What is protocol-free mindfulness?

Here at the Mindfulness Centre of Excellence we LOVE to innovate and do things differently.  Our buzz word is #thisisdifferent or as Tamara’s likes to say “this IS mindfulness (but not as you know it)”.

In this blog, we share the MCoE take on “protocol-free” mindfulness. We believe this to be the next generation of “personalised” mindfulness. We understand that one size does not fit all, and that many find barriers to mindfulness in the strict protocol-based approaches that tend to be adopted  based on the evidence base. There are also lots of teachers whose right hemispheres have been blown wide open by the mindfulness practices who are ready to innovate and want to get creative with their work. And then that’s not even mentioning all the untapped resource of experts by experience who have found their own adaptations to the practices to make them work for their unique circumstances.

Why do we need protocol-free mindfulness?

While there are many great protocols for teaching mindfulness there are some obvious limitations  1) Primarily, these interventions are designed and delivered in health care settings for clinical populations. This makes transition to the “real world” delivery problematic (as was especially shown to be the case in Workplace Mindfulness Training – check out the great work of Juliet Adams and colleagues with Workplace MT).

2) These protocols comes from an “expert view”. This means that they often represent the minds, assumptions and learning methodologies of the dominant culture – one that in the UK and USA at least is white, educated and relatively well-off. As in much of psychology, the issue of accessibility and uptake by more diverse audiences is arising in the mindfulness work.  White, worried, women are the usual suspects found in many mindfulness groups. So what are we doing to open up to others who might benefit from this approach?  The work of MCoE in Brazil with collaborators from Iniciativa Mindfulness has been essential in trying to unpack some of these issues.

3) Although mindfulness is an experiential training, the mode of learning is very “western” based. It remains relatively “verbal” and “intellectual” in its delivery. Working with populations in Brazil it has become clear that there is much mileage to continually simplifying the concepts (making them accessible to those with very low levels of education). Additionally, getting creative with examples and metaphors to explain mindfulness can help the practices and benefits feel more real to those who come from less educated or socially mobile contexts.  For example, the Brazilian novelas are an ample source of examples of reactivity and its downside!

4) We all learn best through play.  That is how are brains are designed to learn! Here at the Mindfulness Centre we love to play!  We know from the neuroscience that brains learn best through movement and play and we are continually exploring with our creative partners (Casa do Horto and Clod Ensemble) how this can translate to the teaching and sharing of mindfulness.

Protocol Free mindfulness means that there is no necessarily a defined set of activities that will take place in any intervention. But it does mean that there are some core underlying theories and principles that inform the design and development of practices and exercises. These can be tailored to the context or group to allow the maximum buy in and efficiency of training.  The two key features are 1) Working with Brain in Mind and 2) Deep Listening/Co-Design.

1)  Working with the Brain in Mind

When you work with the brain in mind to develop mindfulness interventions, you begin to recognize that there are many many ways you can prime the triple network (attention, default mode and salience networks) to train a more mindful state of awareness.  This process is explained in Tamara’s last book “#whatismindfulness”.  You can find a video here.

Tamara’s work is inspired by the research from Wendy Hasenkamp and Vinod Menon. Pulling this neuroscience research together with extensive observation from her clinical work and mindfulness teaching (and mindfulness teacher training) it has become clear that there are many ways to train mindfulness if we start from this brain-based “bottom up approach”.


Figure from Wendy Hasenkamp’s paper – participants were asked to press a button when they noticed their mind had wandered from the breath. Statistical modelled indicated different networks were active at the different stages of focusing, mind-wandering, noticing and getting back.










Mindfulness trains the triple network  – improving our ability to focus our attention on a single object or whatever is happening around us and increasing our familiarization with the images, memories, processes and movements within out default  mode network. It also helps us to re-tune our salience network – so we respond rather than react.  But there are many ways to do this!  One really great way is through the body and creativity – going directly to the implicational sub-system and training through the right hemisphere.

It is this triple network that may be wired differently in some mental health conditions.  Using a protocol-free design, based on the neuroscience underpinnings and using a formulation methodology from clinical psychology, Tamara’s experience has shown that you can train mindfulness in any multitude of ways.  But you need to be willing to let go of what you think “mindfulness” looks like.

2 ) Deep Listening and Co-Design

Part of what allows a formulated approach to mindfulness is a deep, mindful and heartful listening process with individuals who think and feel differently. Tamara has literally sampled the world, talking about, offering and sharing mindfulness, as well as listening deeply to how various individuals in a multitude of settings respond to the work. From this ethnographic approach, core themes emerged and these formed the basis of the co-design methodology now employed.

Listening to those experiencing psychosis, individuals with bipolar, depersonalisation and derealisation; individuals exploring non-ordinary states with psychedelics and cyberdelics, those working in high stakes and high stress environments, how do THEY make contact with the principles of mindfulness? What is THEIR way to embed this in their lives in a way that makes sense TO THEM?

Various Co-Designed Protocol Free Projects (further information available on request)

Below is a short summary of some of the projects that have taken this approach.  From a quantitative research point of view, its a mess!  Everyone doing different things at different rates, dosages and via different means. However, the qualitative data is strong. Individuals who had previously found it difficult to connect to mindfulness suddenly discovering that they can “do it” after all. Those who were told “its not safe” getting much benefit from adapted practices or practices they can make up for themselves.   Humans are such a rich creative resource ….its a pleasure to let them loose on mindfulness principles and see what they come up with.


Medical Students: Mindfulness and Resilience work with medical students and doctors, co-designed with Dr. Derek Chase and the amazing medical students of King’s College London.

Heart Conditions: Work supporting those with heart conditions. The Heartfulness Project with Dr. Maya Campbell. Sharing compassion, mindful movement, creativity and the science of the heart mind connection for those with heart “pain” of any kind.

Creative work from the Heartfulness Project – how we can hold the “red” moments of challenge in a bed of compassionate “green” #lovepaulgilbert

Mums’ with Post Natal Depression: Work with mum’s with post natal depression. Co-designed with psychologist and textiles artist Liz Finegold and mum’s sharing their experiences of the challenges of being a new mum in the Weaving a New Story project.

Psychosis and Non-Ordinary States: Work with those experiencing non-ordinary states. Co-designed with Anthony Fidler, the lead on the Weathering Storms Project (#recreate psychiatry).

Young People, Families and Educators: Work with those caring for young people (parents and teachers) across the world, working with Brazilian and UK colleagues on the “What colour is your dragon?” workshops.

Cyberdelics: Work with visual artist and psychonaut Jose Montemayor Alba exploring applied mindfulness in the VR and cyberdelics field (see our collaboration with Virtual-Awakening The Death Incubator).