As I prepare to teach my first Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction - MBSR - course I am reflecting on what drew me to mindfulness in the first place and what has motivated me to persist with it despite the inevitable ups and downs of trying to establish a committed to practice in anything.
If I am honest, what initially brought me to explore mindfulness was a sadness and loneliness which began shouting loudly for attention following our move to Luxembourg back in 2013. My mum bought me the gift of the superb book by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, Finding peace in a frantic world. After a couple of attempts, I managed to finish the eight week course laid out in the book by myself. I was hooked!
I could see and feel the difference it made when I made time for my mindfulness meditation each day. Somehow, there seemed to be just a bit more space for kindness and patience - to myself and those around me. However, developing new habits can be hard and making the time to practice consistently was a challenge for me.
In 2015, my work volunteering with Passage parent support group led to the opportunity to attend an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy – MBCT course. I was about to write that this was transformational and then I stopped to question myself, is this hyperbole? If not, what transformed and how?
The easiest thing to point to, the thing that can quantitatively be measured, is that my mindfulness meditation practice became consistent and reliable. I began to set time aside each day, generally between 10 to 20 minutes at first, to sit or lie quietly and meditate. At first this was a commitment to myself. I later realised it was also a commitment to those I care about. When I make this space in my day for myself, somehow, I also seem to have a bit more time and empathy for those around me.
The less tangible aspects are hard to describe, even to myself, and quite personal. But, I set out to write an authentic piece, so, let me try. I’ll begin by saying that, generally, I’m a person who spends a lot of time inside my own head, worrying about what’s already happened, what I said, how that landed, what I should have said instead. Maybe you recognise the pattern yourself? I’m also great at catastrophising and planning my possible reactions to a predicted bleak future.
Mindfulness, with its invitation, in each fresh moment, to bring our attention to present moment awareness: what is present now, what are we feeling in the body now, what is the quality of this breath, what thoughts are here in this moment, what emotions are here right now? Helps pull me down from thinking mind and back into a state of embodiment. Usually this supports me to gain a fresh perspective. It often also prompts a wry smile at the wayward nature of my busy monkey mind.
In the literature this sense of perspective is sometimes described as re-perceiving. For me personally what it offers is a sense of freedom and choice. For instance, in a moment of anger I can become aware of bodily sensations: my heart beating fast, my cheeks becoming hot, a thudding in my head. I also become conscious of my urge to lash out with harsh words. Here, there is a magic moment, what Tara Brach calls the sacred pause.
The sacred pause is a moment of awareness, “Wow, I am really angry right now!”, coupled with a moment of kindly acceptance, “this is my experience in this moment”, in much the same way we may acknowledge and soothe a small child momentarily overwhelmed by their emotions. In turn, this creates opportunity for a wiser way of responding. Instead of saying something I may regret, I can breathe, take a step back, literally or metaphorically, and chose a different response.
My mindfulness practice has been hugely supportive with this next step too, the element of wisely choosing a different response. Here I have found a variety of short practices useful. For example, MBSR’s simple STOP practice, an invitation to stop, take a few breaths, observe what’s happening and proceed with new perspective. MBCT’s Three Step Breathing Space is another ally: an opportunity to notice the current weather pattern in my body and mind, narrow the focus of attention to the breath, resting in this breathing space, and then gently opening out to take in my entire experience. In the last couple of years, I have also found adding more explicit self-compassion practices to toolkit invaluable.
When I have a focussed piece of written work to do or a potentially challenging conversation ahead, I will often take a few moments for a short practice to stabilise me in this moment. Often this helps to reduce the sense of urgency and driven-ness and remind me, in the words of a good friend, that no one is chasing me. Often, I become aware my fight, flight response has been triggered, creating the opportunity to kindly bring on board a soothing response such as slowing my breathing, placing a calming hand over my heart and offering myself the kind words I may offer a friend or client.
Mindfulness has also helped me deal with one of the most challenging times of my life – the death of my beloved mum. Let me be clear here, it is no magic wand. It does not make the pain of loss go away. It does not halt the moments of being swept away with desolation at the realisation you’ll never be hugged by your loved one again. It does, however, offer some ways of being with the pain and sadness in a compassionate way. And eventually being able to be with the joyful memories and the ongoing connection to the legacy of your special relationship with your loved one in an attitude of tenderness, wonder and gratitude.
And one thing I am hugely grateful for is that I have spent the last nine years of my life building a firm foundation of personal mindfulness practice to support me through the challenges I have faced personally this year and we have all faced collectively during this period of Covid. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of MBSR talks about the wisdom of stitching our parachute in advance of jumping from the plane. My parachute my not be elegant but it has been lovingly stitched, mindful moment by mindful moment.
If you are interested in beginning or continuing to stitch your own parachute, I would encourage you to find your own path to a regular mindfulness practice. There are so many wonderful options out there and I’m delighted to be adding my own personal flavour to the mix as I prepare to lead my first MBSR class as part of the teacher training programme on the MA in Mindfulness-Based Approaches at Bangor University. If you would like to join me and a group of like-minded individuals walking the same path or experience a taster, you can find out more on my website.