (this is a curriculum Sarah co-created. It is a mindfulness curriculum for pupils aged 5 to 11, developed by The Mindfulness in Schools Project). Those phases. And what became clear to me through both was that there was a difference between teaching mindfulness – which could be a kind of teaching people to practice mindfulness, which was kind of people very quickly overly made it something they should do, something they should do well, that it had a goal, that it should have this outcome of being calm. That we were only doing it in order to get there. Lots of shame and guilt about not doing it properly, not doing it as well as everybody else. Very little curiosity because people were so caught up in ‘somebody might know that I’m not doing this properly! And I’m not feeling what I think I should be feeling so that can’t be right. This isn’t a good practice’. You hear that a lot, don’t you?
Christopher: Well it’s a curriculum, isn’t it? And you’ve got this space of time to deliver it. It then becomes part of that, it just slots into an outcomes, measurable criteria culture doesn’t it?
Sarah: We were hearing lots of children say: I really like your mindfulness voice, Miss. But I don’t like your Maths voice. Just a kind of awareness that even the teachers that were with primary school children all day, when they were doing mindfulness it was ‘shoes off, this is a special time, let’s be soft and curious’. But then something kind of switched off and they were back to (imitates machine voice) so that somehow wasn’t authentic.
Christopher: Reminds me of Jack Kornfield, I think he says, I don’t know if he has children, but somebody said something to him like ‘we don’t like it when you talk about Buddhism, but we love it when you’re the Buddha’.
Sarah: Yes… so that was exactly it. So how do we get teachers to share being mindful? So it’s kind of learning about mindfulness, or living mindfully in school. Teaching in a mindful way. That’s about person. It’s about everything…potentially.
Christopher: So you’ve taken away this timeframe and this curriculum and a series of lessons that are progressive, and what you’ve done instead is integrate, or allow teachers to choreograph emerging moments where they recognise where a certain aspect of mindfulness could be deployed, as it were, by the teacher. And that’s about Oh, I see an opportunity here. I know you’ve got set themes. There is learning.
Sarah: There’s learning. There’s neuroscience. There are practices. There are seven themes. And the themes are almost like filters. Like lenses. So they’re a way to explore all the experiences that are happening in school, with that lens. So ‘Here and Now’: what’s that even mean? How do I know if I’m here and now? If I’m not, where am I? So it not being a place to get to but being a lens of ‘Oh, am I here?’And if I’m here, how deeply am I here? Am I thinking about being here, or am I experiencing being here? So that being able to kind of drop into things more deeply. But equally curious about: Oh! I went there again!My mind left, so I wasn’t with my body just then, because I was completely off thinking about that, or worrying about that.So developing that metacognitive awareness, that place of curiosity, friendliness, and warmth. And that kind of ‘Ooooh!That feels much more alive and friendly, and that could be learning a new maths curriculum, or it could be doing PE. Or it could be on the bus going down to swimming. Anything, potentially. It could be in the playground when it’s having fun, or there’s an argument. All of that is ‘so what’s here? Am I here?’ What am I noticing if I am here?What is here? And then ‘focusing’ and ‘choosing’ and ‘connecting’ being other themes that then work through the weeks. And, of course they’re not separate. They’re just different kinds of facets of the same thing. So it’s not about doing mindfulness. It’s about developing a way of seeing ourselves and the world.
Christopher: You chose to do it through stories, as well. Is there a reason behind that?
Sarah: Well we initially had the neuroscience learning for PawsB, and we wanted to take that deeper. And recognising what it ended up being was a kind of separate conceptual, theoretical piece that teachers were quite afraid of, so they often didn’t get there, and we wanted it to feel as normal and natural as possible. The children were never frightened of neuroscience, it was only the teachers that were. What we wanted was to offer it in as easy and friendly and normal way as possible. So the stories are about everyday life and just making that bit of neuroscience learning connect to real life experience: so when we’re ‘here and now’ it’s this part of the brain that lets us do that, when we’re ‘focusing’ it’s this part of the brain that helps us focus, and focusing is also about letting go….being able to go ‘not that, this’ and then when we’ve got the idea about it it’s oooh so it’s the anterior cingulate cortex that helps me do that. So, I know that’s what’s going on up there.But then practising that. So I’ve got the idea about it, I’ve got the science, and I know that name, I like the word. It’s interesting. And there’s something about that for all of us: this is what’s happening.
