MBCT: Why you should take the plunge

Ever felt overwhelmed? Or perhaps you don’t feel good enough? Perhaps you struggle for motivation, or a sense of worth? These are all common amongst the population, at universities, and, of course, at Oxford. It’s in light of this that I can highly recommend Oxford’s 8-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy programme.

It might be interesting to know that Oxford is the centre of one of the most popular recent developments in psychotherapy and mindfulness: Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). Williams, one of the three creators of MBCT, is a Professor at Oxford, and is involved in much of the research taking place around the Oxford Mindfulness Centre—the same centre that is offering students a full 8-week MBCT course for a pretty reasonable £65.

And MBCT is not only for people who are suffering mental disorders; the course offered by Oxford “is not a treatment for any specific physical or psychological condition, and is not suitable for people who are currently experiencing very severe problems in these areas”—it’s as much for those looking to better their quality of life as for those who are suffering. Increasingly, MBCT, as well as mindfulness and other similar programmes, is being used as a proactive rather than a reactive resource.

My mind constantly felt frazzled, as though I couldn’t focus.

Before I reflect on my experience on the course, though, I should tell you more about MBCT. The first half of the story begins with Freudian psychoanalysis, which was dominant in the 1920s: Oedipus complex and all. For many, this was—to put it bluntly—a load of rubbish: unscientific, unverifiable and intangible.

It was in this context that behaviourism was invented—a psychological approach focusing only on outwardly observable behaviour. The problem with this approach was that it ignored all of those characteristics which are so important for psychotherapy: thoughts and emotions—subjective, first-person experience.

Hence, Albert Ellis, inspired by ancient Stoicism, decided to bring these elements back into psychotherapy—his ideas were popularised in particular by Aaron T. Beck’s Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). The basic idea is that our emotions are influenced by our thoughts—in particular, many negative emotions arise from thoughts which are distorted—which don’t accurately reflect reality.

As a result, CBT works by uncovering and replacing these distorted cognitions by challenging them, and it is extraordinarily successful.

The second half of the story starts with the Buddhist tradition, which was popularised and secularised in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s ‘mindfulness’. This contemporary idea of mindfulness emphasised paying attention to experience on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally.

Kabat-Zinn had developed an eight-week course called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) which aims to reduce stress through mindfulness meditation and practices. The founders of MBCT were practitioners of CBT originally looking for a way to stop relapse into depression.

When they stumbled across MBSR, they realised it was exactly what they were looking for. As a result, they combined CBT and MBSR, and formed MBCT, which sought to improve the quality of people’s lives through mindfulness meditation.

The adoption of MBSR’s 8-week programme, then, perfectly suits the Oxford term. And that is how I ended up undertaking the MBCT programme in Hilary Term 2020. But before I talk you through what the programme taught me, and how it benefited me, I should talk about how I got there, and that requires going back to the start of second year.

For a while I’d began to feel like a machine constantly doing task after task after task and forgetting what it’s like to just… live.

As a freshers’ rep, I volunteered to be the one to accompany Freshers to the Jesus College mindfulness session, my interest having been piqued. I attended, enjoyed, and promptly forgot all about it. It was only 4 weeks later, though, that I hit breaking point.

I felt overwhelmed. My mind constantly felt frazzled, as though I couldn’t focus; I spent a lot of time in libraries but not much time doing anything productive, which was extremely frustrating. Why? Because I simply could not focus—instead of doing my reading or work for various extracurriculars, I couldn’t stop my mind from constantly thinking about all the things I needed to do.

And although planning can be useful, this led to me feeling more and more stressed as all I could do was think about all the things I needed to do—and, soon, needed to have done.

Unsurprisingly, my work, sleep and health began to suffer as I sacrificed the latter for the former. Alongside this arose creeping doubts about my abilities. Was I really capable? Perhaps Finals were too much for me? I doubt that these are unfamiliar thoughts for many Oxford students.

And for the first time, I was beginning to see why. Guilt, frustration, lack of self-confidence, bad grades, guilt, frustration… It was a vicious cycle. And with my mind seemingly unable to focus on anything, I felt hopeless. I began to feel like there was nothing I could do. I was overwhelmed.

On a whim, I decided to go to that same mindfulness class I’d attended not too long ago. What I heard chimed with me, and seemed to hit the nail on the head. For a while, I’d begun to feel like a machine constantly doing task after task after task and forgetting what it’s like to just… live.

Intrigued, I attended each week, constantly feeling more and more understood. And, I was beginning to be more and more convinced that it worked. I started to feel a bit more focused, clear-headed and less overwhelmed. But I never fully took the plunge.

