The Soul Feed

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Our chat with Dr Craig Hassed – mindfulness expert

By Jane Close IN Discover

Dr Craig Hassed is an internationally renowned expert on mindfulness and mind-body medicine. He has been instrumental in bringing mindfulness into the mainstream and promoting it as an effective tool in managing stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain and even heart disease. As a senior lecturer at Monash University in the Department of General Practice, he has embedded mindfulness training into the core curriculum in an effort to help medical students cope with stress while equipping them with an important life skill that can help their future patients. We were lucky enough to sit down with Craig over a lovely lunch and learn more about this incredible life pursuit of his.

Let’s start with the basics. What is mindfulness and how is it related to meditation?

Mindfulness is a form of meditation but it’s also a way of living. Some people might think that meditation and mindfulness are just what you do when you’re sitting in a chair, but it actually really underpins your whole life. So if you go to a gym for example, you don’t go to the gym to feel healthy just at the gym, you go to the gym to put in some hard work so that when you’re walking up the stairs at work, you enjoy the benefits.

When did you first start practicing meditation and why?

My first experience of meditation was when I was 19-years old, and a very disillusioned medical student. The course seemed meaningless. I was thinking, ‘where is my life going? Where am I going? If I keep going like this I’ll fail this year.’ It was a really fraught moment and it was getting to crunch time, and for some reason I thought, meditation. I didn’t read a book, I didn’t go to a course. In those days there weren’t apps or anything else so not knowing what it was, I thought ‘it’s something to do with sitting still, something to do with paying attention’… I didn’t try and do anything I just thought ‘I’ll just sit and watch’. So I was just practicing pure undifferentiated awareness, which is a kind of mindfulness practice. I just observed the body and I didn’t try and stop the mind thinking or anything else.

I just stood back from thoughts if they arose, without any involvement, any attempt to change anything or work anything out or elaborate, and pretty soon my body just felt different and there was kind of a realisation that the thoughts and the feelings had nothing to do with me. They weren’t actually me, they were just things that I could notice that came and went.

There was this kind of dawning sense that there is a level of existence that is totally alright, not just partially or ‘if only this would happen I’d be alright’. It was alright. It always was and it always will be. It was very stabilising.

This experience kind of turned my thinking around 180 degrees and left quite a profound influence on me, setting the direction for my future career in mind-body medicine. That intention stayed there, but I didn’t take on regular practice until a few years after that. So from my early 20s it’s been a regular thing, and from my late 20s it’s been half an hour, twice a day, every day.

How about mindfulness generally, what drew you to it as a way of life?

One of the first moments of insight I had was probably when I was about 15 getting nervous before swimming. I used to do a lot of swimming and I used to get nervous before a big meet. A couple of weeks before I thought about it a lot and I can remember this moment at home. Everybody was out. I was sitting there feeling nervous and all of a sudden I had this reality check and thought “why am i feeling awful like this? sitting at home on a Saturday morning, sun coming in through the doors, wattlebirds singing in the lemon scented gumtree.

My mind had projected itself into a future event that wasn’t happening now, as if there was an imaginary me standing on the imaginary standing blocks waiting for the imaginary gun to go off. All of a sudden I realised I’d been in  a dream world and I hadn’t even realised and then I wondered to myself ‘how often I am in a dream world without even knowing it and I wonder how much of the angst and worry is related to that?’ It was kind of this sense of, ‘you need to wake up!’ So for me it was a mindful moment. I realised that the mind is often not present and that that is associated with not feeling good and not connecting with where you are.

So what might be a “mindful moment” in a parent’s life?

I can remember there was a psychologist participating in a mindfulness training course with me and she was a new mother still breastfeeding. She gave an example at the group. There she was, baby waking up in the night crying, wants a feed, she gets out of bed, breastfeeding a child, thinking ‘I’m gonna be exhausted tomorrow. How long is this going to go on for?’ . Then out of nowhere she had this sort of mindful moment. She saw what was happening and that she was totally in her head, in the whole story about having to get up in the night.

All of a sudden she makes a decision to pay attention, to just connect and really engage with the tactile sensory experience, the smell and feel of her baby. All of a sudden, she said, from what had been frustration and exhaustion, there was all this love there. It wasn’t like she was trying to feel love. Suddenly, it was just there. What was also interesting, was that she said this thought came in very quickly afterwards, ‘what an awful mother I am for feeling resentment for not wanting to be with me child and so on’. And that was a really important moment to be mindful as well, to just stay connected rather than going off on that story.

When do we start becoming less mindful?

From a psychological perspective, in a lot of circles, it’s thought to be around 18 months of age, when all of a sudden you’re a relevant, important human being. Suddenly your ego comes in, and there is a sense of separation. From a philosophical, spiritual perspective that’s the start of the decline!

The world’s a fascinating place, I think naturally. I think it was G.K Chesterton who said there are no uninteresting things, there are only uninteresting people.

If your child is just a few months old, are they worried about their future? their prospects? Their HECS debt? What about interest rates ? Are they anxious about that? Are they still peeved that they didn’t get as much as they wanted for dinner a couple of weeks ago? Still burning up over that?

Speaking of children, how can we teach them to be mindful?

