A Buddhist proverb says that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
After five years of trying to learn and practice mindfulness — moment-to-moment awareness, or paying attention to the present moment on my own and ending up, well, different than the bald guys in the ocher and saffron robes, I decided that I was in desperate need of a teacher and some direction.
All MBSR programs are modeled after the one founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. They aim to help persons with chronic illnesses or difficult medical conditions learn how to calm their minds and bodies in order to respond more effectively to stress, pain, and illness. It is an eight-week intensive course that trains participants in the foundations of mindfulness meditation and how mindfulness can be integrated into the moments of everyday life.
Five years ago, I was introduced to the concept of mindfulness by psychologist Elisha Goldstein, who writes the substantive blog, “Mindfulness and Psychotherapy” on Psych Central, as well as several great books on mindfulness. At that time the market had just tanked and my husband’s work evaporated. I was anxious, panicked, and afraid that I would end up hospitalized for severe depression like I was in 2006.
I read several books on mindfulness, spent hours in meditation listening to CDs narrated by Jon Kabat-Zinn or Sharon Saltzberg, and experimented with different kinds of breathing exercises. All of this — as well as vigorous exercise, prayer, good diet, therapy, and medications — helped me to stay out of the hospital these years. However, five years later, I’m still fragile, worried that life’s next surprise could be the blow that renders me disabled for good.
I believe that I’m stuck in the kind of stress reactivity followed by maladaptive attempts to keep my body and mind under control that Kabat-Zinn explains in his book “Full Catastrophe Living.” “Sooner or later the accumulated effects of stress reactivity, compounded by inadequate and ultimately toxic ways of dealing with it,” he explains, “lead inevitably to breakdown in one form or another.” The list of my illnesses is growing longer each year:
- pituitary tumor
- thyroid disease
- Raynaud’s Phenomenon
- bipolar disorder
- aortic valve regurgitation
My medical ailments aren’t half as complicated and incapacitating, however, as those of some of the past participants of the course Kabat-Zinn writes about, like Mary and George, in “Full Catastrophe Living.”
Mary battled multiple chronic illnesses, including hypertension, coronary disease, ulcers, arthritis, and lupus. She was referred to the MBSR program to control her blood pressure because she was highly allergic to the medications. She had had bypass surgery on one blocked coronary artery; others were blocked as well but could not be operated on. By the time Mary had “graduated” from the program, her blood pressure came down from 165/105 to 110/70, the number of physical pain symptoms that she felt had decreased dramatically, and she was sleeping through the night, waking well rested (as compared to waking every two hours).
George had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). He was on oxygen 24 hours a day, lugging around a portable oxygen canister on wheels with a tube that brings oxygen to his nostrils. He applied mindfulness of breathing to his weakened state, in order to control shortness of breath and the panic that occurs when he couldn’t get the next breath into his lungs. Because of his mindfulness practice, he was able to accept his condition while challenging himself to do the activities that he could do — like grocery shopping for the family— even if he had to do them at a snail’s pace.
There’s a growing volume of research today showcasing all the health benefits of the MBSR program, as well as mindfulness meditation itself. Studies have shown that mindful practice can halve the risk of future clinical depression in people who have already been depressed several times, its effects comparable to antidepressant medications. MBSR helps persons with type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, and chronic pain cope better with symptoms. Mindfulness aids sleep, improves blood sugar, and lowers blood pressure.
One of the attitudinal foundations of mindful practice is “non-striving,” so participants are told to forget about the reasons that brought them to the course soon after they introduce themselves. Somewhere in the first class, I will try to not think about all the science behind mindfulness, about the gifts it has brought persons who enrolled in the course before me, about my deep desire for wellness and peace of mind.
I will keep you abreast of my progression through the course, writing about the exercises or concepts that I find most useful. Maybe they will help you as well, until a teacher of your own appears.