A Long View: Trish Bartley’s 20-year Reflections

Trish Bartley looks back over the history of Bangor University’s Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice. Her “Long View” spans from 1999 to the present day, when Bangor University’s Teacher Training Pathway moves to its new home within The Mindfulness Network, a natural fit in view of their shared ethos to promote integrity, standards, community and accessibility.

You will find as you look back …. that the moments when you really lived are the moments when you have done things in the spirit of love.

Henry Drummond 1851-1897

I am reminded of a comment made recently by an old friend. “You must be one of the last old lags standing”, he said. “Thanks very much!” I replied. But despite the unflattering term, he is right. There are very few of us still involved in CMRP from our original group.

This is a story of transitions – some of them happening through choice, most imposed by circumstance. Transitions are tricky and often painful, involving loss. It is so easy to fall back on but we always do it this way. However, looking back over this time, I feel so very fortunate to have been associated with mindfulness and the work of the CMRP.

Early Days – Dependence (1999 -2003)

By seeking and blundering, we learn.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

I was invited to join the first mindfulness retreat on Bardsey Island, off the coast of West Wales, organised by the founders of MBCT. I had not long returned from researching development practice in South Africa. I wanted to live somewhere spacious after those big African skies, so I sold up in Manchester and moved to North Wales. It was a good choice, but while writing up my research, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The chance to join the Bardsey Island retreat in the middle of treatment was heaven sent, although I had no idea how significant it would prove to be.

The MBCT for depression trial was due to be published the following year in 2000. Everyone involved (from the universities of Bangor, Cambridge and Toronto) knew the research would be ground breaking. I remember a group on the retreat musing that mindfulness-based approaches might prove as significant to mental health as Freud had been to psychology. I was impressed.

After the retreat, some of us started meeting. It was an uncomfortable process and there was a lack of trust in the group. We were trying to shape something that we did not fully understand but knew was important.

Two of our group went to the States to train with the Centre for Mindfulness (CFM) with Jon Kabat-Zinn and his team. They subsequently took us through our first eight-week MBSR courses. In 2000, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli came to Bangor and taught over 100 people in a grand university room that was almost Harry Potter-esque. These were heady days! Clearly something significant was happening.

An MBSR teacher training process followed, which was held at Trigonos, (our lovely North Wales retreat venue). It was led by three experienced CFM MBSR teachers and proved to be quite a week with happenings that even now bring smiles! We were being fast tracked to be mindfulness-based teachers. Of course, this is not how we do things now, but it was justified then. We all started to offer eight-week courses and I started teaching people with cancer in a local hospital from early 2001. Participants taught in those early years thankfully seem to benefit. Enthusiasm and good intention go a long way, particularly when supported by the integrity of a fine programme.

The next landmark occurred in 2002 when Mark Williams’s departed for Oxford University. He left us with the task of forming a centre that would develop mindfulness-based teacher training in the UK. Our group had grown by then and we met regularly to plan, guide practices and lead inquiries. This building of a practice community enabled us to develop sound ways of working – visiting each other’s teaching sessions and giving and receiving feedback.

Remarkably a first postgraduate programme, albeit small, started in autumn 2003 at Bangor University – the first of its kind in the world. Its birthing had not been easy and drew much academic scepticism, making the achievement of its developers quite remarkable.

As a group we had a lot to learn, but we were committed to the work. We admired the role model offered by our MBSR colleagues at the CFM. Various teachers came over to train us and we valued their guidance and generous encouragement.

Dependence is characterised by tradition, belonging and survival. However, we were establishing a strong base to support what came next.

Developing our own way – Independence #1 (2004 – 2008)

There is a river flowing now … so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid …. Know the river has its destination…. we must let go, keep our eyes open and our heads above water…. See who is there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves ….

Attributed to an unnamed Hopi elder

 At some point, we realised that the UK context and culture was different from the US. We had needed our US parents but the relationship was now changing. We were starting to grow up.

