Archives for posts with tag: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

I finished an 8-week-long Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class last Wednesday. I am not new to MBSR but wanted to increase my formal mindfulness practice since it had waned over the past year, with my dad’s cascade of health problems and death last July.

It was a wonderful class. I haven’t been writing much. As my meditation practice has gotten deeper, I have longer times when I am experiencing sensation more than language. This is something I knew could happen in meditation, but as a person who typically has a running monologue in my brain, it is a rather magical and new experience. It is not, however, easy to write about.

I feel some loss about the class ending. To prevent my being totally adrift, I have also started seeing a mindfulness psychologist, Bonnie, who specializes in working with cancer patients. I had actually sought her out first, her practice was full, and she recommended the class. In the mean time, space opened up and I have been seeing her. She also happens to be a friend of my dear friend, Nancy. This is not surprising since 1) Nancy seems to know almost every other psychologist in Seattle and 2) Nancy also works with cancer patients as well as being a breast cancer survivor herself. (Nancy, you may remember, is the dear friend who cleared her schedule to be with John and I for my first breast cancer appointment, back in 2012.

I feel pretty fortunate to work with Bonnie. She is very skilled and worked for many years as a researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Bonnie did mindfulness classes with cancer survivors and the classes were associated with reduced recurrence.  This is why I began my mindfulness practice in 2012, by the way, after following some Canadian research on a specific mindfulness class for breast cancer survivors.

But wait, I was intending to write about endings, not beginnings. The other thing that ended was the U.S. Midterm elections.  I did a lot to prepare myself for dystopian outcomes and good thing the worst case scenario did not occur because I was not successful in my preparation. They were not horrible, not great, and maybe not even good. Not horrible. That is the current benchmark for success in current U.S. national leadership. Actually, some really great things did happen. Lots of women were elected, especially women of color. Some of the people elected were LGBT/Q. Eight scientists were elected. Two women of color who are also Muslim, were elected.

So the election ended but as I had anticipated, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. Our republic is very much in peril and so many people are suffering. I am exhausted by the news but I am also mindful of the fact that experiencing exhaustion is one of the best outcomes of our current situation. As I said, many people are suffering from abhorrent treatment and some have died or are dying due to lack of access to basic human needs or violence.

One thing ends. Another thing begins. Sometimes it is tempting to jump from one thing to the next without acknowledging the ending. Today, I feel the endings and the beginnings. I had put myself, intentionally, in a protective shell of self-care practices for the last few months. I come out for periods of time and then retreat to a thinner shell, for a shorter period of time, but it is a shell, nonetheless.

Overall, I am doing well. Most of the time, I feel happy. In the last week or so, I’ve felt not so much a wave of grief, but a persistent lapping at my toes. I have reacted more strongly to situations than normal, for example, feeling shame at times, over minor incidents. It is as if grief takes me back to a much younger time of my life. Bonnie says that the energy I am using to cope with my dad’s death is leaving me with less to cope with the normal daily stresses and that I am going back to older ways. That makes sense to me.

Working on grief is helping me define the edges of the persistent lapping at my toes. It turns out that today, they are not lapping at my toes. I am standing in the middle of the ocean. I feel sad today and a bit angry.

I don’t like to be in the middle of the ocean but I am grateful that I am standing, for now.

Peace to you, friends. I hope you are well.

-Elizabeth

 

As part of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program that I’ve been completing, I’ve been doing yoga.  One of the positions is  “the chair”.  It is basically adopting a near sitting position, using the air as a seat. This requires the use of my leg muscles, particularly the muscles on the backs of my thighs. The psychologist on the video does a number of repetitions of the pose. The last pose is held for the longest amount of time. She says a number of things at this time, one them being, “sit back into that easy chair…” As soon as I hear the word, “easy”, I start feeling the burn more in the backs of my legs. The word, “easy” made it harder! Then she talks about how we might be feeling fatigued or warm. That’s part of mindfulness, noticing the sensations in one’s body, even the uncomfortable ones.

