I felt like my brain was going to seize...
The first time I heard about mindfulness was in a group therapy class in grad school. Everyone had been assigned to a therapeutic model to teach the rest of the students. One fine day, I learned about something called a "raisin eating meditation." Only we used strawberry flavored craisins. If you're wondering what the heck a raisin has to do with meditation, you aren't alone. I immediately felt like my brain was going to seize with the utter boredom I was about to encounter. Quick self-disclosure: I'm a type-A personality. Something to know about type-A's is that we like to be busy doing something all the time. Often, something that's productive (to us). That may be watching Netflix while planning my weekly menu on Pinterest and checking my phone/email/facebook while folding laundry- but I get stuff DONE. Part of this could be the single mom thing, but honestly I learned these skills when I was a waitress for a lifetime in my 20's. Multi-tasking. It's helpful and essential to survival. This whole raisin eating meditation was going to start an epic and ongoing battle between me and my busy-brain self. Mindfulness is the opposite of a busy brain. It's silence where there was once chaos. It's peace where anger used to reside. It's acceptance where there was judgement. It's basically a total metamorphosis.
Relive the "Good Ol' Days" again...
I teach mindfulness every. single. day. I have spouted out the basic foundations and skills so many times that I could do it in my sleep. That's not to say that I don't find it useful or magical in mine and others' lives, but when given the opportunity to write about mindfulness within a new platform- I am feeling a little giddy to approach it with the informal humanness that I find people warm to quickly, instead of the authoritative teacher role.
I suppose I would be amiss to not give you an adequate history of mindfulness and it's origin in our western culture. In the 70's, a man named Jon Kabat-Zinn was working at the University of Massachusetts and came up with a new way to treat people suffering from depression, anxiety and chronic pain through something that has become known as mindfulness based stress reduction or MBSR. He found that many people within their individually chaotic lives focus on things in the past or the future, but rarely the present moment, which is really the only thing we have control over. I often see people that are living with regret, resentment, longing or general dysphoria (low mood) because they can't change something in the past or go and relive the "Good Ol' Days" again. When living in this powerless place, people find themselves depressed. Likewise, many people report fear about the future. It could be money, politics, terrorism, family, health or any number of factors that we can't put in a little box with a bow and call it good. People that are focused on the future often suffer from anxiety and even panic. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and with non-judgement. Easier said than done my friends!
Enter raisins, or craisins.
I'm not going to lie, the first time I did this exercise I was itching to just bite the darn thing. Chew the heck out of it and get it gone! After several exposures to this practice, I kind of got it. This is about taking in the details around me, paying attention to all my senses and not judging myself or the process. The "pause button" in life is a mindful moment. While there are infinite ways to experience this and my starting point was a craisin. I graduated to individually wrapped dove chocolates, popcorn, cold honey-crisp apples, essential oils (eucalyptus especially) smelling my daughters clean wet head after a bath and savoring my fist sip of coffee in the morning. What do you press pause for? If you can't think of anything, I would challenge you to find something that you can taste, hear, touch, smell or soak up with your eyes in the coming week. Maybe you'll take time to play an old song that takes you back to a special time in your life- a friendship, a lover, your last year of high school. Or what about baking a peach cobbler? I remember in a sociology class I took, there was a study that found you get the greatest pleasure out of the first few bites of your favorite food. If you had infinite amounts of peach cobbler (for example), it wouldn't be so special. Mindfulness really gives you the most pleasure out of every experience, Merely from slowing down!
(Actual cobbler from grandma's recipe pictured)
Slowing down to notice the details is really just the start. There are books written on the subject that far exceed my personal knowledge or application of zen-like behavior. Eight week courses are taught on mindfulness that cost hundreds of dollars and take hours of personal time to gain an official "mindfulness practice." I don't presume that everyone stumbling upon this blog hopes to evolve into a marathon meditating machine (if that's a thing) or jump a flight to the next silent retreat with yogi guru-type people. I'm giving you a starting point in which to flirt with this concept. I will certainly sprinkle the foundations of mindfulness throughout this site, but short of overwhelming you with a gigantic novel on the topic, I'm going to give you one more tool before sending you on your way to try some cool new exercises.
Meditation is so stinking cool...
Meditation is so stinking cool. As a self-proclaimed busy-brain, I didn't think I would ever get the hang of it. But there was an incident that really pushed me into the practice and it has been a lifesaver ever since. About a week before finishing graduate school, I was sitting in one of my last lectures when I suddenly couldn't breathe. I felt like my chest was being crushed by a vice and oxygen was not working anymore. My heart was beating out of my chest and I started to sweat. I felt like I was probably having a heart attack, but having been trained in the mental health field- I knew very well what was happening to me. It was a panic attack. You see, I was living with my daughter in university housing- which was going to expire when I graduated in two weeks, I had to take a very stressful licensing exam (without which I wouldn't be employable), find employment and I also needed to find a new home without an established income in TWO WEEKS. Of course I was having a panic attack! I had the weight of the world on my shoulders and it appeared it was going to get a lot worse before it got better. I excused myself to the bathroom, where I tried to implement some deep breathing techniques and talked to myself like an encouraging life-coach until I was certain I didn't need to call 9-11. I was able to de-escalate my panic attack within thirty minutes, but I knew then and there I didn't want to experience that again! It was time to implement some of those tools I was taught in school to help myself this time.
I'm not offering you Kool-Aid
I did a search on my limewire account for "guided meditation" and this file called "Lifescapes rain forest relaxation meditation" came up. It was ten minutes and there was a British guy narrating it. What more could I ask for? The meditation itself guides you from this safe beautiful place, down a path- to a pool of water. You're told to swim or dangle your hand in the water as you listen to lovely and relaxing music. The narrator then leads you back down the path to where you started and you're all done. This seems simple enough. Enter: every thought about everything in the world. The biggest complaint from people learning to meditate is that the very second you try to clear your mind, you start thinking about the grocery store, taking out the trash and what was on Grey's Anatomy this week. It's endless. Within the framework of mindfulness, the goal is to acknowledge your thoughts and let them pass like a leaf floating down a stream. The thought still exists, it's just not the center of your thinking right now. This process of overthinking, acknowledging your thought, and letting it go, may happen 100 times in ten minutes. It takes practice. I have been doing this for years and still have trouble being in the present moment, depending on the day. The key is to not sit there judging yourself for your meditation capacity. Observe your meditation practice with love and let everything else go. I assure you, I'm not offering you Kool-Aid or asking for your fist born. It isn't some weird cult talk. It's simply training yourself to be present and letting go of worries that don't improve your experience in this life. As you continue practicing this, depression and anxiety will melt away like butter. It's magical.
Jason Stephenson offers amazing meditations. I think he has the best library of guided meditations on YouTube that I have ever seen- and at all levels of practice. It's a wonderful resource.
The things to take away from this blog:
- Check in with your thought process. Do you live in the present or are you spending the majority of your head-space in the past/future?
- What ways can you be mindful in your day? What can you pause to savor?
- Try a meditation! See how often you are challenged to redirect your thinking back to the present. Remember- your thoughts are leaves floating down a stream- you can get to them later!
- Observe your practice from a place of love and non-judgement. Be your biggest supporter, not your biggest critic.
While this is going to be the first of many mindfulness exercises I suggest, I have to just reiterate how excited I am to be on this path with you! Mindfulness has improved my quality of life exponentially and I know it will for you too. For all the nights staring at my ceiling thinking of the infinate"what-if's" in the world, I now have peace and let go of things easily. Let me guide you to your own peace of mind. You've got this.