DR. DANNY PENMAN
You could you tell us a little bit about how you first found mindfulness and the impact it had on you? Where you searching for ‘something’ and found mindfulness or was it a beautiful accident?
It was an accident, but I wouldn't describe it as a 'beautiful', spectacular maybe! I came to mindfulness literally with a bang! I was paragliding over the edge of the Cotswolds and my canopy collapsed, which caused to me to fall 'head over heals' about 30 ft. Luckily I landed on my feet, but unluckily the lower half of my right leg was driven a couple of inches through my knee and into my thigh! The joint was broken in about 6 places and the shin was completely shattered.
I'd learned mindfulness whilst I was in school and, whilst I was laying in a crumpled heap having fallen from the sky, the only form of pain-relief I had was this form of simple breathing mediation I'd learned in 6th Form. I had used it 'off and on' for a number of years for stress relief, but remember reading that mediation could be used for pain relief.
Because the air had literally been knocked out of me so suddenly after landing, I was winded and I was struggling to breathe. I used mediation, first of all, to breathe in and secondly to control the pain. Much to my surprise, it worked to a significant degree!
The pain didn't 'go' as such, but it meant that I could cope with it. It felt like there was a pane of glass between me and the pain, so I could actually continue functioning whilst I waited for the ambulance to arrive.
I spent the next month in hospital and had 2 major operations and another 5 months with an enormous steel frame holding my leg together. Another operation later to remove the frame. It was a horrible time in my life, but I used meditation to help with stress, anxiety relief and to get me through the day.
Obviously I had quite a bit of time on my hands, so I started doing more and more research about this meditation and I eventually came across the work of Professor Mark Williams of Oxford University. He had turned this mediation, which I then learned was called 'mindfulness', into a form of therapy or treatment for chronic depression, but was also being used for stress and anxiety too.
I became more and more fascinated by this work. This was back in 2007 and no-one had really heard of 'mindfulness' in those days. I was a journalist at the time and tried desperately to try and get it into a newspaper. Here was this technique that had been proven in many clinical trials proved to be brilliant for depression and had helped me enormously, but no-one was interested. It was really infuriating. Everyone just thought "this is just all a bit weird' or "how can meditation help these serious conditions" but eventually I got a piece into The Telegraph.
By this stage, I'd got to know Mark really well and we just decided that we'd write a book about it. We thought we could take this work and turn it into a book, or a treatment, that people could use to ward off anxiety, stress and depression and help them to cope with these awful conditions.
I didn't expect it to do anywhere near as well as it has done, but it seems to have taken off, beyond our wildest dreams.
Do you consider mindfulness and meditation to be one and the same?
Yes and No. Basically, mindfulness is broader than mediation. Certain types of mediation are a way of cultivating mindfulness. Mindfulness itself is nothing more than full conscious awareness of everything that's going on around you and whatever is going on inside your mind and body.
It's awareness of how the mind works and often, how it tricks you and how it enhances anxiety, stress and depression. There are other ways of cultivating mindfulness as well.
Can you, briefly, just explain a little about what mindfulness is and how it can be utilised?
It is full conscious awareness of the present moment and what is going on in the present moment; in your mind and around you. It's nothing more or less than that. It's quite simple but it's also quite radical. When you start to live 'in the moment', rather than 'for the moment', you do gain a sense of perspective. The former is mindfulness, the other is hedonism!
You can literally go into a park and walk around and by paying full attention to whatever is going on around you; the way your feet land on the floor, the sounds that are around you, the smell of the air, that's mindfulness as well. In many ways, that's more practical for people to use those techniques to cultivate mindfulness, rather than mediation.
To really get the full benefit, you need to do about 10 - 20 minutes of mindfulness per day, however you can fill in with these other techniques.
What does mindfulness mean to you now compared to when you first started? Has your understanding of it changed significantly in the 20 years you’ve been practising.
I've got a deeper understanding of it I guess. I look back on my life and think, I used to be an awful lot more stressed and a lot less happy. That's just something that's built up over the years.