I have been doing this yoga routine for a number of weeks now. At first, I thought, “Why does she have to say that? She’s making it harder.” I soon learned that if I tuned-out her words and focused on her body language, which was relaxed, it was easier to do the pose. I soon became mindful that tuning out the words also meant tuning out my attention to the sensations in my body. I was merely distracting myself, which can be an effective coping technique at times, but it is not in keeping with my intent to do a mindful practice. I redirected my attention back to my body.

Today when I did this pose, I felt the temperature of my body rise. I felt the fatigue in my legs. But I also felt something else. I felt strong, strong enough to be my own chair. Every moment in life is different. Some of them are actually easy. Many of them are very difficult. Most of them are somewhere in between.

I don’t always have to provide my own chair. It gives me great peace, however, to know that when I need to do so, I can support myself, by myself.

The current lesson of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course that I am completing includes the mountain meditation. It is a guided meditation with visual imagery. First, the mountain is visualized as strong, beautiful and subject to constant change and harsh conditions. After this, there is the invitation to visualize oneself as the mountain, to internalize this image of an integral whole that includes both flux and stability. We are subject to changing conditions and the passage of seasons on the outside but our insides stay firm and whole.

It’s a strong image and one that also brings positive associations to me because of my love of the mountains in the area in which I live. I do know,  however, that mountains change from the inside out. I remember when Mt. St. Helen’s erupted. It was May 18th, 1980. I also remember the date of my breast cancer diagnosis. It was May 24th, 2012.

In my life, I am an astute observer. I see what is happening around me. I can anticipate many things headed my way. I protect my exterior. There is something about the discovery that there is something working to destroy one from the inside, where it cannot be seen or felt, that turns life upside down and calls into question one’s own sense of being a solid self.

Identity is something that consolidates after adolescence but it is subject to some changes over time.  We often ask ourselves questions. Am I a good person? Am I a good spouse?  Am I a good parent? Being good enough is hard to determine. There is always room to be better. It is not an absolute and goodness is multi-faceted. In respect to being good spouse or good parent, it also depends to a certain extent on another person. My parenting abilities depend somewhat on what my child needs and what she is able to provide for herself. I can’t define being “good” at a relationship solely on my own terms.

Earlier in the week, I was doing the mountain meditation. When it was suggested that I imagine myself as the mountain, I smiled. After that, the meditation changed from a guided one to a silent meditation. During the silent part, I thought of my core, the parts of me that cannot change. “Person. Mother. Wife. Friend.”

The fact that I have been a person, a friend, a mother, and a wife will always be true, just as Mt. St. Helen’s used to be a beautiful symmetrical peak.

There are things about each of us, very important things, that will always be true.

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When I was still in my 20’s, I decided to give yoga a try. Maybe it was my age, but I had the idea that it was a bunch of gentle stretching and meditating. Yes, I’d seen photos of women doing challenging looking poses requiring great strength, balance, and flexibility, but surely beginning yoga would be a breeze. Plus I was young and strong. I signed up for a class at the student recreational center.

Oh, how wrong I was. Yoga, even beginning yoga, was hard! For one thing, it can be aerobic exercise! What????? I thought all of the deep breathing would be for meditation, not survival!!! It also required a great deal of strength. By the end of the hour, my arm muscles were in a spasm of fatigue. What was not surprising was my lack of balance. I am athletic but I am better at balancing while in motion than while still. I am also afraid of heights so the idea of doing a back bend freaks me out. That was true even when I was a much shorter and fearless kid.

The biggest surprise in yoga, however, was how incredible I felt at the end of class, lying in the corpse pose. Even though my body was exhausted, I felt a warm ease and comfort. I have returned to yoga a few times, but for whatever reason, I’ve had trouble making it a habit of more than 3 or 4 lessons, even though I very much enjoyed it each time.