What followed was a period of rapid growth of the Master’s programme and teacher training. The world was hungry for mindfulness and we had waiting lists for all our trainings. People travelled far and wide to be trained by CMRP. I well remember a facilitated team session, when we were asked who our competitors were. This was an eye opener! As pioneers in the UK field, at that point there were few, but it dawned on me that things would change fast.

We needed to expand our pool of teachers for we were stretched quite thin. How to assess who was best for us? Success brought its challenges. We developed a process (in some ways a much simplified forerunner to MBI:TAC, see below) and chose a team from those we had trained and whose teaching whom we knew well. As a result, we now had team members from outside North Wales. This offered a new dynamic to the group and opened our eyes to fresh horizons.

Extraordinarily, over the years, CMRP has trained more than half the mindfulness-based teachers in the UK. I have fond memories of those earlier teacher training processes. Often intense and cathartic for the trainees, they were rewarding and at times exhausting for us trainers. Trigonos, located in the North Wales mountains, was our setting and the curved backdrop of the Nantlle ridge seemed to offer a sense of containing whatever was unfolding.

Our trainings found their own character and integrity. We shared the iterations from each teaching team. Programmes evolved organically through experience and developing understandings. It is a good process that still continues.

Consolidating structures – Independence #2 (2008 – 2012)

All improvement begins with the identification of a problem.

Mazaaki Imai

While the team was growing, a parallel development was happening. Mark Williams in Oxford was launching his next research trial that was to be known as SWAD (Staying Well after Depression). It was to have two centres – Oxford and Bangor. Our two most experienced teachers, our administrator and several others, formed his Bangor research and teaching team. At a stroke, our team composition changed and a major transition was underway.

However, whilst the loss was keenly felt, it proved to be an important opportunity. A part-time director was appointed and CMRP moved into the School of Psychology. Some key appointments were made. We had a proper staff team for the first time, including a lead for continuing professional development (teacher training), a lead for the Master’s programme and a finance/admin staff member who rationalised our financial systems and put them on a firmer footing. We had moved into a stage of consolidating, which was much needed after such rapid growth.

Wise advice that I remember from years before: ‘You go out to develop and expand your ideas and activity and then you need to come back in to focus on the detail of what you are doing. Both are needed. The art is in realising where you are (out or in) and what is needed now’.

We did not stop developing. CMRP started hosting annual mindfulness conferences. We had arranged events before with Jon and Saki and others, but these now were more focused on our community of trainees. Initially quite small, they eventually had to move outside Wales to a bigger venue. Supervision training, using models drawn from other therapeutic approaches, was translated into mindfulness-based teaching contexts.  We expanded the core training team and became a mixed team of men and women with as many outside North Wales as in. Team dynamics changed again and we were better for it.

We came to recognise a need to clarify our own lineage and where our trainings were located. We had love for both our parents – MBSR and MBCT – and for some years, we had accommodated a hybrid version of MBSR/MBCT. At this point, we started to understand the need to find ways of holding the shared yet distinct features of both MBSR and MBCT. In many ways, this clarification is ongoing as we seek to encourage our trainees to position their teaching in one or other programmes.

Widening the Context – Interdependence (2012 – 2017)

In the long history of humankind, those who learned to collaborate and improve most effectively have prevailed.

Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882)

When our SWAD colleagues returned to the CMRP fold, it was natural for us to move into even closer collaboration with Oxford and Exeter mindfulness teams. How to sustain and improve good practice in the field was our shared challenge. A gathering of UK mindfulness-based teachers and trainers started to meet regularly and have continued. The first draft of Good Practice Guidelines for Mindfulness-Based Teachers was produced. Several versions later, it influences good practice in many parts of the world. https://www.ukmindfulnessnetwork.co.uk/guidelines

The network expanded to include training organisations and supervisors, and a UK listing of approved mindfulness-based teachers was established. https://www.mindfulnessteachersuk.org.uk

A landmark creation was the MBI-TAC, which is the Mindfulness-based Interventions Teaching Assessment Criteria (quite a mouthful!). This has become a valuable research, training, and supervision tool – an outcome of creative collaboration over many years between Bangor, Oxford and Exeter Universities and a lot of hard work from the principle developers. https://www.bangor.ac.uk/mindfulness/MBITAC.php.en

Our graduates and trainees started their own training organisations moving us into grandparenting. A good place to be, admiring of their achievements, but not responsible for all the hard work involved.

