Archives for posts with tag: mindfulness meditation

As many of you know, I have been taking pottery classes for the last year or so. I typically throw (make forms using a pottery wheel), rather than hand build. Learning to use a pottery wheel is challenging. I am still learning how to center the clay on the wheel head, consistently. There are all of the steps to remember. Even if one carries out the steps, there are lots of variables that impact how fast the wheel should go at each step, the amount of water that should be added during throwing, the amount of pressure applied by each hand, the positioning of hands and fingers, and the speed at which the hands and fingers should move up the clay. On top of that, the type, size, and hardness of the clay is another variable to be considered. Finally, there are shaping tools that can be use. There seem to be about 5 million pottery tools in existence. One type of tool can have so many variations. People who are very experienced know not only how to use the tools, which requires finesse, but how to select the best tool.

When I first started throwing, nothing really turned out. That is normal, I am not being overly self-critical. Then every once in a while something would turn out and I couldn’t figure out what I’d done differently. I like bowls, so I threw a lot of bowls. I decided I wanted to be able to throw a salad bowl. Clay forms shrink about 7% from the time they are thrown to the final firing so the initial throwing is of a larger than desired piece. For me, a salad bowl is a pretty big bowl, and it certainly was when I was a beginner. Nonetheless, I was inspired by the challenge to throw “a big bowl”.

I had enough success with big bowls to keep me going for awhile. I have to say objectively, I have big bowl-making potential. There were a lot of flops, though, not to mention many bowls that cracked in the kiln. None of my bowls were made with an intention to make anything but a bowl. I do not yet have the skills to plan size and shape ahead of time. Okay, more accurately, I do not yet have the skills to implement the size, design, thickness, etc of the bowl I have planned in my head.

One quarter, after thinking I would just keep realizing my “big bowl potential”, I made flop after flop. I made bowls that were of uneven thickness or that were not round, or that were not level on the rim. I made bowls that looked so so promising as I pulled up the sides to make them thinner and thinner, only to collapse in on themselves on the wheel. More than an hour’s work and all I could show for it was a wet mess on the wheel and sore throwing muscles.

All through the process, I read about bowl-making. I watched Youtube videos on “big bowls”. I watched my teacher’s bowl-making demonstrations, which she typically did once per quarter. Each time, I learned something new and tried to apply it to my big bowl-making. Then I gave in to the idea that had been lurking in the back of my head, which was to make little bowls. They are faster and easier to make. I could focus on my technique. I started making little bowls and my bowls started getting more refined.

Last week, I met with my psychologist, Rebecca. It was the first time I’d seen her in a while. As I mentioned last week, I’ve been dealing with some challenges related to stress and my heart health. I brought Rebecca two of my little bowls as a gift. We had a productive session.  I have some work to do in my life. Physically, my healing from my cardiac event is not an linear as I’d like. There are fits and starts. My diagnosis is undergoing refinement as my physicians are gaining more information. The current working diagnosis is Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD) a rare condition, caused by a tear in an artery wall. Some blood flow is diverted to outside of the artery wall, lowering blood flow. Further, blood that gets outside of the artery wall is more likely to clot, which can press on the artery, narrowing it. SCAD is present in men and women, however, when present in women, they tend to be in their 40’s and 50’s, physically fit, and with low risk of heart disease. What causes these tears is unknown.

My prognosis is still good but there is uncertainty as to the length and course of my recovery in the upcoming weeks. I have resumed a practice I started right after my breast cancer diagnosis, five years ago, which is to meditate about 10-15 minutes per day. I’ve had to temporarily cut back on my walking until my heart heals so each day I do the little bit that I can do.

Ross McElwee is a documentary film maker originally from North Carolina, the state that is the top grower of tobacco in the U.S. In his 2003 film, Bright Leaves, he explores the industry, especially its impact on his family, who still live in the state. In one scene, he films an examination carried out by his brother, Tom, a physician, on one of his patients, a middle aged woman.

The dropping of her examination gown reveals an enormous black tumor that has replaced where the woman’s breast tissue used to be. It has been there, growing for a VERY long time. This is the first time she has gone to a physician about it. Tom asks her questions with a gentle professional tone that belies his obvious incredulity and alarm. His patient calmly answers the question while the audience feels the horror of, “Oh my God, she has REALLY bad cancer and she’s acting like she has a hangnail!”

