Stumbling out of mindfulness

Week 1 of the Palouse mindfulness program was a revelation. I segued into week two feeling like my world was transforming, excited by new insights, feeling great about myself, excited with the progress I was making. I went to therapy and had perhaps my most productive session ever.

And then the next day, I decided to skip my sitting meditation. And then I skipped it again. And again. I realized that I was losing momentum and I could feel negativity and self-doubt creeping back in. So I re-engaged. But then I missed five more days.

On top of it, I fell into a mini fugue state. Avoidant depression. I ignored my to-do list. I couldn’t rally to do anything but the bare minimum. I wasn’t showering. I wasn’t laughing. I wasn’t happy. I withdrew from the world and into my phone.

About a dozen times a day I had the thought “I know what would bring me out of this. Just one round of sitting meditation.” But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I didn’t want to do it. It was like I wanted to stay numb. Like waking up last week was too much and I needed numb time to be okay.

It’s a scary feeling to realize that you are miserable and in pain, and you know how to heal yourself, but that you don’t want to do it.

Today I woke up and tried to be more gentle with myself. It helped. I was able to meditate again and reconnect with my goals. The first 20 minutes of meditation my brain was like a jackrabbit, bouncing insanely with a cacophony of noise. My eyes, which I had closed gently, were pulsating and ripping around their sockets like someone experiencing a nightmare. I tried to observe them without fear or judgment and focus on the breath.

And 20 minutes in, everything calmed and dropped away and I felt my brain emerging from the chaos like a beam of light through the fog. It had a sheepish quality to it, like a pouting dog that’s just eaten something from the trash. It was almost a little embarrassed that it let everything get so out of control and that it had to recede.

But it makes me wonder – why did that episode happen? What brought it on? What brought me out? As mindful as I tried to be during the episode, I don’t have answers to those questions.

I suppose what mindfulness would try to say about it is that I shouldn’t worry so much about the ‘Why’. It just is. It just happened. It wasn’t the end of the world, and I can/should accept that it occurred  with loving kindness towards myself. I have tools now, to uplift myself and to help my kinder self emerge. What I need to do is find out what is preventing me from wielding them.

Observations and Learnings from Week 1 of the Palouse MBSR Mindfulness Program

Today marks the completion of week one of the Palouse MBSR Minfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program. I did it. I actually achieved a week of something and stuck to the program. Here’s are some of my personal observations from the week:

  • I’ve been doing body scans in meditation for a really long time, but I’ve always done them with the goal of changing what I found – of forcing things to relax or be different. Learning to simply observe and accept what my body is doing is a challenging exercise, and much more consistent with the self-love and self-acceptance that I am trying to embrace.
  • My body is as tight as ever, and thanks to body scanning and daily mindfulness, I am more aware of it than ever. I am trying not to be alarmed by my increased awareness of how tight and painful my body is, but it is difficult not to be. I am trying just to accept it. After all, nothing has changed except my awareness and I’ve lived in this state for decades.
  • Mindfulness is exhausting for the brain at first, and something to be eased into lest you end up with a mindfulness hangover.
  • Mindfulness has helped me realize that my inner-critic is one of the only voices in my brain. It is relentless and it couches all of its criticism in “helpful” suggestions about self-improvement and projects.
  • Being mindful of my surroundings made me aware and bothered by clutter for the first time in my life. Perhaps being messy isn’t a personality trait of mine after all, but a side effect of hyper-vigilance and shut-down awareness.
  • Outwardly-directed mindfulness seems equally as useful as inwardly or body directed. It comes from the same place: being focused on the task (of socializing) and the sensory input gained from the task, rather than focused on my thoughts and internal narrative. Mindfulness allowed me to have one moment this week where I watched a friend’s micro-expressions comfortably while they were talking, didn’t think about my self or my reactions, and was able to, from a relaxed state, intuit her emotional state better from her micro-expressions than from what her words were saying. This is something I have always struggled at in the past. It was a brief moment, but a lovely, welcome one that shows that I am capable of it.
  • Something that continues to scare me a bit from my meditation practice is what I dub “The Black Hole”. When I am body scanning or meditating or even just existing, there is always this black hole that threatens to steal awareness. It feels dark, heavy, like the intense pressure of a collapsing star — and it is always with me to varying degrees in the background. I don’t know if it’s the residual perception of my body’s tension, a dark grief from the right-side of my brain or what. But I know it’s not supposed to be there and that it needs to be somehow excised before I can heal. The paradox is probably that I need to accept its forever existence before I can excise it. That’s how these things seem to work, damn it.
  • It’s going to take time to better interpret some of my body’s signals. I have so much pain and tension that is creeping into my awareness, it’s hard to know what to take action on and what to just ignore and let exist. But I’ve learned this week that when a pain will not be ignored or dismissed no matter how diligent your practice is, there’s a reason for it.

