A head start with mindfulness

Don’t dismiss the meditation technique as a fad: its well documented benefits for those in demanding careers make a strong case for teaching it at university, says Craig Hassed | Times Higher Education

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Mindfulness is a hot topic these days, but its potential importance to higher education has not yet been broadly recognised. It can be described as a form of meditation and a way of living. It is a mental discipline that involves not only sharpening present-moment attention but also cultivating the attitude with which we pay attention: one of curiosity, acceptance, openness and compassion.

Mindfulness is easily marginalised by hard-nosed academic disciplines, and its mischaracterisation as a mere relaxation exercise means that its utility is commonly overlooked in the training of professionals such as doctors, lawyers and chief executives. Yet mounting evidence since the turn of the millennium is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

The tidal wave began with studies into the effectiveness of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) in preventing the recurrence of depression. Subsequently, many further applications have been documented, including combating addictions, chronic pain and infertility.

Indeed, some see mindfulness as a panacea. The reality, though, is probably more complex. Like physical exercise, cultivating awareness is a basic human need, but not everyone will be ready to learn about it or want to do it. Mindfulness demands application and perseverance and is sometimes uncomfortable.

As well as improving their attention, mindfulness has many other benefits for future professionals. For example, a 2004 Australian study tracked the mental health of medical interns throughout their first year of working life. It found that 75 per cent had burnout by the eighth month, and 73 per cent had a diagnosable mental illness (mostly depression and/or anxiety) at least once. Furthermore, a British Medical Journal study in 2008 found that a doctor with depression makes more than six times as many medication and prescribing errors as a doctor without. Considering that medical errors are the third most common cause of death in the US, this points to a major deficiency in our training of professionals destined for demanding jobs. It can’t just be about transferring technical skills and knowledge; enhancing practitioners’ mental health and preventing errors should be seen as aligned objectives.

Read the full news story here

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