Mindfulness for mental health

by Mandy Nolan, Byron Shire Echo, September 30, 2008

Byron Bay, Australia -- Malcolm Huxter is a clinical psychologist with North Coast Area Health Service. He also works part time in private practice. He is a keynote speaker at this year’s Mental Health Week’s Acceptance Day at Peace Pole Park at Main Beach in Byron Bay on Wednesday October 8.

Mal’s history as a Buddhist Monk now informs his practice as a psychologist and the basic principles underpin the Mindfulness Program he conducts for stress, anxiety and depression.
Malcolm became a Buddhist monk in Thailand after he was an art student.

‘I met up with a Buddhist monk here and was inspired by what he was doing  and went to Thailand and ended up in a monastery – the King’s monastery in the middle of Bangkok – and was ordained there. You have to adhere to particular precepts as a Buddhist monk. I initially ordained as a novice for a year and then as a Bhikkhu, which is a fully ordained monk.’

Becoming a monk was the foundation for Malcolm’s spiritual path.
‘It was kind of like stepping back in time, to 2,600 years ago and getting a connection with the power of the Buddha – connecting with the stuff that he was talking about.’

Now, no longer a monk, Malcolm is guided by the Buddhist framework which is reflected in the structure of Mindfulness, an eight week course he runs through public mental health and in private practice.

‘The basic framework is governed by the four noble truths. The first is the acknowledgement that there is difficulty and anguish, that there is suffering – basically that shit happens! The second is that there is a psychological cause for this – root causes that lie in the mind. According to Buddhist framework, we get caught up in patterns of avoidance and we misapprehend the way things are, we take things to be ourselves that are not necessarily ourselves – for example we believe our thoughts and emotions to be who we are, but in fact it’s just changing phenomena.

‘The third truth is there is possibility for freedom, in Buddhism that’s called Nirvana. At a very relative level it means it’s possible to be free from the patterns of behaviour that cause anguish and suffering. The way to be free involves basically understanding – having a complete understanding of things. It’s about having the right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right energy, right mindfulness, right concentration – when I say “right” it’s more like the sense of things being complete and just right for that particular individual.’

For Malcolm, the term mental illness is uncomfortable as he feels it doesn’t reflect the constantly changing nature of the human psyche.

‘When I see groups I have a sense we are all bozos on the same bus, we are all in it together, everyone has some sort of anguish they are dealing with. I like to talk more about mental or emotional imbalance so what I am looking for in Mindfulness, is emotional balance.

‘Mindfulness is a mix of things – it’s based on the Buddhist eightfold path but it also incorporates different clinical approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Cognitive Therapy,  Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. The way I see it, these new developments, the third wave of therapies, are incorporating mindfulness which has been around for a long time.

‘Part of the process is to share my own wisdom and get wisdom from everyone in the group. It’s an honour to hear the wisdom other people have and their own understanding on how they can get through. I don’t get up there and teach a moral stance. I am not proselytising. We address that which causes suffering and that which gives freedom from suffering.’

Understanding the role of learned wisdom is key in the Mindfulness course. Malcolm refers to a quote he uses from a Buddhist monk called Thanissaro Bhikkhu: ‘The Buddha had a simple test for measuring wisdom. You’re wise, he said, to the extent that you can get yourself to do the things you don’t like doing but know will result in happiness, and to refrain from things you like doing but know will result in pain and harm.’

So what actually happens in a Mindfulness course?

‘We start teaching people how to practise Mindfulness from the outset. We teach the basics of both insight and serenity meditations. We give the participants meditation CDs that they can take home and practise. There are handouts and workbooks and then in the group sessions we begin by doing some grounding exercise like Chi Gong or Yoga or Tai Chi, something gentle with movement and it becomes a mindfulness exercise. They are great for cultivating calm and insight.

‘Then we’ll have a discussion about a theme, like depression and anxiety – how to move out of it or how to be free with it, learning to embrace it, learning to understand how a lot of these patterns are cyclic and how to short circuit these destructive cycles. Mindfulness and the wisdom that it cultivates is a way to short circuit destructive patterns.

‘There is a lot of empirical evidence supporting these approaches – it works, it’s actually very basic stuff.’

Information and help is available on the Mental Health Access Line (1300 369 968) as well as through private psychologists and other mental health practitioners via GPs. The Australian Psychological Society also has a website with psychologists who are available – www.psychology.org.au.