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What I Discovered by Beginning a Mindfulness Practice

January 23, 2014
D. R. Lionheart

It had been one of those years. Life kept handing me lemons, and instead of making lemonade [eyeroll], I was losing my hair and becoming overly familiar with the slim pickings on TV at 2 a.m. when my anxiety kept me awake. When my "stress" began to seep into my children, I realized it was time to take action and get to work on my mental health.

A counselor gave me a flyer for a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy class. I read about what to expect and concocted visions of a more serene me, wearing flowing white linen clothes and inspiring others with every word I spoke. Alrighty then, sounds good, give it to me.

The first class was not at all what I was hoping for. How did I get lumped in with this batch of fruitcakes? I named my fellow students in silent judgment: Mr. Creepy-Happy, Ms. Eeyore, Mr. Anger Management Issues. Why did I have to be the buffoon whose phone alarm went off during our first silent meditation exercise? And why did the teacher give me the distinct impression that I was already annoying? I hoped first impressions didn't remain -- mine or theirs. As for content, the first class was lighter than the front cover of my Meditation for Dummies book. In spite of all this, I determined to stick with it because I needed the transformation that was advertised.

In retrospect, my initial judgments were exactly the sort of thought habits that were prolonging my anxiety and also the very thing targeted by the mindfulness based cognitive therapy. I would laugh about my skewed initial perspective several times over before the class was finished.

Mindfulness practice was PAINFULLY simple at first. How can sitting and breathing a little every day do all that crazy good stuff? It can't be so maddeningly simple! And it was and it wasn't simple. The training illuminated the purpose of the painfully simple practice. Understanding the miraculous stuff silently taking place in my noodler while I practiced meditation helped me to embrace the practice with patience. Just like waiting for a plant to grow, when you understand that some miraculous unseen things happen while you tend a thing patiently, it makes the waiting less painful to endure.

I learned that allowing the brain to run amok in fields of worry, rumination, and harsh criticisms is the very thing that keeps a good person down in the dumps. This "running amok" can be helped, but it takes practice. That is why some people refer to their daily meditation as a "mindfulness practice." The whole point is to exercise your brain and encourage it to spend more time grounded in the here and now. As your brain gets "stronger" with practice, you naturally spend less time running amok in dark places (or as a friend calls them, "bad neighborhoods in your brain"). Don't get me wrong, you still visit the bad neighborhoods from time to time because it is a necessary part of life; the difference is that when you adopt a mindfulness practice, you call the shots about when and how often you visit the bad neighborhoods. There is a limit to how much bad neighborhood time a brain can take -- if visited too often, a brain has an increasingly difficult time leaving. It becomes a depressed, anxious, or out-of-control noodler.

Since taking the mindfulness class, my brain has a comfy pair of sneakers now and can glide through its visits to the bad neighborhood with relative ease. Just this morning, for example, I had a disturbing interaction with someone who has been unkind to me several times in the recent past. Before mindfulness, that exchange might have distracted me throughout my day as I ruminated on my desire to understand the offending person, or to fix our relationship, or storm away from our relationship, or to come up with just the right words to say to produce a certain result, or to make myself more likeable to them or... you name it. Unpleasant and unhelpful thoughts would have cropped up repeatedly and interrupted important parts of my day that deserved my full attention. The resulting downward spiral might have continued into the night as my brain began to notice other problems in the bad neighborhood that desired attention.

Now that I have some mindfulness skills on board, I was pleased at my new abilities to process my unpleasant feelings about the exchange and move on. I gave myself a few minutes to meditate, feel my feelings, call a friend for support, and nurture myself. After deciding carefully how to respond, I was ready to respond and move on with my day. A little while later, the feelings popped up once more; I acknowledged them and let them go. The feelings floated by and I was able to resume mindfulness in the present moment. I hugged my son and his laughter warmed my heart. We played, we sang, we explored, we learned -- together. The rest of my day was light, joyful, and my focus remained on the things that are truly important to me. Victory!

After the nine weeks of class, my words aren't profound and I haven't found myself a flowing white linen outfit. However, I did discover that my classmates were all wonderful people who struggled with similar stressors. Together, we all discovered the life-changing benefits of improved mindfulness as a tool for coping with stress. The more often I practice mindfulness I have found: I can embrace myself and others with greater compassion, my life has much less conflict, I am less impulsive and less reactive, my emotions feel more balanced, my thoughts are less intrusive, I sleep well, I am in excellent health, and I spend much more time savoring the richness of life.