I'm more aware of how my mind can play tricks on me. Mercifully, I've never suffered from depression or anything like that. However, I'm aware that an 'untrained' mind, as it were, can actually make mundane events and setbacks into far bigger and more negative situations than they should be.
We all tend to take this out of proportion, but what mindfulness gives you is a sense of perspective. That's not to diminish the real feelings of anxiety, stress and depression that people have. If you're in those situations, they're awful, so having someone come along and say "you need to get some perspective" is really not going to help. But what it does give you a sense of perspective in that you learn gradually that life may not be good at the minute, but if you take the long term view, things will improve.
Life is cyclical. It would be nice if it wasn't I suppose, but it is. Every now and again, you get a kick in the teeth, but the important thing to remember is that you can, and will, pick yourself up again.
Again, I wish to stress I don't want to diminish those real feelings of stress and depression when life does come and kick you in the teeth, cause it's not good. It's not a good situation to be in, but mindfulness helps you to cope.
Speaking for myself, my first knowledge of mindfulness came from my Doctor. When I first started to show the signs of depression, he didn’t prescribe me tablets (at least at first), he prescribed me a book; ‘Mindfulness for Dummies’ by Shamash Alidina. Do you think mindfulness can have a significant role to play in the medical treatment of mental illness.
Oh yeah. It's at least as effective as drugs or counselling. There are about 6 or 7 major clinical trials that have shown that to be the case. Normally you can expect, if you take the 'best' anti-depressant, it's about a 30% success rate, which isn't huge.
Most trials show that mindfulness is about 50% and there's a recent one that showed it was about 60%, so it is the best available treatment.
In recent years, mindfulness seems to have become very popular, particularly in the mainstream media and yet, before that, little was known about it. What do you think changed?
I think what happened was there were lots of little things that came together, rather than one big event that changed the landscape.
Basically, mindfulness works. Enough people began to try it, either out of curiosity or desperation, and they found it was effective and it transformed their lives and they told their friends. And they told their friends and bought copies of our book and gave them to friends. It's like a catalytic reaction really. Good ideas tend to spread, not always, but in this, that's what happened.
It's also the realisation that the other techniques didn't work particularly well. I'm an optimist, so I believe that good ideas tend to spread. Obviously there are giant PR and marketing companies out there that do their level best to make sure crappy ideas spread as well, but the good will out.
Is there a danger that it is seen as ‘just a fad’ and people (or the media) will just move onto the ‘next big thing’? Can it ever live up to its billing that it’s a panacea for all of our problems?
First off, it's not a panacea. It's just the best available treatment. It's also the most effective way of just enjoying life or, at least, keeping in contact with life.
Is it a fad? Well it's been around for 2500 years now, so it's quite a fad! I have no doubt that the media will lose interest eventually. The surprise is that they've maintained their interest for so long. Is that a bad thing? Life is cyclical as we'd said. My hope is that it just becomes a part of the furniture eventually. Success will be marked by the fact that nobody notices it!
What would you say are the biggest myths people have about mindfulness?
Lots of people think it's a religion, which it's not. Obviously, most world religions have some aspect of mindfulness within them, but that doesn't mean that it is a religion. Any more than Christians, as part of their ceremonies, break bread or drink red wine. That doesn't mean bread or red wine are religious.
Also, people assume it's about switching off your brain and not thinking, when it's quite the opposite. Mindfulness is really about learning how your mind works; how it constantly conjures up thoughts and thoughts build and build on top of each other and chase each other. You end up in vicious cycles, up and down.
Also everyone seems to think you have to sit in the Lotus position, which isn't the case at all. That's just the way people in the East, where mindfulness came from, traditionally have mediated. This gives an understandable link between mindfulness to meditation to Buddhism to religion, but it's just not correct.
Where do you see the line between the general populace practising mindfulness to help them feel better day-to-day and giving themselves clarity and when it needs to be used in more scientific settings through psychological intervention, e.g. MB (Mindfulness Based) CBT, MB Group Therapy and MB Relapse Prevention for example? Is there even a line there?
Ideally, people would practice mindfulness before they became ill, almost like a vaccination against stress and depression. That's why I think it's great that they're teaching it in Secondary schools, because, in a way, that's where I learned. I think it gave me a great amount of resilience. I didn't realise it at the time and that wasn't the reason I was doing it, but it was a bi-product.
