Mindfullness or Mindfulness - Veterinary Practice
Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now



Mindfullness or Mindfulness

CHRIS WHIPP outlines ‘a remarkable coming together of ancient eastern contemplative traditions, modern medicine, empirical science and cutting-edge brain research’

MINDFULNESS practice is becoming increasingly common in the western world as we seek ways of coping with and thriving within a world that moves ever faster.

Modern mindfulness reflects a remarkable coming together of ancient eastern contemplative traditions, modern medicine, empirical science and cutting-edge brain research.

What is Mindfulness?

The commonest modern definition of Mindfulness is that of Jon KabatZinn: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” A simpler definition might be: “Mindfulness is the gentle effort to be continuously present with experience.” It is about seeing things as they really are, not as we construe them to be (Figure 1).

Mindfulness is a form of awareness that we can learn to develop and which is beneficial to us. Mindful awareness can be developed in a number of ways such as yoga, tai chi and meditation but it is most closely associated with the Buddhist contemplative traditions dating back more than 2,500 years.

That having been said, modern Mindfulness practice is a secular activity appropriate to all cultural groups irrespective of other beliefs.

What makes it remarkable is that it has stood up to more than 40 years of empirical research, has opened the door to an unparalleled dialogue between Western scientists and Eastern scholars, and is now taking on an almost celebrity status within both medicine and the business sector.

There are a wide variety of mindfulness practices but the commonest is mindfulness of the breath, becoming aware of and attending to the experience of breathing.

There are two main aspects to the practice. The first is the selfregulation of attention and the second the development of an open orientation to experience. Both of these are reflected in the definitions given above.

What is done during the practice is that attention is focused on the breath without any effort to influence or control. When attention is distracted from the breath, either by an external distraction, like a noise, or an internal distraction, like a physical sensation, thought or feeling, this is acknowledged and then attention is simply redirected back to the breath.

Within the last few years fMRI studies have demonstrated changes in brain function within just a few weeks of practice and the new neural pathways developed enhance metacognitive awareness, focusing, affective and attentional skills.

At its simplest, mindfulness practice strengthens the ability to choose where to put attention and then to keep it there. In our “always on” internet-driven world, the ability to develop and maintain focus can offer real benefits.

Developing a non-judgemental open attitude to experience can also bring about a range of benefits that impact centrally on well-being and performance.

Mindfulness practice is simple but not easy: the mind often presents us with a variety of plausible barriers. It’s a bit like going to the gym: you know it’s good for you but actually going and participating can be a challenge. As going to the gym trains the body, going to Mindfulness trains the mind.

Western Mindfulness

Global travel became more accessible in the 1960s and 1970s and with this came the opportunity for greater interaction between East and West. Organisations such as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) brought Buddhist thinking to England in a more accessible form but the main driver for change was Jon KabattZinn.

Jon studied Buddhism under a number of teachers and then returned to the United States, integrated his teachings with western science and opened the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) clinic in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

He developed an eight-week course involving a series of sequential exercises designed to develop mindfulness and help patients address a range of issues such as stress, pain and depression.

This course forms the basis for hundreds of other institutions that have taken the work on board. Jon has written extensively in the scientific and the popular press where his best known book is Full catastrophe living.

This early focus on the ill and those with problems has been carried forward and many of the studies take a problem focus.

There has been an explosion in research in the last 20 years (Chart 1) and medical use has been extended and developed with, for example, the development of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy(MBCT) which is now considered by NICE to be a first-line approach to serious mental ill health.


In an interesting combination of studies, researchers looked first at the benefits to patients of Mindfulness and then they looked at the effects on the therapists that treated these patients.

  • Patients: enhanced metacognition, reduced rumination, reduced stress, enhanced working memory, improved focus, reduced emotional reactivity, improved cognitive flexibility, improved relationships, improved immune functioning.
  • Therapists: enhanced empathy, enhanced selfcompassion, improved counselling skills, reduced stress and anxiety, improved QOL.

Whilst the benefit to patients with problems is irrefutable, the benefits to those working in timescarce, task-rich environments went largely unappreciated until about 10 years ago. Eastern Mindfulness practice was developed for ordinary people aspiring for progression and development and there is no reason why this should not be equally true here; you do not need to be a Theravadan monk sitting in a cave for a decade to benefit!

Development within the business sector, however, carries with it risk, the tendency to take a reductionist approach to new ideas/techniques risks undermining the process itself. For example, I recently assessed a neuroscience research project where the mindfulness practice had been reduced to just 2.5 minutes twice daily – a step too far?

If you are inclined, give it a try. Preferably do it with a teacher and if possible in a group. If you want help starting, e-mail christopherwhipp@aol.com.

Have you heard about our
IVP Membership?

A wide range of veterinary CPD and resources by leading veterinary professionals.

Stress-free CPD tracking and certification, you’ll wonder how you coped without it.

Discover more