An Engineer Visits a Mindfulness Workshop
By Mike Clifford
First-time visitors to my office often remark on its quirkiness; it has more than its fair share of plants, upcycled ornaments and pictures on the walls. Academic textbooks share shelf space with “Wind in the Willows”, “Peanuts’ Jubilee” and “The Salmon of Knowledge”. A Sri Lankan spider called Ebeneezer hangs precariously from the ceiling and has been known to ruffle a few haircuts. My untidiness could be a cunning ploy to distract attention away from the fact that I’m often shoeless, preferring stripy socks to boring black leather shoes. And so, when a colleague asked me why on earth I’d gone to a “Mindfulness and design workshop” I replied with “Can you think of many other people who would be more likely to attend such an event?”
Mindfulness has been described as the meeting of Western Science with Eastern Mysticism, with an emphasis on being rather than on doing. It’s very popular at the moment, with lots of self-help books and CDs on the subject. According to bemindful.co.uk, “Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” A growing body of medical evidence supports mindfulness practice in terms of reducing stress, increasing the ability to concentrate and other health benefits. This represents a sea change in medical practice, which, until relatively recently seemed to treat people as a loosely connected collection of body parts and vital organs. Here in the UK, Mindfulness is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a way to prevent depression and to improve our mental wellbeing.
The aim of the workshop was to practice and explore research issues at the intersection of Mindfulness, architecture and landscape. As well as discussing how quality of space affects state of mind, we also considered whether Mindfulness practitioners make better designers of buildings, spaces and cities. There were certainly some interesting architectural designs on display, based around biophilic concepts – the human bond with other species – which challenged the usual utilitarian uses of space that we often see when space is at a premium and budgets are tight.
The discussion sessions were interwoven with mindfulness exercises including a body scan, guided meditations and even an outdoor walking meditation exercise, where we were encouraged to think about the sensations involved whilst walking on different surfaces such as grass, concrete and gravel. I have no idea what the onlookers made of half a dozen academics walking very slowly with meditative looks on our faces!
A renewed interest in spirituality (rather than religion) was a topic of discussion, with some wanting spiritually neutral spaces in which to practice meditation, rather than religious buildings or rooms. With its interior focus, I find it curious that the imagery associated with Mindfulness varies considerably, from Zen-like minimalism to natural landscapes such as forests and waterfalls. In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, nature is often used as a “positive distraction” rather than as a tool for meditation – a sort of “mindlessness” rather than Mindfulness. In Christian meditation, icons and other religious imagery might act in a similar way, drawing attention away from self to the other. If like me, you come from a protestant evangelical background, you may remember the entirely self-defeating chorus with the line: “So, forget about yourself, concentrate on Him and worship Him” (repeat until true) which never quite achieved the aim of being “lost in wonder, love and praise” as effectively as Charles Wesley managed over two hundred and fifty years earlier. On a more positive note, many have found “the Jesus prayer” helpful in achieving “the prayer of the heart”.
At the workshop I found it challenging to respond to a question from a fellow participant, “Do you meditate?” qualifying my reply with “Well, I’m a Christian…” I’m still working out my response to Mindfulness; I think I agree with Jared White http://jaredwhite.com/essays/christian-mindfulness-is-it-even-possible in that a genuine “Christian Mindfulness” movement that simultaneously honours God and brings positive change to society is something well worth working towards.
Mike Clifford is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham. His research interests are in combustion, biomass briquetting, cookstove design and other appropriate technologies. He has published over 80 refereed conference and journal publications and has contributed chapters to books on composites processing and on appropriate and sustainable technologies.
In 2009, he was voted "engineering lecturer of the year" by the Higher Education Academy's Engineering Subject Centre for his innovative teaching methods involving costume, drama, poetry and storytelling.