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A Life Well Lived: A Conversation with Professor Willem Kuyken (University of Oxford) on Mindfulness for Life, the Future of Education, and Purpose

In an exclusive interview for Clever Magazine, Willem Kuyken, Ritblat Professor of Mindfulness and Psychological Science at the University of Oxford, explores his lifetime journey of mindfulness and discusses its intersection with education and mental health.

From his early contemplative practices to his leading role in research and education, professor Kuyken shares insights into the transformative power of mindfulness in preventing depression and promoting mental well-being across various stages of life. He reflects on the evolution of mindfulness from a niche practice to a mainstream, evidence-based discipline, offering advice to both young people and educators on approaching today's complex world with creativity and resilience.

Professor Kuyken discusses his work with the MYRIAD Project, which examined school-based mindfulness training, highlighting the importance of fostering a sense of safety, belonging and curiosity within school cultures. He envisions mindfulness becoming normalized in education by 2050, caught through teachers' embodiment rather than directly taught. He also weighs in on the passion versus talent debate, advocating for an education system that teaches critical thinking over static curricula.

The interview covers interdisciplinary approaches to complex problems, AI's potential to augment human expertise, and Oxford's collegiate system that fosters cross-pollination across disciplines. Overall, professor Kuyken makes a case for an education promoting whole-person development - academically, socially, emotionally and ethically.

Professor Willem Kuyken has published more than 150 journal articles and was named by Web of Science as in the top 1% of the most cited scientists in the world in 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023. Together with Christina Feldman, he wrote Mindfulness – Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Psychology, published in 2019. His work has been featured in the New York Times, New Scientist, Nature, Scientific American, Times Educational Supplement, the BBC, CBS, New Statesman, Le Monde, der Zeit, the Telegraph, and the Guardian.
I first met Professor Kuyken at the Mindfulness Foundation Annual Gathering I attended last October in Oxford. It was an inspiring encounter, not just because of professor's esteemed accomplishments, but because of his humility and kindness that later evolved into supporting our nonprofit with this interview. We met on May 10th at Four Seasons Park Lane Hotel in London to discuss our shared mission of enhancing mental health and revolutionising education to help build a world where flourishing is attainable for all.

My aim for this interview was to bridge the gap between mindfulness and education and to offer new ways for the future educational approaches. As we talked about the broader implications of mindfulness, it was clear that Professor Kuyken’s commitment to mental well-being and education continues to inspire and pave the way for future generations.

Professor Kuyken shares his vision for mindfulness as a lifelong companion. He also provides a glimpse into his upcoming book, Mindfulness for Life, exploring the profound impact of mindful living on personal and societal well-being. [The title will be released on October 22, 2024, available for pre-order now at Amazon UK and Amazon US - editor’s note].

Join us to explore the essence of a life well lived through the lens of mindfulness with Professor Willem Kuyken.
In the Tes Magazine article from October 2017 you mentioned the following: “When I first started practising mindfulness, it wasn’t in the mainstream at all. It wasn’t respectable. I had thought that if I talked in a professional context about my mindfulness practice, it would have damaged my career. But at that time I found it very helpful in my own life in so many ways.”

Could you share a bit more about your personal journey from a young enthusiastic student to a recognized expert? What initially drew you to mindfulness practices, and how have they influenced your life and work over the years?
"I was very lucky to have an extraordinary education at one of the best schools in this country, Winchester College. I felt as a young man that I had learned how to think and in particular how to think critically. I had had an amazing education in terms of secondary school. But I didn't really feel that my education had prepared me, in a sense, for life. It hadn't prepared me in terms of how to really understand my mind and how my mind had the potential to create suffering, but also joy, how my mind had the potential to perceive things in very, very different ways.

For all sorts of reasons in my teens and early twenties I struggled with depression and various mental health issues. As a young man, I was working in India, Thailand and all over the world and became very interested in the idea that there are different ways of training and understanding the mind. I became interested in meditation and yoga, and I found them to be tremendously helpful ways to understand how my mind has the capacity to see things in fresh and interesting ways.

