What mindfulness can teach you

Motorcycle parked by the side of a mountain roadDr Florian Ruths is a consultant psychiatrist and a cognitive therapist, practitioner, trainer, and supervisor. He has been running a mindfulness service at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust for the last 20 years. 

Dr Florian Ruths works with the KHP Mind & Body team to deliver Mindfulness 4 All, a biweekly 30-minute live session that can be attended online. We asked him how mindfulness is sometimes misunderstood and he shared some key thoughts:  

Mindfulness is more than what you think 

Meditation as we teach it is just a taster of something much deeper. Mindfulness has a long tradition, with more than two and a half thousand years of mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is an inner ethos. It is when we look at the world around us as it presents itself. The more you do it, the more you realise you’re just touching the surface of something that goes into everything that we are as human beings.

For me I call it a lab - it’s somewhere I can find out what is going on with me and what's going on with the human beings around me? How do we relate to each other? How can we be nice to each other? It’s easy to be harsh with oneself. Mindfulness is ultimately all about cultivating compassion and compassion is a huge thing, particularly in medicine. 

Mindfulness can involve serious discussions 

You can incorporate different themes into mindfulness. In our Mindfulness for Doctors sessions we’ve covered lots of topics mindfulness topics. We’ve discussed the nature of illness, the nature of death, and we’ve talked about how to deal with our mortality - topics often not spoken about in medical school. It’s interesting for colleagues and it tickles their thinking. Mindfulness is such a broad entity so we try to give people a sense of how to use mindful awareness in order to deal with lots of different forms of distress.  

Mindfulness can benefit so many people 

I have been offering mindfulness to foundation doctors since 2018. I give junior doctors something to help them regulate their emotions and prevent burnout. Some of the colleagues I have helped have been sceptical at first - they think it’s time consuming and maybe too emotional.  

There can be an almost military ethos in medicine. There’s the enemy that's illness and we're there to fight it, so sometimes we think our emotions are not as important. We need to learn to consider ourselves as beings that are emotional. Our emotions need to be looked after and staff have really resonated with that message.  

Mindfulness doesn’t just benefit patients, it helps the people who look after them. 

Mindfulness requires dedication 

Being mindful means paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way. You could decide now to focus on the present moment and see things as they are without judging. It sounds theoretically very easy, really though it needs practicing, cultivating and a degree of training. We can be in the moment, but our minds quickly shift focus to our phones or things in our environment. We get distracted very easily.  

Placing attention on how things are in the present moment is quite a skill, and it takes time to develop that. Everybody wants it quick and fast but there is a certain amount of work we need to do to cultivate mindfulness. The slowing down itself is a difficult process but it’s a big part of mindfulness.  

Mindfulness is not meditation  

I want to distinguish between the word mindfulness and mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is what we’re cultivating. It’s a bit like fitness – we’re cultivating fitness through doing exercise. Mindfulness we cultivate through interventions such as mindfulness meditation and meditative practices. It’s an important distinction to make but people often blur the two.  

You can practice mindfulness in anything that you do. I started doing mindfulness through motorcycling mindfully, focussing on the present moment physical experience of being on the motocycle, sounds, winds, smells, engine vibration and temperature. That was a starting point for me. That lead me to wanting to have more formal meditation practices. There's no hard and fast rule for how to meditate which is why we teach different techniques on our courses. 

Mindfulness works 

NICE guidance states that all NHS employers should offer mindfulness to their employees. NICE is a very high-level national institution that looks carefully at the evidence and brings together researchers, statisticians and stakeholders. When NICE says something works, you know they've been through hundreds of papers, thousands of pieces of evidence and they've interviewed patients and stakeholders. I can reference a lot of papers that exist, but what I think is the most power of powerful messages is that it’s NICE recommended. 

Why did you want to help deliver Mindfulness 4 All? 

During the pandemic I was at home feeling for my colleagues who work on the frontline dealing with COVID patients, putting their own health at risk and some of them indeed being affected by COVID. The situation was awful, so I wanted to do what I could support colleagues with mindfulness practice. In 2020 we offered daily mindfulness; we are continuing our mission to support staff through mindful practices and we do this through our biweekly sessions. You can sign up to join a session here. 

To learn more about the KHP Mind & Body Programme, visit the team’s webpages here