I think the first thing in a parent teaching mindfulness to a child is to be mindful with the child. What’s actually being modelled to the child if we’re not paying attention and engaging is we’re modelling inattention, we’re teaching unmindfulness, we’re teaching distraction. Children will pick it up really quickly. They’ll get good at it.

Why should parents practice self-care and how is it different to being self-indulgent?

A confusion arises between self-care and self-indulgence; “oh I can’t care for myself I haven’t got time”. There’s a difference between self-involved and self-indulgent, and self-care. If we don’t take time to take care of ourselves we don’t turn up to care for others very well.

A lot of mothers are busy carrying out many tasks while caring for their child. Is it possible to multitask effectively?

I generally draw the distinction between efficient attention-switching and multitasking. Multitasking is defined as trying to pay attention to multiple complex things at the same time. Multitasking is not helpful at all. Certainly multitasking is associated with stress, poor communication, and more errors. The paradox is people want to do more but the opposite happens. If you’re trying to text somebody at the same time as trying to have a conversation you’re not doing two things at once, you’re doing neither thing properly.

Whereas a doctor in a fast-moving emergency situation might look like they are multi-tasking but their focus is on exactly the one thing at a time. That’s what we need. And some women, I think, are extraordinarily good at that. But it shouldn’t be called multitasking.

Mothers in my courses give examples such as they’re slicing the veggies or doing something else while the child is trying to talk. They have to make a decision; either cooking really needs to happen now, so say ‘I’ll be with you in five minutes, I just need to get these veggies on’ or leave the cooking for the moment and engage attention with the child. Detach from the other activity and make that choice – which is it going to be?

A little bit of stress seems unavoidable in modern family life. How can we live with stress better?

A study on thousands of people looked at the amount of stress people experienced in day-to-day life, but also their perception of that stress. People who had stress and a negative perception had higher mortality rates, whereas people who had stress but perceived it as being positive, being a challenge or a chance to extend themselves, learn something or learn to cope with a challenging situation, there was no negative effect on their health.

I think meaning is really important. I have a pretty busy life, a very full plate. But I constantly remind myself why I’m doing what I’m doing. Because I remind myself of the big picture, the ups and downs and the challenges don’t seems so big. It’s not like it’s a pointless sort of thing. It’s like “oh well, there’s a bit of pressure on, there’s quite a bit on the plate at the moment”, but it gives you a sense of purpose and meaning.

I think that’s important for a lot of people, to have a sense of meaning about what you’re doing and that could be parents doing things at home. If you don’t have a bigger picture, if it’s just a daily grind of trying to get through a whole lot of stuff, I think it just makes the stress, the pressure, harder to handle.

One of the things about women in the modern day is there is so much value put on career, I think that the meaning in being a mother and having a child and helping a human being in this life, and that connection, is in some way seen as a secondary thing that gets in the way of your big goals and objectives. Pursuing a career, let that be meaningful, but the work you do at home, let that also be meaningful – it’s not the one or the other.

What do you recommend for people who want to learn how to meditate?

I recommend for beginners, go and get some face-to-face instruction. If it’s in a community, it’s ideal – you learn from others. You think you’re alone, and then you realise, we’ve all got the human condition, and that sense of isolation.

How can time-poor mothers fit in meditation into their daily lives?

You’ve got to be creative and adaptable, and just practice doing it in different environments at different times of day when you get a chance. There’s always time. Just practice doing it when and where you can and notice the effects, even if there is distraction or frustration. Don’t put pressure on yourself. Whatever comes up, don’t block it out or stop it, just accept you’re a human being having a human experience.

Jane Close

Jane Close is a writer by nature. Forever seeking the deeper meaning and the truer tale. In her 20s, Jane’s passion for true stories and people from different backgrounds drew her into the world of journalism, where she churned out articles on topics from the arts to politics for Fairfax community papers in Melbourne.

A thirst for adventure then took Jane to Japan, where she spent four years chasing and telling the powerful story of Okinawa and Okinawan people (among other topics!). Now 33, and mother of two, Jane works as a copywriter, helping organisations and businesses tell their truest, most meaningful stories.

Jane has always had an insatiable interest in spirituality, which she has explored through reading, travelling, asking lots of questions, and going on a Vipassana meditation retreat while pregnant with her now 3 year old son. Since becoming a mother, Jane has learned (sometimes the hard way) just how important it is to practice self-care through mindfulness exercises such as yoga and meditation.

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    admin

    Thank you for your comments, Rosanne Feneley! It’s so true that the benefits far outweigh the effort to put into developing the skill of mindfulness. As Dr Hassed pointed out when we met with him though, it does take a certain level of discipline and we are often our own worst enemies when it comes to doing what’s best for us! It’s lovely to hear you enjoyed reading this piece. Love and light xx

  • Avatar
    Rosanne Feneley

    Excellent interview + article, of Dr Craig Hassed, by my niece Jane Close.

    The way Dr Craig Hassed explains meditation & mindfulness, makes them sound very easy to implement in one’s life as, in reality, they are. The benefits of meditation & mindfulness far outweigh the effort anyone needs to put in to these processes.

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    Eryka Rhodes

    Great words from Dr Hassed, thanks Mindful Mum team for including him and getting his insight into mindfulness and the benefits. I always enjoy and soak up what he has to say.

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      admin

      We’re glad to hear you enjoyed this article, Eryka. It was such an honour to meet with him! x

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