I suspect some of my difficulty has to do with the fact that I need a class in order to get good at it and I am historically self-conscious about being “bad” at something for too long. Although I’ve flailed my way through many aerobic dance classes with my initial difficulties following choreography, especially trying to mirror a teacher whose right and left is opposite mine, I am able to get the steps eventually and by that time, I would be one of the stronger students in the class. Meanwhile, flailing is very effective at getting one’s heart rate up. Flailing will get you a good workout.

I don’t know what a yoga class would be like for me now that I’ve gone through cancer treatment. So much of it is flailing, trying to move forward, having everyone look at me in various stages of undress, and not knowing what the Hell I was doing except trying to follow directions and make some kind of sense. Everyone is different but I found having vulnerability and my body on display over and over as a person going through frequent and invasive medical treatments, I broke through some anxiety and self-consciousness. In clinical psychology, we call this exposure, meaning that I repeatedly put myself in anxiety provoking experiences, and each time with the world not coming to an end or anything, I learned to deal with it. But as I said, everyone is different and what is the appropriate level of exposure (literally or figuratively) for one person could be traumatizing to another person.

This is a personal blog and one of the things I try to convey is the fact that my life is highly fulfilling but also highly messy. My life is not an inspirational poster. I am not perfect and I am getting more and more okay with that. In fact, the more okay I get with it, the more okay I am with everyone else. So this is perhaps a very good time to give yoga another try. In fact, it is the latest practice in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program that I am doing.

Knowing what I know about MBSR, I did not expect the yoga to be super hard. I mean, after all, MBSR is used frequently with individuals with chronic pain problems. Also, I learned that yoga as a mindfulness practice is more focused on being mindful of breath and bodily sensations than on doing fancy poses. The video that accompanies my program is taught by a health psychologist and if you are keeping score at home, she uses Hatha yoga poses.

The poses are mostly stretching with a couple of strength and balance poses. The stretches are sublime, hitting every spot in my body that gets tight and achy. My favorite thing that the instructor says after saying that her motto is “No pain, no pain” is that we are to find “the sensation that is delicious”. That is exactly the way those wonderful stretches feel, too.

The strength and balance moves are a bit more challenging for me though not frustratingly so. A particular challenge are the poses that rely on abdominal muscle strength. Historically, I had naturally strong abdominal muscles. With my TRAM breast reconstruction two years ago, I lost one of my abdominal muscles. I haven’t done abdominal crunches since right before my TRAM surgery. I was instructed to a lot of walking and daily crunches to prepare for the surgery. I was already walking three miles a day and I got up to a pretty high number of crunches, at least for someone who does not hang out in a gym.

Imagine my surprise, when I was lying on my back with my knees bent and my feet on the floor, and I was unable to lift myself to a sitting position without putting my hands on the floor. My core is not working the same way as the yoga instructor’s core. My core got gored. By the end of the 30 minutes, I got that same delicious sense of relaxation and time well spent that I got at the end of the more rigorous classes of the past. I felt present, engaged, and exactly where I wanted to be. In spite of my flailing, my bobbling, and my imperfect strength, I felt great.

I may need to learn this lesson of strength, peace, and balance through imperfection, a million more times. And how wonderful would be? To learn this lesson a million more times is to live a long and mindful life.

For a few weeks now, I have been doing sitting meditation as part of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course that I have been completing.

I expected to have trouble sitting still.

I do.

I expected to be distracted by noises, thoughts, and sensations.

I do.

I expected to be bored at times.

I do.

What I didn’t expect was the small bits of anxiety triggered by stillness and silence. The meditation I do is guided, meaning that I listen to a 32 minute long audio file. However, as the meditation goes along, there are periods of silence, which seem to get increasingly longer. There are two spots in particular, somewhere past the 20 minute mark. Even as recently as two days ago, I opened my eyes, figuring that the audio had gone off on my smart phone. It hadn’t. It was just silence. And the silence passed. Then the voice came back on.

Today, I made an intention at the beginning of the meditation not to check for operating difficulties with my phone and to just treat the silence as if it belonged. By sitting with my anxiety and impatience, I learned that they went away by themselves without my having to do anything.