After this horrific moment, McElwee zooms in onto just the tumor. No one being filmed is talking. And then he keeps the tumor in view for a very long time; it seemed like several minutes but it probably was not nearly that long.

The disgust and horror abated and I was able to look at the tumor, I mean REALLY look at it. By getting a close up view, it became an abstract and almost sculptural object. I looked at the color, the shape, and the texture. When the scene was over, I thought about it for a great while and obviously, I still think of it today. The horror I felt initially was real. And the tumor, up close, removed from its emotional associations, was also real. And then I integrated both of these experiences into my understanding of this woman, her physician, and her cancer.

There are upsetting aspects of life that keep us noticing our feelings about them. And we can get stuck on the fear. I know this very well being a naturally anxious person. It is easy for me to start fixing a problem that I assume is real because I feel anxious. The real problem may be that I have gotten myself overly stressed and that I need to slow down, think about something else, exercise, talk to someone, write, or something else that calms me.

I started my mindfulness practice two years ago to gain more balance and calm in my life. It has helped me enormously in this respect. I am learning to observe my life in small pieces but much more thoroughly. And in observing little pieces at a time, I find it much more tolerable. It is easier for me to move past the fear, anger, and sadness of the painful aspects of my life. It has helped me understand my experience of cancer, bit by bit, and has contributed dramatically to my emotional recovery.

Since mindfulness is an approach to experiencing life, it can be done at any or all times of the day. Mindfulness meditation is a more discrete practice. I did it several months as a resting meditation, twice per day, using a meditation timer. Then I noticed I was having the experience when walking, especially when I am in the woods, looking at flowers, or at the beach. Although I still do resting meditation, I more frequently do active meditation while on my walks.

When I first started meditating, I could see the benefit but frankly, I thought I was doing it wrong or cheating in some way because my brain was full of jumping monkeys. I was often thinking about other things, in rapid succession. My mind is typically active, but in the stress of cancer and for many months to come, it was kind of ridiculous. I knew that in mindfulness, I was just supposed to notice my distraction and this would typically redirect my thoughts. In other words, I wasn’t doing it “wrong”. Although I still had a little doubt in myself, it was relaxing to meditate and I was committed to my healthier life style so I persisted.
Over time, I have found that mindfulness has gently seeped into the rest of my life. It is not something that I have to schedule though it is a byproduct of other activities that I do on a regular basis such as see my psychologist or more frequently, writing this blog.

I find that mindfulness is more about “what to do” than “what not to do” To a person who has struggled with anxiety, guilt, and depression, I find this to be a very liberating approach. My main goal in practicing mindfulness was to reduce the distress in my life and build my emotional resilience.

It has done just that. It has also increased my experiences of joy, bliss, and contentment. In other words, mindfulness has not only helped me feel “less bad”, it has also helped me feel “more good.”

I have rediscovered myself as a physically active person. Most recently, I have rediscovered my visual talents. I typically think of myself as being very verbal, a talker, a person who thinks in words rather than images. And this is true. I will not deny this. If I were to do so, there would be a line up of friends and family who would remind me of my chatterbox ways.

But I am also a visual person. I excelled at mathematics. I used to be able to read music with a startling array of notes on the page, 32nd notes, 64th notes. I could play really really fast and I needed to be able to visually process that information as well as use the other parts of my brain, which translated the notes into motor movements as I touched the keys of my flute, supported my breath, made the quick changes to my facial muscles needed to produce different sounds.

Most importantly, I love visual arts. I have yet learned how to draw or paint but I am an artistic person. I am good with color. I am good at arranging physical spaces. I have an artistically decorated home and office. I love to make things with my hands. And as I’ve mentioned recently, I have recently resumed taking photos.

I take my camera with me on my walks. I used to take photos with my smartphone. I enjoyed it so much that I bought a “real” camera last April. Little did I realize when I bought that camera that I was adding another layer to my mindfulness practice.

My camera is not expensive but it is surprisingly good. In particular, the macro lens has allowed me to get up close to things and see them in a different way. I started taking photos of leaves and flowers up close. And then I got even closer.