Christopher: Well it is empowering, isn’t it? It also fits in with this idea of being observant. There’s actually some neuroscience I can attach to that observation.
Sarah: And one of the things that I really love that it does is connects us as human beings: this is happening for all of us. This is just me being human. I do this, or I find it difficult to do this. But also this sense of: Oh look! Look at my mind! Doing that. It helps us to de-centre more, I think. My favourite story was the ten year old lad who came back after playtime and said he’d nearly punched someone, and telling his teacher. And his teacher thought: ohh, because he was often nearly punching people. And he said: aghh, but, that was my amygdala that made me want to punch him, wasn’t it? And then I engaged my pre-frontal cortex and chose not to.And there was something …. he was just so made up with himself. He’d seen what was happening, recognised it in neuroscience terms, and made a choice because there was enough space to do that, because he’d been observing himself.
So Sarah concluding there with a particularly resonant account. A child who recognises that they can detach from behaviours, that they can discern a better response, and that they can determine for themselves a wiser choice because they are learning about the mechanics of the mind, and that’s an experiential learning through feeling states. There’s also something for me as a teacher to think about is: I really like your mindfulness voice, Miss. But I don’t like your Maths voice.
The outwardness of mindfulness
What I now wanted to explore with Sarah was this idea of the inwardness of mindfulness and how it can help us to be more outward, more connected.
Christopher: A lot of us come to mindfulness because we are quite isolated, we are quite inward. And we find the inwardness of mindfulness is actually something that can help us become more outward. Because you were talking about connecting.It’s occurred to me more and more that there’s no point in practicing this unless I’m bringing something into the world. And this idea of serving others, isn’t that ultimately the aim of education perhaps?
Sarah: There’s a criticism that’s around about mindfulness that it’s about being the opiate of the masses – you shut your eyes and don’t react, don’t act. It’s just a kind of tolerate, or subdue, when maybe there needs to be some action. We can overuse the closing the eyes and going in, and accepting to a point where it’s allowing unhelpfully. What I want mindfulness in schools to be, especially for little ones, is a sense of the inside and the outside not being separate, so that we can close our eyes and focus on what’s happening inside, because closing our eyes just helps turn up the volume of that noticing, but it’s not different or less to have your eyes open and be noticing your neighbour. To be working with someone else. Or in a group. To be noticing the trees, or the clouds, or the planes going over. That they’re equally valid.
I feel quite strongly that one of the things we should be teaching in mindfulness in schools is how distressed tolerance and valuing so-called negative emotional states. You know, not just switching them off. So there may be moments when we really need to listen to the fact that we’re really angry, or really upset, or frustrated, or sad. They may be having something really important to tell us, so there is a kind of voice we hear a lot about oh mindfulness, it’s really lovely, it makes me calm. And I’m really afraid of that, I don’t think that’s what we’re doing. I mean, fabulous, to be able to calm ourselves if we’re upset, but if that’s all that it is, that’s not mindfulness. That’s relaxation.
If we’re teaching children to think and achieve they’ll get very good at that. But if we’re not asking them to be wise about all the different information that’s possible then we’re doing them an injustice, aren’t we? The gut feeling. The heart. Sense. The sunset. Most people who come to mindfulness have a moment, don’t they? Where they suddenly realise they’ve been driving past sunsets, or just not paying attention to the sunset, or something similar, that actually when you pause and take in it’s really valuable. And you might not know conceptually why that’s significant but it’s feeding some part of you. It just feeds, doesn’t it? You feel completely differently if you just spend five minutes looking at some beauty in the world. You know, sort of value that even though we might not quite understand why that’s so nourishing. It’s having faith, that there’s more to this than we understand, isn’t there as well? Like Harry Potter walking through the platform wall. This makes no sense, but I feel that it’s right.