Another thing I have observed during sitting meditation is that I stop feeling certain physical sensations. This is natural, and in psychology, it is referred to as habituation. Sensory experiences fade when they are constant after a time. For example, when I visited Venice, I only noticed the city’s infamous sulfur scent for the first twenty minutes right after I awoke each morning. Then my perception of it was gone until the next day.

I meditate with my hands clasped on my lap. Today, after 20/25 minutes, I noticed that I could not tell if my hands were touching one another. It was almost like they were asleep except that they weren’t. In the past, I have moved my fingers slightly and I can feel again. There is something vaguely anxiety provoking about not being able to sense my own body. I don’t know if this is related to the vague unease caused by the numbness on my torso from multiple surgeries. My sensation is returning rather slowly over the years. It still doesn’t feel right to feel less.

Today, instead of moving my fingers, I just observed the numbness and my anxiety lessened. I have also observed itch and it has decreased.

I am so grateful for these small experiences, the lessons that most problems are not really problems, and much discomfort subsides if I don’t do anything to it, it I just let it run its natural course.

Stillness has a way of seeming like a problem because I am a person who yearns for feedback on my actions. But sometimes a still moment is just that and perhaps in time, even when unexpected, something to savor or just let be.

My daughter was a precocious baby. She was able to hold her own head up from the moment she was born. My mother will tell you that she first rolled over at 1 or 2 weeks of age.  She sat up, crawled, walked, and ran with ease.

I don’t remember learning to sit up for the first time. I do remember relearning to sit up. It was March of 2013 and I had just had a major reconstructive surgery that involved moving a big flap of my abdominal tissue up to make a new breast.  I still have the hip to hip wide scar to prove it. The day after surgery, I was in the hospital feeling not horrible but certainly not peppy.

As many of my friends know, one does not get discharged from the hospital without being able to get up and around and using the bathroom. Also, as many of you know, the hospital is no place to rest. One of the things I learned throughout the course of the nine surgeries I had in two years is that I am a fast healer. One of my nurses, noticing this, suggested that I try sitting up. I was resting comfortably but wanting to go home so I said that I would give it a try. He needed to help me, however. I had just had major surgery and lost an abdominal muscle in the process, after all.

The nurse expertly put his arm behind my back and slowly helped me raise to a sitting position. My first surprise was how little strength I had in my core. Wow, I had been spending my life taking a lot of muscles for granted! The second surprise was the incredible wave of nausea. Sometimes sitting up makes you want to hurl. If memory serves, I informed my nurse of this and asked to rest briefly, which I did.

I didn’t want to get up but at the same time, I wanted to heal and change, even the kind of change that highlighted my weakness and was punctuated by nausea, was needed. I got up. I took my steps outside of the hospital room, along with my husband and using my rolling I.V. stand for support. I completed my mandatory loop around the hospital halls. Within short time, I had also made the mandatory bathroom stop. Noting the difficulty in getting on and off the toilet given the state of my abdominal muscles, I later opted to walk out of the hospital instead of getting in and out of a wheelchair. At that point, sitting was harder than standing or lying down.

Last week, I learned to sit up for the third time. I learned to sit up for meditation. I have a confession to make. I have a hard time with sitting meditation. I was measurably relieved when I looked at the schedule for the Mindfulness-Based Stressed Reduction (MBSR) program that I’ve been doing. It started with a body scan! Body scans are done lying down. Body scans were a wonderful way to stay in bed in the morning for an extra 30 minutes without any guilt because I am doing my mindfulness meditation.

I started the new MBSR lesson on the day after Christmas. This was also the lesson during which sitting meditation is introduced and to be practiced for 30 minutes, six times per week. I had fully intended to stay in bed for this, to keep lying down for my meditation. I didn’t want to get out of bed. My bed is beyond warm and comfy.

On the first day, I turned on the audio for the sitting meditation. The gentle voice on the recording said something like, “You may wish to sit up for this meditation, in an erect and dignified posture.”