When I get really close, the blooms become abstract and almost sculptural. It is like entering a new visual world. I am not an expert at either mindfulness or photography, but combining these practices has deepened my joy in life. I am noticing patterns, some interesting, some beautiful, everywhere. I am seeing the familiar in a different way.

Kurt Koffka long ago said, “The whole is other than the sum of its parts.” I believe this to be true. But I do find that in looking at parts, lots of them, bit by bit, by examining them in detail, I am not only seeing more of the whole but I am feeling more whole.

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Rose

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Poppy

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Allium

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Hibiscus

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Passionflower

I am not a naturally calm person. Like many successful nerds, I am naturally anxious. I like to know what to expect and if what is expected is not to my liking, I like to know how to change it. I like it when people are happy and they like me. I would like to know that my wonderful and unique daughter could never be harmed and will be a happy adult with meaningful relationships and work. I would really like it if none of the people I love got sick or died. I would also like it if my house were clean 24/7. Finally, I would like it if my daughter were to stop singing a Justin Bieber song at the top of her voice, while I am trying to write this post. I don’t care if she’s changed the words to “this is such a stupid song.” It’s REALLY loud. And it’s a Justin Bieber song and not only are his songs bad but it looks like his life may be going toward a very sad Lindsey Lohan direction. I’m a mom and a lover of kids and I don’t want a sad life for Justin Bieber, whether I like his songs or not.

But I have digressed, once again. None of us have control over our lives. We have influence and that is it. It is the same for our children’s lives. We have influence but not control. It is the same for breast cancer. I have influence to reduce the risk of recurrence or the occurrence of another potentially deadly disease, but not total control. As individuals, our relationship with the universe is one in which we matter but are not masters.

Prior to my forties, my current life circumstances would have likely put me around the bend. There would be a lot more crying and beating of my breast. I would yell at my husband, a lot, because that is what I do when I am feeling totally out of control. Or I would just stay in bed all day, every day, thinking dark and scary thoughts.

Not to say I don’t have my moments, but I am still a happy person and pretty even-keeled. To what do I attribute this calm? Well, there are  a lot of things including my wonderful friends, family, healthcare providers, and blog buddies, but today I want to talk about mindfulness.

Mindfulness meditation is the real deal. It has been used in eastern philosophical and religious traditions for a long long time and in mainstream, evidence-based psychology, and behavioral medicine for 20-30 years (yeah, I should look it up, but I am lazy). I am far from an expert in mindfulness but even my very beginner-level 10 minutes of deep breathing every morning and evening coupled with a mindset of trying to stay in the moment and observe and accept what comes my way, have gone an enormous way in helping me keep balance in my life.

And this is not a fringe practice, mind you, the big University of Washington, which is turbo-research oriented and one of the top institutions in the country (multiple disciplines including psychology and medicine), loves mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation is helpful for a myriad of difficulties from suicidality, to day-to-day stress management, to pain management, to the prevention of the recurrence of breast cancer.

I started practicing mindfulness consistently after my mastectomy. The first thing I noticed is that meditation was relaxing and unlike some other forms of meditation I have done, I wasn’t struggling to make my mind “blank”. In mindfulness, it’s not a “no-no” to drift off in thought. It’s just something that happens. The second thing I noticed was that my brain got a chance to rest. That doesn’t happen frequently for me.  I have a very busy brain, which was put into turbo drive by my cancer diagnosis. The “voices in my head” gradually became less chatty and frenetic. The third thing I noticed is that I became much less irritable and much better equipped to handle big stressors without freaking out.

If you are interested in trying it out, if only to help pass the time while you are seated in a doctor’s waiting room, I recommend any of the following resources:

Mindfulness Meditations for Teens (Yeah, I know it says “teens” but it’s my favorite and very applicable to the world of adults) by Bodhipaksa. I also see that in addition to CD form, it is now available as an mp3 download.

Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery: A Step-by-Step MBSR Approach to Help You Cope with Treatment and Reclaim Your Life (This is particularly good if you like a program that is laid out for you week by week. There are a number of mindfulness techniques explained, including breathing, meditation, and yoga.

Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. (This is a good place to start if you would like a background on mindfulness meditation. The author, Dr. Kabat-Zinn has been teaching mindfulness meditation skills for decades and also produces CD’s. and mp3 downloads.)

George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

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