It gave me the idea that education is not about facts and knowledge. It's about the skillful and wise application of how we see the world, how we are in the world and how we respond to the world.

I think that's what mindfulness has helped me to do in the educational sphere.

What I would add is it's also in the personal sphere, relationships with friends, at work, with my partner, with my children, in all of those areas. Mindfulness has helped me, I think, to be a better friend, a better partner, a better father, a better colleague."
Reflecting on your own mindfulness journey further, are there any particular moments or experiences that stand out that shaped your understanding and commitment to mindfulness?
"I was in my twenties when I attended a conference called East Meets West, and this conference was quite out there in those days. I mean, it wouldn't be considered that now. There were people there like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Francisco Varela, and people who are coming to healthcare and education from the perspectives of contemplative traditions.

Every morning started with a period of yoga practice. I'd never been to a conference where the personal and the professional came together in that way. It was an incredibly illuminating experience.

So this idea of the confluence of the personal and the professional became really interesting to me. What I learn in my personal life can actually enrich my professional life, and what I'm practising in my professional life can enrich my personal life."
In your experience, what are some common misconceptions or misunderstandings about mindfulness, particularly in the context of education?
"I think people sometimes think of mindfulness as being something a bit out there, a bit esoteric, that is, about stress reduction, that is about emptying the mind.

I think of mindfulness as being much more applied and everyday than that. What I mean by that, I see mindfulness as being about being fully awake and present to our life, being imbued with curiosity, with kindness, with care, with equanimity, with a sense of alignment with our ethics, our intentionality, our values.

What this awareness is imbued with is our compass, pointing us where are we trying to get to. What's important to us, so that in any moment in our conversations, in our choices about our career, in the way we study, what is it that's important to us? What is our sense of purpose? What's our true north?

I think of mindfulness as being a way of helping us to come back to that compass, so that in any given moment, we can realign ourselves with that sense of purpose, that sense of our values."
As someone who has witnessed the evolution of mindfulness from a niche interest to a mainstream phenomenon, how do you navigate the intersection of tradition and innovation within the field? Are there any tensions or synergies that emerge from this dynamic?
"Yes, of course there are tensions. And there is a very understandable tendency that we have towards polarising things, towards seeing things as different. I guess the way I move beyond that is, and through that is with pragmatism.

What I mean by that is, is something useful, is something helpful? And if something is useful and helpful and can be backed by evidence, because I'm a scientist, I don't care if it's two and a half thousand years old or if it's just been invented.

If there is a practice that sharpens our mind and can help us to live better, and that is a practice you can trace back thousands of years, let's use it. Can we find a way of bringing it into our lives, into our wider collective societies and into the wider world?"
When I first met you at OMF last October [to learn more about the activities and the upcoming events of the Oxford Mindfulness Foundation please visit the official website of the organisation - editor's note], I had a feeling of meeting a like-minded person in a sense of having a mission that moves you forward in life - the passion you’ve had for building a world where depression has no place.

Scott Galloway, a professor at the New York University Stern School of Business, whom I’ve been following for some time now, argues that to be successful in the modern world young people need to invest in their talent and develop it, rather than pursue a romantic idea of following your passion that might not pay off and leave you broken (both mentally and financially).

As someone who found your calling early in life, what is your opinion on this?
"I think we are living in a time where there is a perfect storm of all sorts of different things happening. Exponential growth in technology and particularly AI, changes in climate, changes in the distribution and movement of peoples around the world, more people around the world moving into economic security, and the shifting balance of power in the world.

It's a quite extraordinary moment in the sort of arc of human history, and it's almost impossible to predict what's going to happen in five years, let alone 50 years.

For people who are setting out just now, in terms of teenagers, young adults, I totally understand that it's a scary time, and there is a lot of uncertainty. What historically may have seemed easy (when people chose to be a lawyer or a doctor or anything else that they chose to do with their career), is much more uncertain now, but it is also much more creative.

