Mindfulness is an evidence-based approach that is accepted and taught across the UK by organisations such as the NHS. This post reflects on my experience as a teacher of mindfulness and how this skill can help intensive interaction practice.
First I think it would be worth explaining what mindfulness is and isn’t. To become more mindful is to become more aware of the present moment, to see things more as they actually are and to become more content with the way things are right now rather than habitually desiring things to be different. The practice associated with mindfulness is usually called meditation but this does not mean that practitioners need to follow a religion. Over the past 30 years a lot of recognised research has developed mindfulness as an evidence based practice. One of the most instrumental people behind this work is Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. His 8-week mindfulness based stress reduction programme is now taught in over 30 countries and is delivered by mindfulness schools that can be found in many towns in the UK and also to both patients and staff through the NHS. The accessibility of these courses means that it is now possible to study the mindfulness skill outside of the context of religion, for example Buddhist meditation.
My background with regards to mindfulness is through the Chinese health skill of qigong and tai chi. After working at Woolley Wood on a Wednesday, I teach the traditional Chinese skills of Wild Goose Qigong at my weekly evening class. I have studied this skill since 2001 and I love the relaxed flowing movements of the exercise routines. An important part of the skill is meditation and I find that the benefits of this mindfulness practice make a difference to many aspects of my life including my intensive interaction practice. What follows is my interpretation of Kabat-Zinns attitudes of mindfulness which he details in the his book ‘Full Catastrophe Living’. As soon as I read this essay I saw the connection to intensive interaction and thought it would be worth writing about these attitudes in the context of intensive interaction practice.
The Foundation Attitudes of Intensive Interaction Practice
Non-judging: At Woolley Wood, the observation that is most frequently made when we reflect on video during mentoring is that an assumption was made about the meaning behind a child’s behaviour and that this led to the practitioner making an inappropriate return. An example of this happened last year when a child was stacking jigsaw pieces on a table. The teaching assistant I was mentoring sat next to the child and showed him how to fit the pieces together after which the child promptly stood up and walked away. I explained to the staff that the child was actually playing the game of stacking or making a tower and the teaching assistant had assumed that the jigsaw pieces must used only for the purpose that they were originally intended i.e. by laying them flat on the table and making a picture by fitting the pieces together. To me it seemed that the child walked away because the teaching assistant did not see things as they really were but instead responded to their assumptions about why the child was playing with the jigsaw.
The problem here is that it is very easy to make an assumption about what we see without knowing it. When we begin to pay attention to this quality of our mind it is common to discover, as Jon Kabat Zin notes, that we are making these assumptions all the time as we constantly generate judgments about our own experience. Almost everything we see is labelled, categorised by the mind and these judgements can come to dominate our awareness. In contrast, mindfulness is about paying close attention to the present moment-to-moment experience and, as best we can, not getting caught up in these ideas, opinions, like and dislikes. This orientation can allow us to see things more as they actually may be rather than through our own distorted lens or agenda.
Coming back to Intensive Interaction we can see that, in the above example from Woolley Wood, a more mindful approach may have meant that the teaching assistant could have calmly observed the child stacking the jigsaw pieces and seen that he/she was doing exactly that – stacking pieces. An appropriate return could therefore have been to sit and join in with the stacking rather than the return she took in the example which could be interpreted as correcting the child and showing him how really to play with a jigsaw.
Does this mean that making judgements about the child’s behaviour is wrong? Not at all. We need to make in-the-moment judgements and decisions frequently; the obstruction to our practice is the habitual making assumptions and reactions. In contrast to this, our aim is to be aware of when we are making an assumption and to knowingly make judgements about what we see.
Patience: The second most talked about subject when reflecting on videos at Woolley Wood is the importance of waiting. Beginning practitioners will tend to do too much and I think this has as much to do with human nature as has to do with being a beginner. In his book ‘Full Catastrophe Living’, Jon Kabat-Zinn describes patience as a form of wisdom. Patience demonstrates that we understand and accept the fact that sometimes things must unfold in their own time. He uses the analogy of a child trying to help a butterfly to emerge by breaking open its chrysalis. The butterfly usually does not benefit from this and any adult knows that the butterfly can only emerge in its own time, that the process cannot be hurried.
Our partners in Intensive Interaction are much like butterflies emerging from a chrysalis (or a chick from an egg) in that their social skills can only develop at their own pace. Of course we can help to create the conditions for natural social engagement by making ourselves socially available (and the more we do this the more opportunities there will be for development) but ultimately we must wait for our partner to choose to be with us rather than instruct him or her to do something when we want them to. To achieve this we may have to wait and be silent for longer than we feel comfortable but this feeling of ‘uncomfortable silence’ is usually about our impatience, our lack of familiarity with stillness and the fact that we are so accustomed to doing things.
So to be the person that our partner needs us to be we need to develop more patience. How can we do this? By engaging in more intensive interaction and simply reminding ourselves that there is no need to be impatient when the feeling arises, that our partner may be quite happy just sharing space with us and that it is important for them to choose to initiate an interaction with us. I sometimes ask staff members whether they could be still and wait for 30 seconds, or a minute or how about 5 minutes? If as practioners we can do this then there will be no ‘uncomfortable silences’ because at those times we will be relaxed and content and this will help our partner to feel relaxed and content too.
To be continued…