Dr Danny Penman
At the start of 2012, I decided to stop playing around on the fringes of Mindfulness, stop quoting from it and stop referring to it loosely in my work and to actually study it properly.
The first stop on this journey was of course to buy Mindfulness – finding peace in a frantic world by Dr Danny Penman and Professor Mark Williams. The book strips back the rhetoric that normally intimidates those wishing to develop the practice – there is no “higher plane” stuff here, no language that excludes – just a real and practical introduction to the subject and a proper tutorial guide.
My next step was to interview Dr Penman which was an experience much like, one imagines, it would be to interview Professor Brian Cox – passion for his subject without intimidating you with his knowledge.
Although he had practised meditation since his youth, until five years ago Dr Penman reserved judgment, at least, about the real power of meditation but when an accident left him critically injured when paragliding with his friend Mark Williams (the Professor with whom he later co-authored this book) he learned the power of meditation first hand.
Critically injured and in constant pain, Dr Penman recalled in an article for the Daily Mail how he could see the bone in the lower half of his right leg had been driven up through his knee and into his thigh.
“As I lay there in pain, I remembered a form of meditation that I had been taught in the sixth form of my comprehensive school in Cheshire, as a way of tackling exam nerves.
Over the years I’d used it to deal with the usual stresses and strains of daily life, but never in times of physical pain. But I knew that meditation (and self-hypnosis) had been used for pain relief and, as I lay on the hillside, in sheer desperation I tried them both. I forced myself to breathe slowly and deeply, to focus on the sensations the breath made as it flowed in and out. I pictured myself in a beautiful garden and imagined myself inhaling its peaceful and tranquil air
Gradually, breath by breath, the pain became more distant. It felt less ‘personal’, almost as if I was watching it on TV”
In hospital it became apparent how seriously injured he was — and just how effective a painkiller the meditation had been.
“My leg was so badly broken that I would need three major operations. I also needed a newly invented device, a Taylor Spatial Frame, to be surgically attached to my leg for up to 18 months to repair the damage. Consisting of four equally spaced rings that encircled my lower leg, the frame looked like a cross between a Meccano set and a medieval torture device. Fourteen metal spokes and two bolts connected these rings to the shards of bone inside my leg, and allowed the surgeon to move the fragments around inside.
Life with the frame was intolerable. Sleep was virtually impossible, and the pain was controlled with powerful drugs that left him washed-out and jaded.
“I felt thoroughly wretched — anxious, irritable and highly stressed. So I decided to find an alternative way of coping with the pain and of maximising my chances of recovery”.
Dr Penman then discovered the work of Mark Williams, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Oxford University who with colleagues at the universities of Cambridge, Toronto, and Massachusetts had spent 20 years studying the phenomenal power of meditation for treating anxiety and even full-blown depression.
“They had turned it into a therapy known as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) that was gaining the support of doctors and scientists. It had even been endorsed by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and in Britain by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice). It’s also been shown to be as effective as drugs for treating depression. In fact, it’s now one of the preferred treatments recommended by Nice”.
Now aged 44, Dr Penman is convinced he MBCT is why he recovered in double-quick time “the leg frame was removed after just 17 weeks rather than the normal six to 18 months”.
Firstly I congratulated Danny on a great book and thanked him too for the added bonus of the guided mediation CD included in the cover.
EM: I talk about your work and your book when training this year and just recently I was asked about one sentence in particular that you use “your thoughts are not you”. Where I would historically say to delegates “your thoughts are not the whole of you” it’s just a word but you see a conflict in the different phrasing?
DP: Nooo, I was just trying to convey that we all spend so much time thinking and we associate it with a “voice” when really its just one aspect. Thoughts are driven by underlying emotions, physical sensations, our thoughts lead to another thought– thoughts leak. For example, you could be just walking and feel a stiffness in the neck and often our first thoughts are “Oh I’m stressed, what am I stressed about? It must be the exam, or the job interview…….I’m stressed because I am nervous about it…….what if I fail….everyone will think I’m stupid….maybe I am”. You can drive yourself into negativity or you can choose to act: the voice is not a commandment – we have choices. That’s really what I meant about “thoughts are not you.
EM: The most important ethos that comes across from your book is that we should be “compassionate” with ourselves in the first instance rather than rush to criticise ourselves because we haven’t fixed a problem – have I got that impression correctly and would you elaborate on that?
DP: Being “compassionate” with ourselves seems a little indulgent at first glance but as soon as you see how the mind and body work – you understand it more. If you are “approach orientated” and become more open to new experiences, you are likely to spot more opportunities, adopt a positive disposition. I do believe that we must strive for compassion because it’s good for us as individuals and good for society as a whole.