I think it's also where it shows its power that I only used it in periods of complete stress; coming up to exams or overloaded with work. I wasn't doing it every day by any means, so I think it shows how powerful it can be.
I suppose what I'm saying is, that you'd use it before you have any problems. If you do encounter stress or depression, then you can do it in a more formal setting.
When it comes to mental illness, one phrase I think people hear a lot is that ‘there’s no magic wand’, meaning there’s no quick fix to their illness. Something I think we can all agree on, but how can mindfulness help people in the short, medium and long-term.
Strictly speaking, it is a long-term approach but what always surprises me is how people can be really strung out, but can do one 10-minute mediation, and they just catch a glimpse of peace and tranquility.
The odd thing is, often the worse the predicament a person is in, the more powerful the effect. Even if it's just a few seconds, people suddenly think "I can get that again". They learn that peace and tranquility is only ever a breath away.
One phrase you use in one of your books (Mindfulness – A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World) which is “your thoughts are not you” struck a chord with me, in the same way that something those with mental ill health need to remember is that “your diagnosis is not you”. Can you elaborate a little on that?
It's largely a result, I suppose, of western culture, but we tend to identify 100% with the thoughts that are going through our mind. Whatever thoughts are there, we think that is us. It's not us.
I am the observer of my thoughts, I'm not those thoughts, but you have to 'feel it'. You can be told it a thousand times, but unless you feel it for yourself, you won't really grasp it. You have to believe it.
It's tremendously liberating for many people because they get trapped inside their thoughts. These really vicious circle of things like PTSD. Either through stress or fear or whatever is underlying it, becomes all consuming or all-pervading . It becomes like a cage. Being able to step outside that for a moment and realise that you are not your thoughts is one of the most powerful things you can learn.
I goes back to René Descartes and his iconic phrase "I think therefore I am", and that's what we all tend to think. We are our thoughts, but we're not.
As the popularity of mindfulness increases and so to do the studies and research. Do you think there’s a danger that the findings will create confusion and counteract each other leading to negative and misleading headlines?
There's always a danger of that with any research. Even if a phenomena is 100% true, most trials will show that, but you're always going to get a few that don't. That's just down to random fluctuations as much as anything.
The threshold for statistical proof is 95%.. If you ran 100 trials and you did various statistical techniques on it, what is considered 'proof' is basically that there is a 95% chance of it being true. Therefore, there is a 1 in 20 chance that a perfectly designed and perfectly executed experiment will give a negative result. That's just the way it is.
If we were in any doubt that mindfulness has reach the upper echelons of our country, the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group recently published a report called Mindful Nation UK. In it, they recognise the popularity of mindfulness and the role it can play towards better mental health in many important aspects of society including workplaces, schools, the NHS and even prisons. Have you had a chance to read it and what did you think?
It's great report and it's a perfect summary of the state of play at the moment. It would be really nice if politicians and policy makers acted on it. I think they will.
So much is at stake that, certainly in the health system, that it's going to be fundamental in the future, education as well. We'll see how it trickles into law and order and military. I've got high hopes that the military will incorporate it, because it's very, very effective and they're under a lot of pressure. In these times of austerity, it's cheaper than pills!
Do you really think mindfulness can help in those particular areas of society? Is there any strata of people that you think couldn’t use mindfulness?
I think it can and it does. The problem you've got in places like prisons, is that you're probably going to meet lots of endemic resistance from the prisoners. They might see it as some sort of mind control or a way of pacifying them. I think it has to be handled with care.
Could you tell us about a couple of incidents you’ve had in your life and how mindfulness and / or meditation has helped you through them?
I tend to use it regularly, even for fairly run-of-the-mill things. If I'm commuting in the morning and have to take my daughter to nursery on the other side of the city and traffic is a nightmare, I try to do a few moments before I set off to make the journey easier.
Alternatively, If I've had a crushing deadline for a journalism article, I use mindfulness just to get to sleep.