Something unexpected happened. Upon hearing this invitation, I sat up in bed and completed the meditation as it was intended to be done. There is something quite freeing about the lack of “should’s” and commands in this program. The meditation scripts are so encouraging. I found myself open to the moment and in that moment I literally rose to the occasion.

I have known myself for 50 years. One of the things that I have learned is that at times I have trouble getting started or making a change. Over time, I have found that if I allow myself the possibility that making any change in the intended direction even if it is not “perfect” is a good move. These moves help me get unstuck from my own perfectionism and toward acceptance of where I am at a particular moment.

It really is easier to move forward  from the reality of my imperfection than a false world of perfection.

Parents often tell me that their children are “very verbal”. Typically, this means that their child talks a lot. Sometimes, it also means that their child has a creative way with language or that he or she is particularly bright. The children who fit the latter description, also tend to talk more than average.

My first and last negative report card comment was in kindergarten, “talks during rest time.” I am verbal. I talk a lot. I like to think that I have a lot to say. Whether I have a lot to say is debatable, but what I believe is a quite objective truth is that my mind has a lot to think and that a lot of those thoughts are verbal. There’s a lot of talking that goes on in my head. No worries, people! It is my voice that is doing the talking.

There are a lot of advantages to having a busy verbal mind. I have a quick sense of humor. I am good at observing and solving problems. My thoughts are useful in my writing, in my interactions, and in my daily contemplation.

Sometimes, however, I can’t get it to stop. My thoughts are worried and frenetic. They keep me up at night. At other times, they are relentlessly busy conveying boring but mindsucking information. I generally dislike Talk Radio. Talk talk talk. Going nowhere. Taking up space where meaningful existence could occur.

At many times, the most meaningful existence is rest. It’s slowing down. I love the holidays. But the hustle and bustle amid the dark drizzly days of the northern latitudes can be difficult. Tonight will be the longest night of the year. There will be about 8 hours of daylight tomorrow. We have 16 hours of daylight on our longest day. If you tell me it makes no difference, I would guess that you live at the Equator. I get tired when it gets dark. During the holidays, there is a lot to do during the lowest energy time of the year.

You’d think during this time of year since my body slows down that my thoughts would, too. You would be wrong, I’m afraid. Although the Talk Radio in my head does not seem to require much energy to produce, it certainly takes energy from me.

The holidays are not the best time to take on a campaign for changing my habits. But I did just that when I decided to complete a self-directed course on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. The current formal mindfulness meditation is the body scan. The body scan is just that. It’s a guided meditation during which I shift my attention and awareness to different parts of my body. The particular scan I am doing  takes 32 minutes.

An advantage of the body scan, compared to other formal meditations, is that it can be done in bed. My Fitbit has recently confirmed that I am a very restless sleeper. Consequently, I often awake not feeling altogether rested and happy to stay in bed to do the body scan. I’ve been doing the daily body scan practice for over a week now.

At first, my thoughts constantly interrupted the words of the recorded voice on the body scan. This has been such an issue in the past that I decided against doing guided meditation for nearly three years after first giving it a try. It was like an exercise in voices interrupting one another, mine and the voice of the recording. This time, I decided to give this another try.

My young cats, Leeloo and Basie, have added an extra element of challenge. They are energetic and social. They like to use me as a blanket and running path while I am meditating. I also experienced one meditation, using my tablet since my phone was not working. Unfortunately, my tablet was set up to turn itself off every 5 minutes. So, I had to turn it back on every 5 minutes.

I have enough experience with mindfulness meditation to just keep going with my meditation, redirecting myself back to the exercise, even if it is very interrupted. I will obviously try to plan better for the next meditation, if there are factors I can control. If not, I go with it. In the past, I would have stopped meditating because I was frustrated that I was not “doing it right”.

One of the things I love most about mindfulness meditation is that all of my experience is part of the meditation as long as I stick with the process of trying. Sometimes I have a “good” meditation. Sometimes, I have a “bad” meditation. But every meditation is a meditation. Every meditation counts.

