Depending on your perspective, it is the meditative technique that can combat the stresses of modern life, or it is the latest hippyish pseudoreligion to sweep through society. Either way, UK higher education is embracing mindfulness.
A major conference exploring the potential applications of mindfulness in higher education is being held at the University of Warwick on 16 and 17 June, to be followed two days later by a linked event organised by Universities UK, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and the Mindfulness Initiative, bringing in speakers from as far afield as Mexico and Morocco.
The programme for the latter event defines mindfulness as “a capacity that enables people to focus on what they experience in the moment, inside themselves as well as in their environment, with an attitude of openness and curiosity”. Meditative techniques based on mindfulness are now widely used in treating anxiety and depression, and have also been incorporated into management training.
Sarah Stewart-Brown, an organiser of the Warwick conference who is professor of public health at the institution, said that mindfulness techniques now form an element of the personal and professional development course that all first-year medical students at Warwick are required to take.
Research suggests, said Professor Stewart-Brown, that “people who practise mindfulness even five or 10 minutes a day notice a difference in how they feel about things and their capacity to weather the stresses of medical school and practice”. Even more significant is research showing that “the practice of mindfulness after qualification reduces medical errors, improves compassion and reduces burnout”.
Not everybody is so convinced of the technique’s value. Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College London, acknowledged that “mindfulness training can have interpersonal benefits” and that “those who meditate properly and with sustained effort show multiple benefits”.
Yet he worries that such practices can “encourage people to focus too much inward and not enough outward” and is sceptical about the long-term impact on those who don’t have the dedication of Buddhist monks. Furthermore, today’s constant bombardment of “emails, texts, tweets and calls” means that “the modern person seems to have little chance of being mindful”, he said.
So why is UUK giving its imprimatur to a technique that still has many critics?
“We are encouraging universities to look at the range of techniques available for raising the mental health of whole populations,” replied conference organiser John de Pury, assistant director of policy at UUK, in the interest not only of helping students and staff suffering from poor mental health but also boosting leadership and performance across the board. Although the current case for mindfulness “rests on evidence from outside higher education”, the conference will discuss the interim results of the University of Cambridge’s Mindful Student Study, which looks at the effectiveness of mindfulness in reducing stress.
While many university leaders believe that they just don’t have time for mindfulness, Mr De Pury argues that it can actually be useful in “supporting attention, focus and prioritisation”.
Yet he admits that it does require a fairly serious level of commitment: “You don’t have to be a signed-up Buddhist monk to get the benefits, but you do have to do it seriously. You can’t just chew on a raisin for a couple of minutes a week.”