A brief review of week 2 shows that I’ll be adding sitting meditation and a pleasant events calendar to my body scans. I’ve been doing sitting meditation for about a year now, and I look forward to what new insights this program can lend to it.

MBSR Day 5: Noticing Pain

Given my history with TMS, I have a complicated relationship with pain.

I used to viciously fight it, avoid it and try to ‘fix’ it with everything I could throw at it. My back would go into spasm, and I would go to the doctor, get pills, get an MRI, get into physical therapy for six months, struggle with my posture, give up the computer for weeks at a time, miss work, do countless exercises and stretches every day, stop picking up heavy things, and stop exercising. My back would ache for weeks, sometimes months at a time with this regime.

Last month I was doing yoga and I threw out my back again. It hurt just as much as it used to when I threw it out. The next day, I went to a theme park. Fuck it really hurt that day. Every time I transitioned from sitting to standing, including disembarking from rides, it would go into heavy spasm to the point where I almost threw up and couldn’t walk. But I just continued with my normal routine and popped a couple of Advil.

The following day I was 80% better. And 72 hours later I was completely healed.

What a difference from where I used to be with back pain with weeks of fear and life modifications and interventions. With no interventions, and simply telling myself it was temporary and would be better in a little bit, I healed a million times faster. A large part of pain is truly in the mind.

But…what about when pain is NOT in the mind? What about when there really is something wrong? I have such a history of pain being in my mind that these days, sometimes I go overboard and don’t give credence to when there really is something wrong.

And that happened in my body scan meditation today. I was doing my body scan practice, and got to the part where I focus on my fingers when I felt an overwhelming sensation of pressure coming from the back of my head. It was all-consuming. Sometimes these things happen to me during meditation, so I tried to just breathe into it and wait for it to pass. But it didn’t. It got worse and worse. It was impossible to focus on my arms. So I shifted my focus into the back of my head hoping if I acknowledged it, it would let go and pass. It didn’t. It got worse and worse.

Finally, as it was unbearable, I realized I needed to quiet the sensation. So I reached up to the back of my head where I was feeling it, and realized that my ponytail holder was pushing into that spot where I was lying on it. I removed the ponytail holder and since my awareness was still so focused on that area, I immediately felt the hot rush of blood flood that area of my skull and spread out from there. Immediately the discomfort and pressure subsided.

I was stunned. The pressure of my ponytail elastic was blocking some key blood pathway in my skull. And my body was trying to tell me in my body scan meditation that something was actually wrong and that I needed to take action. But I ignored it because…well…I have a tendency to feel intense body sensations when nothing is actually wrong.

There were differences, though, between this and my typical ‘ghost’ sensations of tension, pressure or pain. I think it’s important to note them:

  • It was stronger than my typical physical ‘ghost’ feelings.
  • It did not subside after time passed.
  • It did not change with close, meditative observation.
  • It increased in intensity and got worse.

Versus a typical phantom bubble of pain or tension, which:

  • Bubbles up and then passes with breathing and time.
  • Often collapses or changes quality with close, meditative observation.

The next time something happens in meditative practice that does not go away and continues to escalate, I am going to assume my body is asking me to take action and gently address it.

MBSR Day 4: A Mindfulness Hangover

Today I awoke with an unexpected side effect of my latest mindfulness efforts: a massive headache.

I should have seen it coming from the night before. Around 6pm, I felt my brain just kinda shut down. I had been really good all day about constantly checking in with my body, redirecting my thoughts away from my self-critical narrative, and keeping my focus immersed on my current task. I was really pleased with how well it was going.

Then at 6pm, I put my credit card in the refrigerator. About ten minutes later, I put a kitchen utensil I had already used to stir up cooked food back into its drawer while filthy (we discovered it later that night). I was mixing up words and couldn’t remember what I was doing. My brain was done and it had checked out.