One of the things I feel really strongly about in terms of education is that we need to support people and help people to learn how to think, how to problem solve, how to be creative, how to be flexible, how to cope with uncertainty, not teach them, not fill their heads with curricula, because those curricula are changing all the time, as the world is changing all the time.

That's why I'm so proud to work at Oxford, because one of the things about the Oxford University educational system is that we do, through the tutorial system, help people to do exactly that. We help to learn how to think, not what to think."
What advice would you offer to students and young professionals navigating the complexities of today's world? How can they discover their passions and align them with their career paths effectively?
"I think that's one of the things I feel strongly about for young people, is it's the how, not the what of education. That is really important.

One of the other aspects of this very changing landscape is that instead of it feeling overwhelming, (and I do understand that it's overwhelming), another way of looking at it is there are so many possible pathways and so many different junctions and it's always shifting and changing. So if you know how to think and you have a sense of confidence, I think there are lots of different options that people can imagine and create.

If I think about my own career, I ended up working at the World Health Organization in Switzerland because I saw an ad in a stairwell at the place where I was studying. We just don't know which opportunities are going to come along in our life.

So a sense of learning how, not what to think is a vital life skill. A sense of having some confidence and trust that different choice points are going to come along and if you have a sense of a compass, a true north those choice points are always going to provide interesting opportunities."
Given my engagement in the Global Education Policy Accelerator conducted by Lucy Crehan [an education explorer and international education consultant, author and speaker - editor’s note], in the past 5 months I’ve been deeply involved in the matter of policy making and best school practices, matters of school curriculum, etc.

You were recently part of the MYRIAD project, a rigorous research programme funded by the Wellcome Trust, exploring schools-based mindfulness training. Over eight years, you and your colleagues worked with more than 28,000 children, 650 teachers and 100 schools.

Considering the staggering statistics on young people's mental health globally, what motivated you to delve into the project and explore mindfulness training in schools as a potential solution? What made a younger study population more interesting to you rather than undergraduate students?
"Integrated, coherent policy making around education that considers the whole person, their academic education, their social development, their emotional development, young people's ethical development feels like it's one of the frontiers for the next period of time. It is not a zero sum game. We need to be thinking about young people in the round. So it's great that you're involved in this kind of policy making and that people are starting to think in this way.

The reason we did the MYRIAD project is because rates of mental health difficulties in young people are alarmingly high. Epidemiological research estimates that between 12% and 30% of young people have got significant mental health challenges of anxiety, of depression, of self injury.

There is some evidence that year on year this is getting a little bit worse. Teenage girls in particular are reporting more anxiety and self injury, and young men in particular are reporting more completed suicides. So there is a very good reason to think about the mental health of young people.

The other reason there is a lot of importance in looking at the mental health of young people is that the vast majority of mental health problems in adulthood will first arise in young people. So it's obviously important that if one is to think about the prevention of mental health problems and the promotion of mental health and the population as a whole, we need to be thinking about children and adolescents.

That's the developmental window before mental health problems first arise. And if they do arise then, very often, they'll be lifelong. So let's try and get in there and prevent things beforehand."
In your opinion, what values should guide the conversation about education and mental health, particularly in the context of creating a more holistic and aligned education system? What advice would you give to educators and policymakers who are considering integrating mindfulness into their schools?
"I have become increasingly of the view that when we think about the mental health, social emotional development of young people, it's not actually helpful to think about those at risk for mental health problems. It's much more helpful to think about all young people in the same way that we are changing exercise and diet for young people with a view to improving their heart health and longevity. I think we need to be thinking about mental health in the same way - teaching foundational social-emotional skills for mental health

Let's think about all of the things that we can be doing that are teaching good foundational skills for young people to be able to be resilient, to be able to be good citizens, to be able to feel like they have a sense of belonging and purpose in their life.