EM: Although the practice of Mindfulness is applicable to everyone – it does have to be learnt doesn’t it?
DP: Yes, all of the techniques are straightforward but someone needs to tell you how to do it. Like everything else in life – it takes practice. The book is enough to learn from but the Oxford Centre of Mindfulness also run courses.
Having read the book and listening to the Guided Meditations CD that accompanies it, I agree: the book does cover all the likely problems one might encounter and the techniques are incredibly straightforward – there is no airy fair stuff here: just the “ethos”, the “why” and loads of the “how”.
EM: I found myself nodding and agreeing with the examples you give in your book especially the Habit Breaker actions. I have always been fascinated by how powerful the results can be from just making small different actions and how this can change the dynamic and change how one see things. In my work we allow the client to “choose” the “do something different” task [the equivalent of his Habit Breaker Action] according to how they live their life – is that something that you do?
DP: We give specific examples because they are relevant to each meditation – so the Habit Breakers in the book are best ones to follow. We are all so driven –we feel we have to do so much and that we need to rush things but we really shouldn’t – breaking two or three small habits a week is better than rushing to break one big habit.
EM: How confident are you that Mindfulness will be embraced on a wider level within the NHS especially given that it’s now one of the preferred treatments recommended by Nice?
DP: What seems to be happening is that independent practitioners, like GPs for instance are increasingly recommending Mindfulness – it has so many applications, of course. If everyone spent 10-20 minutes practising Mindfulness daily – the diseases we accept as the norm would be radically diminished.
Our belief and hope is that Mindfulness will become like brushing our teeth for instance. One hundred years ago – no one brushed their teeth, they just accepted that their teeth would fall out and indeed they did. Then Dentists came along and now people take it for granted that they will have good teeth all their lives if they take care of them. I think that in 50 years time, people might be as shocked when they look back and consider that in 2012 people didn’t take the time to meditate.
EM: On that note, what about Schools? Are there any plans to teach children how to practice Mindfulness, on a wider scale?
DP: There has been a Pilot project co-ordinated by University of Canterbury – they got very good results. My hunch is that individual schools will start to adopt it and it will become more widespread.
I started meditation myself at 16 when I was introduced to it by my English teacher Pat Field at Neston Comprehensive School, Wirral, who believed it would relieve exam stress. I do get a sense that people are very receptive to it and are indeed looking for a way forward and the increasing sales of our book would certainly indicate this.
EM: A businessman I was talking to recently about Mindfulness said “I’m not the sandal-wearing type” – do you find that is a common response from the business world?
DP: Occasionally, but they are also in the business of making money and not wasting it. The biggest waste of money in business is time lost because of people’s depression, anxiety and stress – I was approached to talk to Heads of various banks recently. At Board level, executives are looking to invest in human resources and how Mindfulness can help. Of course there might be cynicism in some business quarters but mainly I am finding acceptance of its use.
EM: I was surprised to see “Mindful acceptance is not resignation – it is not acceptance of the unacceptable” on Page 45. I would have personally put that on the jacket or in the opening sentence in order to encourage people, like that businessman for instance, who generally consider meditation or indeed anything that centres on inner as indeed “accepting the unacceptable”
DP: That’s interesting – yes, you’re possibly right – it is crucial to highlight this. “Acceptance” as a word has a bad reputation and immediately some people think of it as “resignation”. People have different concepts of “acceptance” – it carries lots of negative connotations but of course when they read the book – it becomes very obvious, very quickly what the true meaning of “Acceptance” is.
EM: My introduction of Mindfulness, and your book, this year with delegates attending our courses will be your “chocolate mediation” – any tips on implementing this en masse?
DP: The great way to do meditation with a group is not to lead but to “do it along with the group”, using present tense, i.e. “now tasting the vanilla, now smelling the aroma” and not to ask questions as that will trigger thoughts.
I was very grateful to Dr Penman for his time and for this book – if it is possible for a book to be “approachable” then this is. I notice that the authors haven’t gone for endorsements from the neuroscientists or clinicians (although they could easily have of course) but instead people like Goldie Hawn and Ruby Wax to call us to the bookshelf and the authors announce themselves on the cover as Danny Penman and Mark Williams rather than “Dr” and “Professor” to further assure us that this isn’t a book just for practitioners and counsellors but for anyone who wants to be more mindful and indeed find peace in a frantic world.
Since this interview, Dr Penman has agreed to run a one hour Mindfulness workshop for us at our public training event in London on 28th February 2013. Dr Penman will be inviting delegates to undertake the “chocolate meditation” during his workshop. If you would like to attend, please Book here