Lesley Howells is Lead Consultant Clinical Psychologist for the Maggie’s network of 25 centres across the UK and internationally, and she teaches Breathworks Mindfulness for Health and Mindfulness for Stress course to people affected by cancer at Maggie’s Dundee.

Research is part of her strategic responsibilities and she is actively involved in the ‘Living with and beyond Cancer with Mindfulness’ collaboration with Breathworks, Maggie’s and the Health Psychology Department, University of Manchester - a research programme that evaluates how mindfulness helps people find a quality of life meaningful to them despite the enduring physical and emotional effects of cancer, such as pain, fatigue, abdominal discomfort and fears of recurrence. The programme is generously funded by The Breathworks Foundation.

Breathworks was instrumental in bringing clarity to my life, personally and professionally. It is a joyful mix of stillness, awakened curiosity, contentment and human connection. The chance to relish the subtle pleasures in life and learn how to ‘move’ with the reality of pain, discomfort and difficult emotions, rather than struggle against them. It gives the space to pause and choose how you wish to respond to life rather than be trapped in ruts of habitual reaction. It helps you make sense of the world through cushions and lampshades, Buddhist teaching and Greek Philosophy….

Wait?……Cushions and lampshades!?

Cushions and lampshades are part of the conversational style, enactments and rich metaphors in Breathworks that not only makes it rewarding and fun to teach but immediately captures attention as you witness people starting to make sense of life, possibly for the first time. Rather than feeling trapped, people see possibility and choice, a route forward.

The first cushion is something you can’t change. People find this intensely reassuring, their physical or emotional pain is not being dismissed, and so they remain open to the idea that the second, third, fourth etc cushions of reaction can be worked with using the Breathworks approach. The ‘cushions’ become an anecdote of care, a gentle teasing inquiry, as people check in at the start of each session. They ask each other, “do you think you may be carrying a few too many cushions?”

People warm to the idea that they can view themselves as a lampshade with an intricate and unique pattern, a pattern worthy of pride, worthy of extra illumination rather than dulling the light with shame and despair. It is intensely rewarding to be alongside people as they start to offer themselves compassion in the same way they offer it to others.

I am so grateful for the simplicity of the Breathworks message and how quickly the group connects, as participants see their human similarities rather than differences, and become wise teachers for each other rather than dependent on me.

“I think mindfulness has given me some tools to help me deal with the stresses and strains of everyday life, and in particular the anxiety associated with living with cancer. Mindful awareness has shown me how to escape “automatic pilot” mode, and have greater appreciation of my surroundings, no matter how small or apparently insignificant. Mindfulness has helped me to handle an ongoing five year journey with cancer, by enabling me to stay grounded in the present, when it would be very easy to dwell in the future of incessant appointments with the medical profession." (Gentleman, 65, Advanced Prostate Cancer)

“Mindfulness has made me pause from time to time throughout the day. It has made me aware of everything around me. I am trying to use mindfulness to help me be someone who can value the moment rather than be someone who is continually striving to do things” (Gentleman, 70, Prostate Cancer)

“After a few weeks of doing the course and daily mindfulness I slept well through the night. Before the course I wondered if I would have to go back on antidepressants but now over two years later and with regular mindfulness I have stayed off them. I get distracted from doing regular ‘formal’ mindfulness but often take five minutes out of the day to be mindful, feeling my feet on the sand, watching the sky, the clouds and the colour blue or paying attention to water. Sometimes when I get upset about something I will stop and think, ‘well, I fired that arrow at myself’ and I will change my behaviour.” (Lady, 63, Advanced Breast Cancer)

These quotes are very powerful, showing how people invest in life, with and beyond cancer, and remain open to possibility and growth rather than be overwhelmed by a sense of loss. We hope that the research collaboration illustrates further the beneficial impact of the Breathworks mindfulness approach.

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