Christopher: We have to bring that curiosity into schools…but even if we haven’t had it in schools what I’m interested in in The Present now is what’s the future of The Present because I’m like where’s The Present for me? Where’s The Present for daddy here? Or mummy. Or the guy who’s a CEO? Do you have plans for that?
Sarah: Yes, we’re piloting an adult version of it at the moment… to explore how those themes and this approach of having lenses to explore present moment experience and then letting that shape what kind of practice we choose to develop. I’ve piloted it a few times now and it’s interesting the difference between letting people discover their own reality of practice, of awareness, and recognising the relevance of it in their life. We’ve talked about it as a kind of reversing in to developing a daily practice because there are so many people -teachers especially – coming to courses and feeling like they are just being told to do this. And they’re too busy, and they don’t get it, and they haven’t practised, and you get midway through the eight week course and the arms are still folded, and there’s still this actually I don’t understand why I would even want to do this.
So the idea of ‘Here and Now’… well, are you here?If you are, fabulous, maybe that’s enough, but if you notice how much your mind is elsewhere and you’re missing your present moments, if you find you can’t focus and find your mind’s scattered, that it’s busy and going to places you don’t want it to go and you recognise that, and have an experience of that, then hopefully that’s the beginning of a motivation to practice training the mind to settle somewhere for longer.
I think one of the things the adult mindfulness world is recognising is that just doing an eight-week course isn’t enough. We want to engage people to want to continue to practice, to have some kind of autonomy of practice … we want to invite people in, get them engaged, get them seeing the point, and then continue to practice. So if there’s a variety of courses they might start one way and then go a different direction, depending on what’s right for them. It might be mindful movement, they might do the traditional eight-week course and then, when they know why, do lots of body-scanning, and sitting, and really go deep with it.
Christopher: So I guess this is the point with your mindful life and why programmes such as The Present are so relevant in terms of being facilitative for people who want to continue to develop a mindfulness practice but who want to find their space whether that be through the structured delivery of an 8 week course or going deeper into specific practices. I feel that Sarah’s programme really offers that flexibility and I love the way it so simply and succinctly dovetails with what the contents of conscious awareness are, the mechanics of the mind, the neuroscience that we are still uncovering. I think all of that is very empowering and relevant to peoples lived experience.
Now I’m sure Sarah will forgive me for this but the mechanics of my own mind are suddenly becoming aware of overshooting time. I guess it’s the teacher in me – the hard-wired-ness of a plenary emerging. How do we wrap this up? And of course, that’s agitation!
Well, at least I recognise that and at least I’m with the right person to understand that I recognise that!
Knowing that the interview is coming to an end an image comes into my mind of making my journey home. I’m visited by an image of people on the high street here at Muswell Hill – images of kyphotic postures, images of heads down staring into palms of hands. I’m interested in Sarah’s take on this….this distracted world of ours…
Christopher: I’ll walk down the street now when we finish up and I’ll see a lot of people on a mobile phone. And almost kyphotically – we’re actually bowing now to these things.
Sarah: We’ve text neck, it’s a ‘thing’.
Christopher: Oh yeh, ‘text neck’, yeh, I like that.
Sarah: You know, I’ve got my head like that all the time, so they actually can’t get their head right where it naturally should be. Because it just feels so extreme. It’s bizarre. And hearing from primary school teachers that small children can’t make eye contact because they’ve been trained to look down at devices all the time. So, we need to rebalance that, don’t we? And the connection, and the working with other people, just awareness of other people. In terms of relational skills, we’ve got to…look up, look out.
Christopher: So, there’s never been a more important time to be present. Sarah, I really want to thank you. It’s been a wonderful conversation. Very enlightening, as ever. Thank you.
So my heartfelt thanks go out to Sarah Silverton for sharing with us her mindfulness journey, her teaching experiences, and for discussing with us the possibilities of other ways into mindfulness as shown in the pioneering programme of The Present.
For more information on The Present go to the end of the transcript of this podcast where a link is available, and for more information on Sarah herself just go to her website www.sarahsilvertonmindfulness.co.uk