I have found over the course of my body scans that my thoughts are slowing down, bit by bit. I still have fits and starts. Sometimes I fall asleep or zone out. But it is a helpful process, a useful one.

Arguing with the Talk Radio in my mind has not been useful in my life. However, listening followed by redirection, has changed the channel.

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As I mentioned in my last post, I am leading a mindfulness group on social media. I posted a short mindfulness activity this week. Inspired by an article about adult coloring books posted by my friend and fellow blogger, Yvonne, I developed a simple 5-10 minute long mindfulness exercise on coloring. I provided a link to free coloring pages for those that did not have their own book. Adult coloring books are popular right and there was some enthusiasm among group members for doing this exercise.

The instructions for the exercise were to engage in coloring for 5-10 minutes, with the goal of staying engaged, non-judgmental,  and in the present during the activity, noticing sights, sounds, and tactile sensations as well as thoughts and emotions during the exercise. Although I wrote the instructions for the exercise, I did not complete it myself until a couple of days later.

I love art. I have yet to learn how to draw or paint. I even took a self-directed course designed for people to whom drawing does not come easily. I did well until the exercises advanced to the point when I had to learn how to draw three dimensional scenes rather than line drawings. This was one of the early lessons. I still have all of the art supplies necessary to complete the course. In general, I have amassed a lot of art supplies. I have used most of them for various craft projects.

A few months ago, I bought a couple of adult coloring books. The patterns were mesmerizing. I love colored pencils. However, I’d worn my beloved colored pencil collection down to nubs. I decided to buy new pencils. I looked online and drooled over the possibilities. I ended up buying a lot of colored pencils. Like A LOT a lot. It was actually five sets of 24 that I bought. Yes, that’s 120 pencils. Well obviously with that kind of pencil population, I also needed a case in which to store them. My dream was that I would have a case that would allow me to see what I had while I was using them and keep them organized.

My dreams were realized with the purchase of a zippered multi-section pencil case that holds 120 pencils. I spent a couple of hours unwrapping and sorting those pencils by color. This, in and of itself, was a mindfulness exercise. Here they are in their color-organized glory:

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Yes, I realize that the photo is a bit out of focus. It is hard to focus when I am drooling and misty-eyed over the beautiful spectrum of my colored pencils.

Oh wait, did I mention that I can not yet draw a lick? Though it is true that I have used pencils for craft projects and that I used to use them often, I had not done any colored pencil related crafts in some time, maybe at least a year or two. Maybe even three years. I bought a couple of adult coloring books and waited for inspiration. I waited for awhile.

I was eager to do this mindfulness exercise. I had my case of 120 colored pencils and a barely used coloring book full of glorious flower patterns. I got out my materials and set a timer. I looked at the page. I looked at my colored pencils.

I don’t remember mindfulness meditation having so many choices!!!!!! What now? I was a little overwhelmed but I connected with my breath and chose a flower. What now? Then I chose a pencil and I started coloring. What now? In the middle of the 15 minutes I had allotted for this exercise, my family walked through the front door. They started asking me questions and giving me greetings. Can you believe it? Did they not know that I was trying to be one with my coloring?

My mindfulness exercise was full of decisions and interruptions but I kept taking my mind back to the exercise, listening to the sound of the pencil rubbing against the paper, feeling the pressure of the pencil against my fingers, and looking at the combination of colors that emerged on the page. As I worked, despite the interruptions, my work became more organized and less overwhelming. I felt more grounded just seeing that something had happened to which I had connected.

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I picked up my camera and took a photo of my work.  It popped visually off of the page just like the flowers that I encounter and photograph on my walks do. I am not always mindful, but when I am, things come to my full attention. Sometimes this means seeing something clearly sticking out from the background.

As Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, says, “mindfulness is not doing, it is being.”

Now what?

Now can be sloppy. Now can be imperfect. Now can be an interruption. Now can be painful. Now can be joyful. Now can be peaceful. Now can be sweet.

Now what? Now is what.

What else can there be?

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