Programme 2017

Monday 28th August to Friday 1st September - St Hugh's College, Oxford

Investigating Mind without Losing Heart: Mindfulness, Fragility and Compassion

With Mark Williams, Melanie Fennell, Chris Cullen & Willem Kuyken

Our fragile sense of self emerges in the realm of thought, feeling, meaning and bodily sensations. It is a dynamic, unfolding moment-by-moment process. It can be met and healed with mindfulness and compassion. In these moments there is vulnerability and resilience; the potential for appreciation, joy, connection and love, but also dis-ease, distress and mental health problems such as depression and even suicidality.

Our investigation into how the mind can create great joy and also great distress is a path of personal mindfulness practice, has been the subject of psychological scientific work for a little over a hundred years and the focus of foundational traditions for much longer. The 2017 University of Oxford Mindfulness Centre Summer School includes some of the leading mindfulness practitioners and researchers teaching on these themes.

  • Defeat, entrapment and autobiographical memory
  • Working with the fragile self and healing damaged self esteem
  • Mindfulness and suicidality
  • Befriending the mind, appreciative joy, equanimity and compassion
  • The central role of compassion in depression
  • “Knowing the self” in practice

Each session will begin with a period of mindfulness practice and enquiry.

Monday 28th August – Day 1


Opening and welcome – Willem Kuyken

Mindfulness and psychological science – Mark Williams

When an ancient practice such as mindfulness meets contemporary science, there can be tensions. Why does psychology need mindfulness: doesn’t it have enough methods to alleviate suffering already?  Why do we need more?

And why does mindfulness need psychological science? Isn’t it evidence enough that it has benefitted millions of people throughout history? Doesn’t science run the risk of distorting the subtle and ineffable aspects of this precious wisdom tradition?

In this talk, we’ll look at these issues from the point of view of psychological science (including studies of the brain, clinical trials and laboratory experiments) as a continuation of the legacy of the ancient wisdom traditions: always grounded in observation of the actuality of things, and enhanced by remaining open to the inner experience of participants.

Day 1. Afternoon

“Who do you think you are?” Autobiographical memory and the sense of self – Mark Williams

Our sense of ‘who we are’ involves remembering who we have been – what has happened in our past, if only to help navigate the present and future. When we lay down new memories of events, we are laying down an amalgam of information including apparently irrelevant detail (who, what, where, when, to what end, in what period of my life, pleasant, unpleasant or neither (at that moment)). When we later remember an event, unbeknownst to us a fresh trace is laid down with new contextual information (the pleasant may now be seen as unpleasant and/ or there may be new information or a new mood). In the midst of such potential instability the mind extracts generalities, essential summaries that help navigate our world and relationships.

This lecture will tell the story of research from the last thirty years that reveals how the way we remember our past is influenced by what summaries we create, that influences how we predict the future, and how well we recover from emotional upsets. Generalisation in memory may be essential, but it can also be a barrier to problem-solving, emotional processing and well-being. Mindfulness can give us the courage move beyond generalities, to build resilience through seeing clearly the details of what has happened to us, and to help us reclaim our lives.

Tuesday 29th August – Day 2

Morning: Mindfulness and the Transformation of Despair – Mark Williams and Melanie Fennell

In the last 20 years, the popularity of MBCT has grown exponentially. MBCT has been accepted (for example in UK government guidelines) as an evidence-based front line treatment for recurrent depression. Not only has the research base expanded, but publications for teachers and trainers of mindfulness-based approaches, and for the general public, are now numerous. However, they do not specifically address the problems encountered when people who come to class have hair-trigger vulnerability to plunges in mood (including rapid and intense onset of suicidal thinking), and/or have very difficult early histories that re-emerge when practicing mindfulness.

The question of how to deal skilfully with the most vulnerable people in a mindfulness class is a recurrent theme in training mindfulness teachers.  It is not enough to say that this gets easier with experience, or that you’ll know what to do at the time.  Teachers need a road map, and stories about how others have handled this difficult challenge.  As the applications of mindfulness expands, with its use being explored not only in relation to depression, but also in relation to other emotional disorders, to problems with physical health, and to populations outside the health field (e.g. prisons, schools, maternity services, the armed forces, the general public), people with histories of abuse and adversity, suffering intense distress, will be encountered, and mindfulness teachers need to know how to best help those in acute distress.

Anchored in the latest evidence on the psychology of suicide and despair, this half-day workshop will consider how the original MBCT course might be adapted to meet the needs of these very vulnerable participants and include lecture, discussion, practice and enquiry.

Afternoon: Mindfulness and the Transformation of Despair – Mark Williams and Melanie Fennell

… continued

Wednesday, 30th August – Day 3  

Morning: Self and Not-Self: Buddhist Perspectives – Chris Cullen

 “Nothing is to be clung to as I, me or mine.” Buddhist teachings present dis-identification from all aspects of experience as an indispensable dimension of the path of Awakening and liberation from dissatisfaction. However, the Buddha is also recorded as saying that belief in self could at times have strategic value. A flexibility of view in relation to the self can also be found in the practice and pedagogy of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, and in the significance given to processes of ‘de-centring’ in relationship to difficult thoughts and cognitions within some presentations of Cognitive Psychology. This session will provide an opportunity to consider Buddhist understandings of self and not-self, and how these might inform contemporary practice and teaching of Mindfulness-Based Approaches.

Afternoon: Compassion in the landscape of suffering – Willem Kuyken

Compassion is an orientation of mind that recognizes the presence of pain and the universality of pain in human experience. It is a capacity to turn towards, tolerate and act to alleviate suffering. Learning to meet pain with compassion is part of how people come to befriend and live with chronic physical and mental health conditions, such as pain and recurrent depression. Compassion features prominently in every major contemplative tradition. Most contemplative traditions include practices for cultivating compassion. There is now compelling evidence that mindfulness-based programmes enable people to learn compassion for self and others and this may be a key ingredient of change. This session will explore a number of questions and themes:

  • What is compassion?
  • How is compassion understood in evolution and animal behaviour? How can we contextualize compassion in terms of contemplative traditions and contemporary psychological understandings?
  • Can compassion be trained and if so, how is it trained in mindfulness-based programmes?
  • What is the role of mindfulness teachers’ embodiment?

The session will include an overview of experimental, qualitative and interventional research, video illustrations from MBCT and some mindfulness practices.

Thursday 31st August – Day 4 – Silent Practice day  

Led by Mark Williams and Chris Cullen

A day of silent practice exploring the Summer School’s themes through mindfulness practice.

Friday 1st September – Day 5 – World Café

With Mark Williams, Melanie Fennell, Chris Cullen & Willem Kuyken

In the morning, the panel and participants will discuss the key themes and questions raised over the course of the week, in a workshop styled event called a World Café.

A World Café is an interaction method focused on conversations. It is a creative process for leading collaborative dialogue, sharing knowledge and creating possibilities for action. Each small group, discusses and digests the problem before submitting thoughts and feedback. Conversation and participation are the key processes.

  • World café group work
  • Presentations from each group with panel feedback
  • In the afternoon, the speaker panel will respond to some of the questions.
  • Panel discussion & Q&A
  • Close

Further information

The OMC reserves the right to change the speakers and timings in the published programme.