Several books and many articles have been written by team members www.bangor.ac.uk/mindfulness/publications.php.en#.

New training programmes spawned, including: a second level of teacher training for more experienced teachers; specialist trainings in MBSR and MBCT; mindfulness-based groupwork; MBI:TAC; and more. A Teacher Training Pathway (TTP) that brings together all our training was created for those wishing to be accredited outside of university postgraduate programmes. www.teach-mindfulness.org/teacher-training-pathway-ttp/

So much has happened and is happening. It is extraordinary to realise that mindfulness is mainstream. Yet there is plenty for us all to do. Most MBP participants and teachers are white, middle-aged and, generally, middle-class women. We are waking up to the fact that our reach into diverse and marginalised populations and communities is poor. We need to find new ways to support and train teachers from these communities. It is essential that we look to our own practice and stay vigilant to opportunities to include those who might not easily access mindfulness courses. This is urgent and important, reflected in the focus of the next International Conference on Mindfulness (ICM) to be held in Aarhus, Denmark in June 2020 Diversity and Oneness https://vimeo.com/278136397

Joined up Complexity: Endings and Beginnings (2018 and beyond)

The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.

Stephen Covey (1932 – 2012)

Who are we? Are we CMRP or Bangor? It may depend on which side of the shop counter you are standing – a trainer or trainee. As a member of the core training team, we refer to ourselves as CMRP, but our trainees call us Bangor. When our valued alumni association was formed, they took on the name of Friends of Bangor (FoB) https://friendsofbangor.org.

This is all the more relevant to us now. For some long time, we have been constrained by the slow moving juggernaut of the university process. An overhaul of university finances required us to find a new home for our Teacher Training Pathway. A few people working behind the scenes for many months, have made possible Bangor’s Teacher Training Pathway to be housed within The Mindfulness Network (MN) charity, retaining the experience of our trainers and the quality of our training, yet still validated and overseen by Bangor University. www.teach-mindfulness.org

We have a new young staff team working hard to bring this seamless transition together. I am full of admiration. Yes, there are losses. I will miss our sense of team focus up the road for me in Bangor. But CMRP lives on in the Bangor Master’s in Mindfulness programme within the University’s School of Psychology and in the Teacher Training Pathway within The Mindfulness Network charity. CMRP spans the two, as a University in partnership with The Mindfulness Network charity.

And this is the way of the world… When researching this blog, I found a seven-minute video mapping ideas about the way organisations have developed over the last 100 or so years. There are some strands of recognition…  https://vimeo.com/165552818

We are encouraged in this clip to follow the thread of inquiry. This is sound advice. I firmly believe that we need to have confidence and humility in asking the difficult questions. I remember at one time there was a move to champion CMRP as a centre of excellence. I was never keen. Not because I doubted our integrity – which has always kept us on track through many challenges and a lot of good work – but because any work of significance, any leaders in the field, are only as good as their last intervention. Humility and experience need to go together. Believing your own publicity is a slippery slope to complacency and a sense of entitlement. Ethical integrity always needs careful nurturing and wise discernment.

So I am left with:

It is not so much what or how much we do that matters – but how we do it – keeping the main thing (mindfulness), the main thing.

So, whatever the future brings for CMRP or for any of us – may we continue to do this work with humility, integrity and love – in the service of all who might benefit.

Trish Bartley wrote this blog with much help from her CMRP colleagues.

You can find out more about Trish by reading her profile.

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