My brain is like an industrious squirrel, having stored up stress from my whole past history to collect and keep. It continues to forage for new stress–even in the Springtime when abundance makes foraging silly. It’s like a little grey squirrel, standing on top of a VERY large pile of hoarded NUTS.
I can’t attribute my anxiety to any one thing. I can’t explain it, because if I could, then I simply wouldn’t have it. I’ve tried many things including massage, yoga, exercise, diet change, hot baths, wine, tap dancing and juggling.
OK, I didn’t do the tap dancing OR the juggling, but it sure feels like a lot of tap dancing and juggling!
I know I’m in good company as approximately 40 million people ages 18 and up (about 18.1 percent of that age group) suffer some kind of anxiety disorder in a given year. (Source: National Institute for Mental Health).
It was time to stop “trying and doing” RIGHT NOW.
I took an 8-week class on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. This was a class I attended with other squirrel-minded people just like me! It was held each Tuesday evening for two hours but included a Saturday “Day of Silence.”
What is Mindfulness?
You might notice we often use the words “mindful” and “mindfulness” in our culture. It’s up there with “living in the now” and “the power of the present moment.” Mindfulness is one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, according to Buddhism.
However, this particular reference to mindfulness as part of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, comes from a now very famous and growing body of work from Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT-educated scientist. My class was based on a curriculum Zinn first developed in 1979. There are now nearly 1,000 certified MBSR instructors teaching mindfulness techniques (including, but not limited to meditation techniques) as a way for reducing stress.
Kate Pickert, who wrote a recent TIME Magazine article entitled “The Mindful Revolution” said, “Though meditation is considered an essential means to achieving mindfulness, the ultimate goal is simply to give your attention fully to what you’re doing. One can work mindfully, parent mindfully and learn mindfully. One can exercise and even eat mindfully.”
Mindfulness is the opposite of multi-tasking.
Science, Not Spirituality
The program is based on the science of neuroplasticity, a word describing the brain’s ability to adapt and rewire. We can teach our brains how to treat us. Pickert said, “Think of your attention as a muscle. As with any muscle, it makes sense to exercise it (in this case with meditation), and like any muscle, it will strengthen from that exercise.”
While any religious devotion will dovetail–and even deepen–with this practice, mindfulness has gained footing recently due to the scientific evidence that it works. For example, researchers have found that multi-tasking leads to lower overall productivity, not higher. In some places, politicians are bringing mindfulness practice into public schools, and large companies like Google and General Mills are bringing mindfulness programs into their workplaces.
Mindfulness is shown to reduce stress and improve not just productivity, but also immune response and pain management.
Time for Practice
We learned a two-minute meditation, how to sit for ten minutes, then how to sit for thirty minutes. Our instructor provided different recorded guided meditations, which we put onto our phones or iPods so we could listen to them any time. Our “homework” was to practice meditation in these different ways, seeing what worked and what didn’t.
We eventually incorporated walking meditation, yoga movement, talking and listening attentively and other mindfulness exercises. What we accumulated was a toolbox full of ways to live life mindfully, whether sitting quietly or moving around our everyday lives.
The idea with this program is NOT that we should sit quietly all day long in order to avoid stress, but that we learn to accept what is happening in each moment, not striving for things to be different than they are RIGHT NOW.
According to Zinn, “Almost everything we do is for a purpose, to get something or somewhere. But in meditation this attitude can be a real obstacle. That is because meditation is different from all other human activities. Although it takes a lot of work and energy of a certain kind, ultimately, meditation is a non-doing. It has no goal other than for you to be yourself. The irony is that you already are. This sounds paradoxical and a little crazy. Yet this paradox and craziness may be opening you toward a new way of seeing yourself, one in which you are trying less and being more. This comes from intentionally cultivating the attitude of non-striving.”
When I sit, I notice the tension in my back. It’s on the lower-right side. Sometimes it’s in my neck. I don’t try and relax it (as if I could) or adjust my position. I simply notice it. I breathe in and out. I accept my tension. That’s it. No trying, just noticing and breathing normally. Oddly this is the most effective form of stress reduction I’ve tried. Sometimes the tension will just disappear. Many times it won’t. I’ve gone long hours feeling better than I have in years.
It’s something. It’s nothing.
It’s the best nothing.
I intend to continue my practice.
1. For people in Reading and Berks, visit this link for local classes conducted by Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Craig Schollenberger.
2. For more about Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and its origins at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, watch this 24-minute YouTube presentation featuring Jon Kabat-Zinn:
3. For free guided meditations, each less than thirty minutes, try one of these YouTube videos:
There are many other free guided meditations available on YouTube.
The photographs on this post are my own. They were taken in the Wyomissing Borough on April 21, 2014. The photographs are available for use on other blogs, but please link back to me at http://www.watchhatchfly.com.