What was interesting about the MYRIAD project that we did is that we identified a particular training and a particular skill that we thought would be really important. The training was school-based mindfulness training, and the skill that we wanted to develop in young children was a skill of being able to regulate their attention in the face of challenges. The trial suggested that that was not effective. It was a definitive trial, large scale, really well done. So it can't be discounted in terms of being not big enough, nor well enough designed.

School teachers teaching young children mindfulness skills in schools is not a way of promoting their mental health and social emotional learning, this study suggested.

But what we did find, which I think is really important in terms of what you were talking about just now, is that the culture and the prevailing climate of a school is highly associated with the mental health of the children, and that a school in which children feel a sense of safety, a sense of belonging, a sense of trust, a sense of looking up to the senior leadership team of the school, a sense of being able to talk to the teachers and having strong peer networks.

These kinds of schools that have this culture are schools where children thrive. To me, that suggests that in terms of policy making, we need to be thinking not about teaching kids particular mindfulness skills, but rather maybe investing our energy in designing schools and creating school cultures where children feel these key dimensions of safety.

And I don't mean physical safety, I mean psychological safety. Strong networks amongst peers and with teachers, a sense of curiosity and playfulness and interest in learning."
You always say that mindfulness is a natural capacity that we all possess. Yet, as we just discussed, the MYRIAD project has found out that mindfulness in schools doesn’t improve mental health in early teens. You saw it as a positive thing. You also said “If given the opportunity again, I would co-design an intervention with young people”. So are there any other ways to implement this practice in their daily lives?

How hard is it to break down and mould new educational practices in your opinion? How do you suggest schools balance their focus on academic attainment with the promotion of social and emotional well-being?
"I've become quite interested in Bromfenbrenner's ideas about child development and the importance of considering macro, meso, exo, micro and individual level factors. So in the development of children and young people, we can focus on individuals being mindful and learning mindfulness, but we also need to think about the peer groups they're part of and the schools and homes that they're part of, but also the prevailing messages in the culture.

Just to give an example of this, when I was a child, smoking was pervasive. You know, right now we would probably both be smoking if it was 50 years ago, and there would certainly not have been a policy where you couldn't smoke in public spaces, and there was no warning on cigarette packets. And if you didn't smoke, it would probably be regarded as being, you know, why not? That's just what you do socially. So there's been a massive amount of change in the last 50 years in behaviour, understanding, policy, and cultural understandings around smoking. My vision or my hope is that in the next 50 years, we're going to see the same thing with mindfulness. That it will be considered commonplace, something that is part of the prevailing culture.

But even with smoking, vaping is having a massive resurgence right now. There are always going to be people who are interested in getting people vaping and selling vapes and cigarettes, and so on. There are always going to be commercial forces at play. But I guess if we are genuinely interested in the development of the next generation of young people who are, by the way, going to have to address and solve many of the problems in the world today, I think we need to create school environments where mindfulness is a part of the prevailing culture.

One thing I would say in these early stages, I think it's probably safe to say that maybe one of the best ways for young people to learn mindfulness, and by young people, I mean primary school and maybe early secondary school, is for them to catch it, for it to be caught, not taught. And what I mean by that is they observe in their teachers behaviours that are mindful and those are normalised, and they become just part of how they expect the school to operate, the teacher to operate.

It can be done in very small ways. Just when you start a class for the teacher and the classroom, just to take a moment to come into presence and to come into silence and to have a sense of coming back into your body after the break or the transition from the last class, these are just very small ways which are not that small. Actually, they are quite profound because they're a way of coming into the present moment. They're a way of coming into our body and mind in this moment as we engage in this next lesson or this next thing that we're doing right now, the way we speak to one another.

Can we do that with a sense of mindfulness? By that I mean awareness imbued with kindness, care, and a sense of intentionality in that discourse. This is what I mean by mindfulness in a school environment.

And my hope would be that by 2050, this becomes the norm."
Many education systems look to high-performing counterparts to reshape their own approaches, often relying on PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) research, which evaluates the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students in reading, maths, and science since the year 2000. However, this approach can be quite limited.