The next morning: massive headache. In the front of my head towards my eyes pounding. It lasted all day and pain relievers didn’t do anything to help.

Apparently, it’s possible to overdo it on mindfulness and meditation. I looked up whether mindfulness has caused headaches for anybody else, and couldn’t find anything but there were a lot of people who had similar experiences with meditation, particularly on retreats where they were meditating all day long. Apparently the brain is like a muscle, and it needs to be eased into activities it is not used to or there are negative consequences. Like energy and strength in muscles, we have a finite amount of focus in our brains (particularly when we have never practiced it before).

I suppose that’s why my MBSR program has two assignments for this week: a 30 minute body scan meditation and then being mindful in ONE moment over the course of the day. And here I went, throwing myself into this and overdoing it (like I normally do) and trying to be mindful all day long.

So my Day 4, I did my body scan but then I really eased back on the whole mindfulness thing to give my brain a break. Day 5, and I already feel better. It’s a good reminder that this is something that needs to be eased into, with small changes, instead of throwing myself into it headlong. It’s my internal critic that wants me to change immediately. This is a marathon, not a sprint and I will have to continually remind my critic of that.

MBSR: Day 3 of Mindfulness

It’s day three and I’m already fed up and ready to give up on this experiment.

When I step back from that statement, I can see how silly it is. But the urge is still there. Like when you’re holding a plank and your arms start to shake and your brain says “Collapse! Give up!” but you also know that you have 30 seconds left in you once the shaking starts. That urge to collapse is strong.

Mindfulness is hard for me because of judgment and fixing. When done perfectly, it’s supposed to be judgment-free and just in the moment. But instead, I’m constantly judging myself on whether I’m being mindful or not. Also, I have this idea that mindfulness is the insta-fix to all of my body tension and mental problems. That I won’t rely on my coping mechanisms anymore. That I won’t binge eat. That I won’t disassociate. That I will work harder. If I can just be more mindful I can conquer anything, right?

But that’s not the way this works. I need to realize that the BFF and necessary companion of mindfulness is acceptance. Loving mindfulness. Accepting mindfulness. To witness what is happening and to allow it to happen and to love yourself in spite of, no, because of it.

So I am going to press on. This is a lifelong study, and to rewire my neural pathways is going to take time. I’m interpreting mindfulness currently through the well-worn pathways I’ve trod over a lifetime: achievement, fixing, being goal-driven, and judgment. But that’s not what this is about. I don’t really have pathways for just ‘being’ or for ‘acceptance’ or for ‘self-love’.

So just like in meditation, when I notice my thoughts converging on judgment or fixing, I will gently redirect them to self-love and acceptance instead. Perhaps if I do this enough, I will eventually see real change. But if and when it happens, it’s going to come from within. Not from the executive functioner in my head brow-beating me into doing it. It’s going to come from a place where it finally feels right.

It is far too early to give up on this.


Good Morning, I Love You: Day 1

As part of my self-guided MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) program, I watched the following TED talk by Shauna Shapiro.

In it, she discusses her life’s work: the power of mindfulness, and how mindfulness has to be accompanied with kindness towards the self in order to eradicate shame.

One exercise she suggested was to wake up every morning, put your hand on your chest and say “Good morning <my name>, I love you.” Seems simple enough right?

It seemed like an easy thing that I could add to my daily practice. But like Shauna, when I attempted to tell myself that I loved myself in an earnest way, I choked. I couldn’t do it. Because I don’t. I want to, but there are parts of my psyche that deeply despise myself. The words feel wrong.

So like here, I am beginning with just acknowledging myself. “Good Morning, Mackenzie”, I said this morning, hand to heart, and even this simple gesture pricked tears in my eyes. Perhaps I can work up to expressing self-love eventually with practice.

MBSR Day 1: Body Scan Meditation & Mindfulness

As part of my journey to unclench, I am undertaking the Palouse Mindfulness MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) program. This is a free resource that is available online that anybody can use to get started with mindfulness work and trying to reduce their body’s stress level. It is an eight week program that has readings, videos, and worksheets for daily active practice.

This first week introduces a 30 minute Body Scan meditation where I simply have to pay attention to different parts of my body for 30 minutes a day. Also, I am supposed to choose one daily activity where I try to cultivate mindfulness (like being in the shower or doing dishes) and record what it was like and how it felt.

Here we go.