Mentally Mindful

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In the past two weeks I finally moved into my new apartment and it is starting to feel like home. The silence and the space are so much more conducive to learning mindful living then the construction zone I lived in before. I did not feel very Zen during the move or unpacking, but that’s what I’m working on now. No time like the present!

The second part of chapter 2 in The Mindfulness Solution To Pain by Dr. Jackie Gardner – Nix talks about mental attitudes related to mindfulness. (I’m going to keep summarizing the key points that jumped out at me, and connections I made to my own life; I don”t want to put citations everywhere). Attitudes can be enabling or harmful to our well-being, and awareness about these attitudes can help us to strengthen positive ones and change negative ones.

The first attitude associated with mindfulness is being nonjudgmental. This is something that I have a long way to go to achieve! On Monday I was listening to Dr. Jackie Gardner – Nix’ guided meditation (more on this in a moment) and my practice was not going as well as last week. Every other breath I caught myself thinking things like “my breathing is too fast and shallow”, “why can’t I stay focused today?”, “I don’t think I’m ever going to get this right”. In the book, the authors point out that judgments about whether something is positive or negative are very black and white, and often miss the ‘gray’ nuanced part of experiences. Bad experiences can have silver linings, and good things aren’t always what they seem. Negative judgments can begin a domino effect of reactive emotions, tension and increased pain. Given the changeability and impermanence of things, judgments can really be a waste of time. I’m going to have to work on this in meditation practice and in the rest of my life too! Being off work on disability leave, as I’ve mentioned before, definitely leads me to be very judgmental about the lack of accomplishment, purpose, etc. I think they called this the inserting “superwoman overachiever cycle” in the last chapter!I really liked the observation made in the book that it can be freeing to experience situations or encounters with people and not judge them.

The second attitude associated with mindfulness is the beginner’s mind. To achieve this mental stance, you have to try to overcome your own biases, prejudices and preconceived notions, and not bring them to present situations or encounters. This reminds me of what my anthropology professors called ‘reflexive thinking’. Anthropologists believe that it’s impossible to cultivate a purely objective stand point, but by being aware of your own subjective point of view, you can still produce valuable insights and new knowledge about the culture you are studying. So this mindful attitude sounds to me like being an anthropologist studying yourself!

The third and fourth attitudes to cultivate are trust and patience. Trust that developing awareness will lead to change over time, and patience regarding how long that will take.

The next chapter (chapter 3) is about beginning a formal meditation practice. The authors define this as “intentionally setting aside a specific period of time… In your day to systematically cultivate mindfulness by focusing your attention moment by moment on some particular aspect of your experience, and actively noting when your mind wanders – as it always will – and then bringing it back to the focus” (Gardner-Nix and Costin-Hall, 2009). Usually breathing is the focus of mindfulness practice. I decided to buy Dr. Gardner-Nix’ CD of guided meditations, called ‘meditations for the mindfulness solution to pain’, which is available on iTunes. I thought it would be best to go with this one because it is designed to specifically accompany the book. The authors also recommend Andrew Weil’s “meditation for optimum health”, available from Sounds True (Google for website).  I also really like John Kabat-Zinn’s disc of guided meditations called “mindfulness meditation for pain relief”.  I’m not going to give a detailed summary of how to meditate because I think these resources to a much better job than I ever could. I did just want to mention the advice given at the end of this chapter to pace yourself while incorporating meditation into your daily routine – start with 5 min., slowly work up to 10, then 20, and so on. I’m at 10 minutes right now. I’d like to work up to 20, eventually without the guide, but for now I like listening 😉 p.s. I don’t sit cross-legged in serene white while meditating. I have to lie down with pillows under my legs on the couch or on the floor – fibrostyle. My body wouldn’t put up with that kind of sitting!

image courtesy of photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Thoughts On the Intro to the ‘Mindfulness Solution To Pain’

Thoughts On the Intro to the ‘Mindfulness Solution To Pain’

This is my first blog post, so here we go! My first project for this blog is to track my journey towards living mindfully with chronic pain as I read a book called  the Mindfulness Solution to Pain (2009). In the introduction the authors tell us about how they came to facilitate mindfulness courses for chronic pain patients. A major theme that leaps out right away is the relationship between emotions and pain. ‘Dr. Jackie’ (Dr. Jackie Gardner-Nix) writes that in her practice she has noticed many patients whose pain improves because of positive emotional experiences like falling in love or going on vacation. ‘Lucie’ (Lucie Costin-Hall) describes how, during one terrible flare up, she read a book that made the connection for her between her own accumulated anger and her pain, which caused her pain to leave permanently. I found both of these observations to be alternately hopeful and alienating. On the one hand, I hope that this book will give me the tools to level out my volatile emotions and reduce my pain; but I am also skeptical that it could be as simple as making the connection between intense emotion and intense pain. I have already been in therapy for a few months, and have learned that tension in my relationships leads to the tension in my body – but my pain hasn’t gone away! I feel like most chronic pain patients already know that stress in their lives leads to increased pain in their bodies.

The key point in the introduction is that mindfulness offers a way to modify the emotional experience of chronic pain patients, which in turn can modify the pain experience. The authors are quick to point out that day in no way mean to suggest that chronic pain patients are psychologically deficient or less capable than normal people. However, in both Lucie’s story, and another example they give of a man who participated in one of their classes and was able to come off of his pain medications after practicing mindfulness regularly and doing some much needed soul-searching for a couple of years, the authors implicitly suggest that a core part of recovery involves dealing with your psychological baggage. This may be so, but what I find troubling about both examples is this suggestion that dealing with psychological issues will effectively cure you. Jon Kabat-Zin, the father of using mindfulness for chronic pain, is adamant that mindfulness is about finding a more helpful perspective on your situation, not about eliminating your pain. I’m sure the authors did not intend to suggest that mindfulness is a magic bullet approach, only to offer hope to people living in very frustrating circumstances. However, I think the examples are poorly chosen and even undermine the key message of the book. When I flip ahead through the rest of the book, though, it seems like the authors go on to tell a much more complicated story about the relationship between mind and body, which I’m looking forward to reading more about.

The introduction goes on to talk a little bit about the chemistry of thoughts. I thought this section was really interesting. The authors explain that your very thoughts are chemical reactions, which can trigger a cascade of biochemical responses in your body. For example, thinking very stressful thoughts can even weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to you disease or impair your healing. This is very relevant for fibromyalgia patients because researchers recently discovered that fibromyalgia causes cellular immune depression (Behm et al. 2012). This makes me all the more eager to get going on my mindfulness journey! On to Chapter one!

Sources:

Behm et al. (2012). Unique immunologic patterns in fibromyalgia. http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6890/12/25