In your view, what should be the next steps for advancing global education systems? How do you envision the future of mindfulness in education? What are some potential challenges and opportunities for further research and implementation in this field? What in your opinion should be the mission of a pre-adult modern education system?
"Nowadays education is very focused on what we learn. You know, topics, mathematics, English, the topics. When I say how I think, I mean two things: how we think in terms of critical appraisal, critical skills, being able to identify a problem, understand a problem, unpack a problem, and think critically about it from multiple perspectives. That's one type of how. And of course, that's an incredibly important educational skill, and it's timeless.

But the other kind of how, I think, is a sort of recognition that a lot of knowledge is embodied, that actually we can come to know things at quite an experiential level, that we can come back to our bodies as a source of wisdom and understanding.

For example, if we are involved in any kind of inquiry or any kind of dialogue, our bodies can give us a sense of dissonance. It can give us a sense of discomfort, a sense of whether we are doing things that are aligned with our values, or maybe we are doing things which feel like they're unethical.

This is what I mean by the other type of how, which is embodied knowledge. And I think that's massively neglected in education and has been part of the human story throughout evolution. And it seems a pity that it has gotten lost. I think one of the greatest thinkers in this area is Ian McGilchrist, who has argued that this sort of experiential way of seeing and knowing the world is a really important way that is massively neglected.

When students are coming to you, if they were to just pause and stop and what you're helping them to do is to see that they are striving, that they're anxious, that they're time pressured, and all of that loses contact with a sense of self, a sense of purpose. And if you stop back and think, actually, really, why? What's this about?

I remember when I was 15 or 16, I loved history. I loved English. I loved philosophy. But all of my teachers just said to me, no, you can't study those things, because if you study those things, you will shut the door to all of these different professions.

I did not for a moment pause and ask myself at a deep level or have any kind of dialogue about that. I just listened to what I was told, and that's what I ended up doing. And of course, I am where I am. But that was a mistake. That was me going down a route that I probably shouldn't have gone down because I didn't pause, I didn't step back from striving, from urgency, from a sense of pressure to actually ask myself what I was good at, what was important to me, where might my life best go? This isn’t emphasised in the education systems.

I think collectively we need to step back and ask ourselves what are the challenges we're facing in the next 50 years globally, and what kind of education is going to prepare us to respond to those challenges with wisdom, with creativity, with innovation, the kind of innovation that we're going to need to address those challenges."
The MYRIAD project was not only rigorous in scope and scale, but its findings are also supported by the expertise of the transdisciplinary team involved. You said: “The problems we're facing in mental health research are increasingly complex. They won't be solved by people with just one disciplinary knowledge set or skill.”

There's this evolving trend of interdisciplinary studies at the university level in the UK now [Clever Magazine's latest article on interdisciplinary studies in the UK can be found here - editor's note]. I am very curious to know your perspective on this, particularly given the fact you are established within such a traditionally classic academic environment.
"I think complex problems require a range of different expertises. So I love that idea of an educational milieu where young people are exposed to all of those different disciplines. I guess my two caveats around that would be that there is a difference between being a generalist and bringing together a group of people with deep expertise in particular areas.

So if you think about a generalist who knows a lot about a little, about a lot that has real value because you can sort of sense different landscapes, I can imagine an entrepreneur who is a generalist. I need to bring all of these different pieces together.

If I think about the story of the founding of Spotify, I think one of the reasons Spotify was so successful is because the entrepreneur that founded it knew that he needed the very best engineers, he needed the very best lawyers, he needed the very best everything to come together and work collaboratively to solve the problem of bringing music online and streaming.

There is a real place for generalists, people who have knowledge that they can draw in from different areas, but there is also a real need in the world for us to have deep knowledge.

Now, the piece I would add to this, which is what is going to happen with AI, or in fact, is already happening, is that AI is providing many of the things that were provided by people historically, new ways of processing information, ways of sourcing information, ways of synthesising information that can now be done with AI.

So I think the really creative space going forward is to have generalists, to have specialists, and to have a way of bringing AI into that mix that is, I think, really interesting.

