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.

Gokhale Method: The Right Observation, the Wrong Hypothesis (at least for me)

One of the early solutions to my pain that I sought out was the Gokhale Method. I had read several accounts of people who had back pain online who were permanently ‘cured’ by following her teachings, so I bought her book, consumed it, lived it, bought all of the posture-modifying cushions, and watched every YouTube video she ever made. I even briefly considered flying down to Palo Alto to get hands-on training from the master herself.

Esther Gokhale struggled with back pain from a herniated disk, much like I did. She even went so far as to get surgery without results. So she ended up traveling the world and learning that many people that grow up in more primitive cultures don’t experience back pain, despite having lives filled with arduous labor involving carrying heavy things, bending over repeatedly, and spending long hours seated on the ground.

She spent time with these cultures, photographed them, and formed a hypothesis: primitive cultures didn’t have back pain because they had fundamentally different movement patterns than we Westerners. And these movement patterns are imprinted on children at birth. They are learned behaviors, and as such, they can be taught, practiced, absorbed and mastered. According to her theory, the way that we learn to sit and stand and move and bend is all wrong, and thus we have spines that have slightly different curvature – which gives us back pain.

Her book emphasizes how ‘graceful’ and ‘natural’ and ‘at ease’ all of these third world peoples are. And I was determined to emulate them. I would become an elegant, soft-walking wood elf that moved like a dream.

I spent six weeks fervently and religious practicing the way that Gokhale wanted me to sit and stand and walk and bend. And it made me worse. I spent all day trying to hold these unnatural postures that felt like absolute torture. Her book and videos assured me that it would eventually come to feel natural but…

It came to a head one day when I was out walking with my husband. “Is something wrong” he asked, “It looks like you’re limping or staggering around.”

“No, I’m glidewalking,” I informed him. Clearly he wasn’t grasping how beautifully and gracefully I was moving under Esther’s tutelage.

“You look like a drunken sailor angrily stomping on insects,” he responded.

It was then I realized that this wasn’t working for me. I felt constantly tense and unnatural. My muscles were stiffening up – not elongating. And my back pain was getting worse. I stopped practicing the Gokhale Method and put the book away. I chalked it up to my own failure of not being coordinated enough to achieve some of these movements. My broken movement patterns were hopelessly ingrained.

Meditation and mindfulness have been a part of my life for a year now.

And I am becoming that woodland elf.

It’s hard to believe, really. When I walk, sometimes I am gliding. My feet are soft pillows of air. My neck has all of this space to move and breathe. My legs, instead of being the stomping, plodding things they were, feel supple and lithe. I am standing up straight. I am naturally sitting straighter.

And it’s all because of one thing: I am more relaxed and more connected with my body.

I think this is what Esther got wrong. The movement patterns of a relaxed, mindful individual are fundamentally different than the movement patterns of a chronically tense, hyper-vigilant, traumatized person. It just so happens that people who live in primitive cultures are more relaxed and mindful than we are. There are lots of happiness studies that back this up. There’s less judgment, a more profound sense of community, more interconnectedness, less pressures and stressors, and so the people in these cultures are just more relaxed. And what do you know, a relaxed body actually moves differently. It aligns differently. The muscles yank on the spinal column differently from a relaxed state than from a tense.

This is something that I figured out almost immediately when I started meditating. On day eight I had my first experience with spontaneous posture correction. Where about 15 minutes into my meditation session, my breathing darkens and deepens, I feel a wave of relaxation pass over me, and suddenly I sit up straight. My shoulders open up, my neck is long, my chest is reaching for the sky, and I literally feel three inches taller.

This has happened for me now almost every single time I have meditated. At some point, my body just lets go, and suddenly I get a small glimpse of what it means to be relaxed.

Every day as TMS forces me to process my repressed emotions, let go of my fear of pain, and embrace a relaxed, mindful state, I find my body more and more able to adopt this relaxed posture naturally. It started about eight days in. It’s almost an instantaneous result.

I hope that some day this becomes my natural state, and the tense state is the temporary one that I can recover from.

In the meantime, I would advise people to not force posture. Good posture isn’t something that should be integrated into you by strictly monitoring and constantly correcting yourself. Your self-critic does enough of that already. Instead, be mindful of your body and how it feels. Meditate. Accept what your body is doing with its alignment today. Good posture will begin to fall out as the natural byproduct of acceptance and self-love.

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.

A beautiful mess

I’m literally on day 4 of my mindfulness course and something really crazy happened today.

I was standing in the kitchen, trying to just pay attention, and suddenly it was like my perception shifted. And in the moment of that shift, I SAW the kitchen differently. And I saw that it was a mess. And what’s more, it bothered me.

You’re thinking: “Your giant breakthrough is that you realized your kitchen was messy?” I know, it sounds ridiculous.

But my entire life I have been a messy person. I shower and throw my towel on the floor. My dinner plate stays where it is until I decide to clean it later. The only times I deep clean are for other people: when I think my spouse can’t bear it anymore or when we are going to have company over. And it doesn’t bother me! I can sit in a room filled with mess and barely even notice it.

But today I looked at the kitchen and suddenly, it was like a switch flicked in my brain and the disorder of it popped out into crystal clear view.

I did not realize my high tolerance for mess was another symptom of being disconnected with my body and my environment. I did not realize that it was yet another thing that wasn’t some curious aspect of my personality, but instead a symptom of my trauma.

I swear to God, I shed tears. It felt like a watershed moment. To perceive disorder and to be genuinely, personally bothered by it. It was a brand new feeling. A sensation that I have literally never experienced.

Of course, the moment I finished crying, I realized this was a complete double-edged sword. Because now I’ve just given my inner critic a whole new thing to complain about: that things are messier than I thought they were.

Perhaps that is something that will shift in time too. But for now:

bless this mess

Bless the mess in my house and the mess that is me. And I bless the mess that is all of you as well.


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.


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.