As we becoming more connected to our phones and tablets, if there any advantage in digital mindfulness? Do you use any technology (or apps) to help you? Are there any that you recommend?
I tend to use Insight Timer. I just need a timer really rather than a full-blown app. If I go to a park and I want to mediate for 20 minutes, I just dial up 20 minutes and I find it very useful for that.
I think they can be useful to start off with and there are plenty of apps out there. I think the important thing is to use them to 'aid' your mediation, rather than the crutch to rely on. Saying that, if they make it easier for people to mediate, then I won't complain.
The app version of our book will be coming out later this year. We don't want to release it until it's as good as it can be and all the bugs are ironed out, but that's coming soon.
First and last gig you went to?
My first one? This is really embarrassing! I was about 5 or 6 years old and my mother took me to see Cliff Richard!
The last one was last summer. I tend to go to a lot of festivals and micro-festivals. I can't remember the band, but will have been one of ten!
Who was your role model as a child?
There were lots of people I really admire, but I wouldn't describe them as role models.
I was always inspired by people like David Bellamy and David Attenborough or great explorers like Sir Ernest Shackleton and Chris Bonnington. I wouldn't say 'role models' as such, you can't really aspire to be someone like that.
What's your guilty pleasure (can be anything - movie, song, TV show, etc)?
I have many! I quite like going for a beer with my mates. I only manage it a couple of times a week as I have a young family.
When you’re feeling low (for any reason), which of these would you always turn to make you feel better (and why)…
I'm not a great movie buff. I tend to watch TV series on Netflix like House of Cards.
Often I will just to go my local park and sit on a bench overlooking the city.
An old favourite would be Lord of the Rings. I've lost count on the number of times I've read it.
In your latest book, Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World, isn’t (at least I don’t think) just for ‘Creative’ people. I think it can apply to anyone, in any industry. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
Yes, I think it is. I started writing it for my friends in the media, in the broadest sense. I knew they would never read a book that was aimed at helping people cope with anxiety, stress and depression. A lot of them are stressed, but they don't identify with it.
As I looked into this whole field more and more, it became apparent that mindfulness is great for creativity, so I put two and two together. It does enhance creativity to an astonishing degree, but it does it in many ways by diminishing stress and anxiety and depression. So it was a way of putting the two together. There's nothing that kills creativity than being under stress.
Most people aren't anxious, stress or depressed, so how do you reach those people before they get that way? That's who the book is for really.
I was lucky enough to get the book from Christmas and one thing I like about it is that it isn’t full of ‘fluff’ or ‘airy-fairy’ nonsense. It just gives you help directly. Was that a conscious decision?
Yes. I get annoyed with imprecision which is a bit of a problem with mindfulness, because a lot of these concepts are difficult to pin down. This means it can be a real pig to write books like that.
Most people don't have the time to be wading through acres of metaphors and struggling to grasp these concepts. In some ways, it's lazy writing and just padding for those authors. With my book, I thought I owed it to people to explain it as cleanly and simply as possible.
What do you think are the problems those new to mindfulness find initially and how can they overcome them?
The usual problems fall into a two camps really. Most people fidget all the way through. Secondly they realise their mind is a bit of a mess and the thoughts are just rampaging all over the place. Those are the two key problems.
The secondary problems are the motivation to keep on coming back day after day. You can always find a really good reason not to mediate.
To overcome them, you can start to build it into the routine of your life and just start to recognise the benefits it's giving you over the days, weeks and months.
For someone looking to calm their befuddled brain a little, can you give them some advice to take their first steps to becoming more mindful. Where’s the best place to start that journey?
There are a number of mediations on my website that you can try, either to download or stream. You can read 10,000 books on mediation but nothing beats just sitting down, focussing on the breath and just being guided through a simple mediation.
Finally, complete this sentence. It’s important to talk about male mental health because…….
If you don't, it will catch up with you and give you one hell of a bite at some point.
A massive thank you to Danny for taking the time out of his hectic schedule to sit down and talk with us. I'm sure you'll agree, his openness is a testament to his passion for mindfulness. If you're wanting to start your own mindfulness journey (without the broken bones), you can take a look at our own 'Man Kit' guide right here.