Following a dedicated and daily mindfulness routine for a month has fundamentally altered me. My therapist DS is a strong believer in the powerful effects of mindfulness and I think it’s safe to say he was supporter before it became such a buzz-word. He recommended I try out meditation a while back but I couldn’t really find time to attend classes. I downloaded a few mediation tracks and it seemed to help a bit. However, it didn’t feel like something meaningful and lasting was taking place.
My life started filling up with obligations, increased stress and feelings that I tried to stuff down. Basically, I was on autopilot and becoming increasingly frustrated.
That changed 31 days ago, when I made a conscious decision to really give mindfulness a go. I discovered the free Mindfulness daily app and downloaded it onto my iPad. It is really neat because it offers a 21-day guided journey that you can follow without being connected to the internet. You choose three values and three goals that are most important to you. The app then tailors a program for your needs.
Each day offers a short video lesson in the morning and a suggestion on how to incorporate what you’ve learnt into the day ahead. Every night, it encourages you to work through the reflection video to shed the thoughts of the day. I liked the instructor’s soothing voice and the background visuals throughout the app. The features I found most handy were the check-in and pause buttons. You schedule when you would like these reminders to pop up on your screen during the day. The check-in asks how you are feeling, where have stress in your body and how present you are. The pause is a silent 15-second video that tracks two deep breaths and plays you a calming scene. After 21 days, you can choose your own ongoing practices and access a list of helpful videos.
I really struggle with tuning into my body and regulating my emotions. Obviously I am a lot better than I was when I first started therapy but these are skills that need to be practiced and refined. Secretly, I thought mindfulness would be this amazing little solution with golden wings and angel chorus, floating down from heaven to take away all my disturbing thoughts and uncomfortable feelings. LOL! As I track these expectations, it strikes me that I viewed it as being the ultimate numbing experience and something to magically take away all the negativity and pain. Actually, it is about acknowledging every sensation, emotion, feeling and thought in the moment.
Mindfulness is not a cure. It is merely something which I have found to be a helpful tool to add to my dusty mental health toolbox. The journey is long but I think this might just help me make it one piece.
STUFF I HAVE LEARNED AND EXPERIENCED SO FAR:
LESSON ONE: My breathing sucks. As the day progresses, my body starts kicking into self-preservation mode (what I like to call reptile mode) and switches into the lowest gear to survive. This means very shallow breathing and tightened muscles that are ready to spring into action and run away from the wild tigers and boogymen my amygdala is conjuring up.
PRACTICAL IMPLEMENTATION: After a month, I can make my stomach round like a beach ball by breathing in through my diaphragm. I’ve become aware of this life force rushing through my nostrils, into my lungs and whistling out my mouth. Two deep breaths sometimes manages to kick my body out of reptile mode and into relaxed, executive-function thinking mode.
LESSON TWO: My interpretation of stress makes me more stressed out. We have been taught that stress kills and is bad for you. It is true that prolonged stress has a detrimental effect on the body but if a study (that this app quotes) is to be believed, stress is only bad for you if you perceive it as being bad. Many people could debate this topic for days on end.
PRACTICAL IMPLEMENTATION: What I took from this was that by thinking of stress in the body as its way of preparing to effectively deal with a situation, I immediately felt more relaxed and empowered! It has become a bit easier to see stress as a physiological response that maximizes the resources available to get through a situation. Obviously, I still feel stressed out quite often and bogged down by numerous responsibilities but it doesn’t seem so permanent anymore.
LESSON THREE: Being truly present in the moment is difficult. How often have you gifted someone with your ultimate, focused attention? When was the last time that you ate an apple and delighted in its color, smell, texture and fragrant taste? Probably not as much as you would have liked. I think that technology has made it increasingly acceptable and doable to multi-task instead of do one thing at a time (and I say that while loving the amazing ways in which technology can enrich our lives).
PRACTICAL IMPLEMENTATION: I make a point now of attempting to fully be with my husband in a conversation. Hot baths have become a sensory delight. Washing the dishes… well, it’s still a pain but I realise that I rather like immersing my hands into bubbles and warm water.
LESSON FOUR: My body belongs to me. This sounds weird but it’s true. A typical habit to get through anxiety and stress is by ignoring what my body is trying to tell me. Ditto for scary feelings.The body scan exercise forced me to focus attention onto my physical presence. In doing so, it felt like I was actually starting to acquire a map of where I was in relation to my immediate surroundings.
PRACTICAL IMPLEMENTATION: I realize that my jaw is quite often clenched and my that my chest is closed and tight. I carry tension in my jaw, neck and shoulders. On the upside, in connection with my breathing exercises, it is becoming possible to connect with areas like my pelvic region. I think I have blocked off a lot of sexual energy in the past for some reason.
LESSON FIVE: Having compassion for myself is hard. I naturally expect perfection in everything I do. Mistakes are proof that I am unworthy and incapable. When things go wrong, I assume I must be partly to blame. PRACTICAL IMPLEMENTATION: It is becoming a bit easier to take a step back and accept that it’s normal to be human, to make mistakes and be imperfect. I am sometimes able to interrupt a toxic stream of expectations (‘you should’, ‘you have to’, ‘if you don’t) with ‘I am’ full stop. Still trying to call up compassion when I have the need to label myself as weak or lazy after a long day of work, ballet class and rehearsals, and studies.
The biggest thing I’ve gained is creating some distance from my thoughts and being more aware of emotions and processes in the moment. This awareness has stirred up some good content to work on with DS.
** Print by Izutsu Hiroyuki