Back to class: Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction

Meditation

Meditation (Photo credit: holisticgeek)

I am about to go to the second class of my Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. In the summer I wrote several posts on reading the Mindfulness Solution to Pain and practicing meditations described in the book.  Mindfulness involves “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment”, as defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the MBSR program. I also posted on research showing how effective mindfulness practice is for chronic pain.

I have really enjoyed doing the assigned “homework” from the first class. The first part was to do a 30 minute body scan from the course CD. (A body scan meditation involves paying attention to different parts of your body for a few moments and observing the sensations you feel). This is the longest meditation I’ve ever done. The practices I have done before were breath meditations, usually only for a max time of 20 minutes. I really like the body scan because I am able to really focus and feel more in touch with what’s going on in my body. I feel like my mind wanders less then when I am doing breath meditation (focusing on your breath). It is very relaxing to have a break from your mind!

Of course, I’m not always in such a good mood when I go to meditate. Before I was meditating when I felt like it, which was usually when I already felt relaxed or calm. The idea of the MBSR program is that you commit to practice seven days a week for eight weeks – as Jon Kabat-Zinn says “you don’t have to like it, you just have to do it”. It sounds a little bit rigid but it’s really important while you are trying to establish meditation has a habit. When you go to practice and you realize you are stressed, agitated, and your mind is wandering everywhere, focusing can seem like the last thing you want to. But that’s when you realize how helpful mindfulness can be! It doesn’t necessarily produce calm every time. It does give you a chance to observe what is going on inside your head. Usually that helps me to figure out a more helpful way of dealing with things then spazzing out, or to recognize stressful patterns of thinking.

One thing I do have to keep working on is not to judge myself when I realized my mind has wandered off or I’m not feeling calmer/better after meditating. As the facilitator of my class says “if you have a mind, it’s going to wander”. You really can’t get into mindfulness with expectations about what it “should” do for you.

The other part of our homework was to try to eat mindfully at least once everyday. It’s really nice to realize how many sensations and moments are available to you if you stop to enjoy them. I love food, cooking and eating. When you realize how many times you just wolf down delicious meals… I always feel like my life is so limited now that I have fibromyalgia, so I think it’s really good for me to realize how much I do have around me to enjoy!

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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