What I can speak authoritatively about is what we do at Oxford. The collegiate system is really interesting because within every college in Oxford - the word collegiate comes from the same source as college - so that you are very typically in your college alongside people from every discipline. So when you're sitting, having breakfast or dinner, you're not sitting just with the other people from your department. You are actually sitting with people from all disciplines. And so the collegiate environment actually is designed to foster this sense of interdisciplinarity, which is interesting and stimulating."
Looking ahead, what aspirations or goals do you have for your own mindfulness practice and research? How do you envision your contributions shaping the future landscape of mindfulness in education and beyond?
"Later this month I'm heading to sit a week long retreat in the States with John Kabat Zinn. I'm really excited about that because he has structured it so that the retreat is very much about how our practice can be engaged with the wider world, the world of our relationships, the world of our work, the world of all of the things that we are needing to address in the wider world.

I think that's one of the sort of strands I would pick up about mindfulness. One of the ways it's parodied sometimes is that it's quite an inward looking and perhaps even a quite individualistic or selfish pursuit. I think it fundamentally isn't that. I think that's one of the things that's happening with mindfulness practice, is a way of cultivating awareness, cultivating attitudes, cultivating a sense of alignment with values and purpose that helps us to engage with the world, engage with other people in the world, engage with problems in the world, engage with opportunities in the world.

So for me, that's one of the things I'm excited about, is this idea of mindfulness for life. Bringing mindfulness into our everyday life, but also for life in the other sense of the word, for a lifetime. It's something that can be supportive as we go through all of the transitions of our life, the transition from child to adolescent, from being at home to leaving home to going into education and leaving education to going into a relationship to leaving a relationship. These are all transition points in our life, right the way through to old age and even death, where I think awareness, attitudes of mindfulness, a sense of purpose and intentionality can help us move through these transitions in really radically different ways.

Just to give a very concrete example clinically, I have seen the ravages of Parkinson's disease, not me personally, but people in my life. And where I've seen people meet this with mindfulness, it's been extraordinary. It's been extraordinary how, for example, when someone thinks of Parkinson's, where they were before Parkinson's to where they are now, that leads to a sense of "I'm in decline, I'm not as good as I used to be, I'm going downhill." Whereas meeting what's happening right now with a sense of purpose, a sense of kindness, a sense of care, a sense of patience, a sense of equanimity - these kinds of adjustments are actually quite radical. They can transform this moment, but then also the doorways that open in this moment: "How do I respond to this moment?"

There's a colleague and a friend of mine whom I admire enormously, who, once she had the diagnosis of Parkinson's, actually made a whole set of radical changes in her life and also started to look after herself and look after her health in interesting and new ways. Looking at her, obviously, I can't know the inside of her mind and body and life, but she looks like she's had an awakening. And that's extraordinary, right? That somebody can meet something as devastating as a disorder like that, a progressive disease like that, in that way.

I think that partly where we're going with mindfulness, is a way in which it helps us to meet not just our own inner landscape, but the landscape of our health, our lives, and the wider world."
The last chapter of your new book "Mindfulness for Life" is called "A Life Well Lived". You elaborate a lot on Gandhi’s message to become a change you want to see in the world. What does a life well lived mean for you personally?
"Two years ago, I was doing a solo walk across the United Kingdom, the Wainwright way, and I came across this grave stone with a woman's name and the inscription, a life well lived. I remember looking at it and thinking, what an elegant and simple thing to have on your gravestone. And for the remainder of the walk, which was quite a few days, I sat with that question. What does that look like? What does that mean? A life well lived. I think it's a question that's really important for us to ask ourselves if we're not going to sleepwalk through our lives, if we're going to walk through our lives with a sense of intentionality.

For me it's about having a sense that the impact I've had on the world has been net positive in terms of people, in terms of knowledge, in terms of teaching and learning, in terms of the climate. Put simply that the balance sheet has been simply net positive."
To find out more about Professor Kuyken's research please visit his official website profile at the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Oxford.