That toe-dipping, alongside an understanding and empathetic tutor and fantastic support from friends and family, allowed me to get through Michaelmas with only minor detriment to my work, sleep and health. But I never forgot about mindfulness, nor about the course and its corresponding book which had been recommended to me by our instructor. And so it was that I bought the book, gave it a read, and enrolled in the course.

The first thing I learned, before ever attending the formal mindfulness sessions, was the distinction between being and doing: between doing task after task, and just enjoying living. And it was something which chimed—and continues to chime—most deeply for me. After my Prelims, I was at a loss as to what to do with myself. It’s something that I would constantly feel for a few weeks after term ended.

All I could think of doing were things I would do at Oxford: work, extracurricular activities and social activities—but at the end of term, the rug was pulled from under all of these, and the motivation too. In the summer, I simply couldn’t shake this. I didn’t seem to be able to find joy in simply experiencing things like I used to as a child. I imagine many others feel this too.

My restless mind was turning against me. Mindfulness taught me the skill of balancing the two and using them at the right times. This is taught throughout the course, particularly in Week 3.

The course takes the form of 90-minute sessions of about 30 people which involve meditation practices, theory, and discussion—particularly of personal experience. Alongside this, we’re expected to engage in about 30 minutes practice each day.

I started to feel a bit more focused, clear-headed and less overwhelmed.

Another of the key lessons I learned was about releasing automatic habits. Ever found yourself automatically walking towards the library (or substitute suitable equivalent) instead of to where you’re meant to be going? Or perhaps you’ve gone upstairs to get something but then forgotten what?

Or maybe you’ve been up all night, thinking about all the things that need to get done—and then, the next day, you’re too tired to do them? The course invited me to begin to pay attention to the small (and often positive) aspects of life which I often overlooked, to do something contrary to my habits and to begin to challenge the automatic processes of my mind.

One particular image sticks in my mind from third week: the story of a boy trying to pull a donkey when the donkey is not in a mood to move. The boy continues to get more and more agitated, shouting and pulling harder to try to get the donkey to move. His grandmother, hearing the commotion, comes out, and suggests letting go; instead, gently leading the donkey—when he’s in the mood, he’ll come.

So often our responses to life are like the boy’s pulling: we tug harder and harder in the same direction, trying harder. But trying harder doesn’t always reap rewards: sometimes, we need to rethink our approach. By broadening our minds, we improve our problem-solving skills, creativity—and our happiness. The doing mode leads to striving, exhaustion, and negative spirals of thought—exactly as I had experienced as I worked longer and longer into the night during Michaelmas.

MBCT, as well as mindfulness and other similar programmes, is being used as a proactive rather than a reactive resource.

The fifth week introduces something different: turning towards and embracing difficulties. One of the major causes of mental disorders is avoiding certain experiences or thoughts. Instead, we should compassionately and non-judgementally accept these experiences and begin to deal with them. Sitting with our difficulties is much better than trying to avoid them.

Alongside this is the introduction of compassion to ourselves, which primarily involves focusing on our positives as well as our negatives, and focusing on the present rather than ruminating about the past and worrying about the future.

I imagine seventh week—’when did you stop dancing?’—is something many Oxford students and staff relate to. It introduces the exhaustive funnel, which begins to focus us on only one thing—work, work, work—and forget about exercise, creativity, sports, friends, family, as well as our hygiene, unhealthy eating habits and poor sleeping schedules. Remembering to engage in healthy, nourishing activities is key.

The final week sums it all up, teaching us to implement these ideals for longer periods to find peace in a frantic world: week eight is the rest of your life. One particularly poignant image stuck with me: weave your parachute before you jump out of the plane. Oxford’s relentless environment is great when it all goes right; however, when something begins to go wrong, it’s often too difficult to catch up.

In particular, you just don’t have time to weave your safety net during the term. This is something I learned in Michaelmas, when I was never able to seriously learn about or engage in mindfulness even though I knew I needed to—fortunately, I got through anyway.

Once we’re falling, we can’t weave our parachutes; once thrust into Oxford life, it’s often too difficult to create good habits, challenge bad ones, and adapt our schedules to allow for the change we need. So it’s better to do so when we can—if we do fall from a plane, we’ll have a parachute ready to land us back down safely.

It’s this final lesson, I think, which is particularly prescient. Now, stuck at home, it’s more important than ever to practice mindfulness and find joy in a life which may begin to feel devoid of tasks and things to do. And with the frantic nature of Oxford and life more generally being removed, now is the perfect time to weave your parachute, by learning more about mindfulness and MBCT.

Image credit: SunnyM5 (creative commons)