WEEK 01—Raisin D’être
Introduction to mindfulness, along with the basics of the body scan meditation and mindful breathing and eating.
Eighteen adults are seated in a semi-circle, each inspecting two inky-blue raisins as if they hold the keys to the Kabbalah. The dehydrated grapes are individually ogled and caressed, passed before nostrils and pressed across lips, then crushed by molars, lashed by tongues, and finally sent southward.
Shortly thereafter the group divides into pairs, each partner recounting, in succession, their experiences: the tactile sensations and the fruits’ physical attributes, the aromas and the anticipation of eating, the squirting juice and the memories unleashed of breads or bakeries.
This exercise, we were instructed, should be done without judgment; it’s a two-minute monologue with no right or wrong observations, absorbed, in turn, without emotion or interruption. But when my cohort finishes, I sheepishly proclaim her narrative to have been the more compelling, and my rant about the unexpected seed in one raisin mortifying. What I don’t reveal is that despite being forewarned to acknowledge and dismiss distracting thoughts, I’d been fixated on the fear that my raisins, with their shriveled skins and freakish striations, were miniaturized replicas of my withering prostate, which by the way has been so traumatized by my rock-hard chair I’d like to heave it through the window.
Thus begins my class in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, not a moment too soon. This eight-week program, which combines mindfulness meditation with yoga, was developed in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn. In essence, MBSR training provides the tools to inhabit the present moment and, in so doing, unleash one’s innate abilities to better manage stress and illness.
It sounds simple, but achieving a state of relaxed wakefulness proves formidable for some classmates: When we’re taught to perform a toes-to-head “body scan,” focusing in sequence on individual regions, by hip level there’s snoring from the foam mats around the room.
Repeating this 20-minute drill, and applying its whole-body awareness throughout the day, is at the heart of our first week’s assignments. This poses challenges, as I’m now to substitute this practice for Transcendental Meditation, which I’ve faithfully done for more than four decades. So when I start the instructional CD the next morning, it feels like awakening after 16 years as a vegan to an Egg McMuffin. But I do as instructed, because in truth, I really have no choice.
WEEK 02—Embrace for Impact
Cultivating a beginner’s mind and other qualities that support mindfulness, such as self-awareness and compassion for ourselves and others.
Those enrolled in this class are hopeful that their investments of two months and $550 will provide the elusive remedy for what ails them: the fallout from disabling medical conditions and the loss of loved ones, the distress of not measuring up to life’s challenges, and minds that loop like Mobius strips.
In my case, it’s the aftermath of a three-year struggle to navigate my wife’s unforeseen bout of psychotic depression—an incessant drip of madness so toxic that our worlds corroded beyond recognition. Fortunately, she finally received the care that returned her to the person who’d gone missing, and by all credible accounts her illness was likely a one-off. But a year on, my memories of the ordeal and my anxiety about her relapsing still seize me like rip currents, causing sleepless nights and days that leave me feeling as if her mental instability were contagious.
So I’ve embraced MBSR in hopes of neutralizing my heebie-jeebies, throttling my insomnia, and exorcising my post-traumatic dread. As instructed, I’ve broadened the raisin-mulling exercise to entire meals of eating mindfully. I’ve waded into Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living, which feels like navigating a literary corn maze. I’ve scribbled journal entries detailing the practice and aftereffects of my daily body scans. And as the first week gives way to the second, I add to the routine mindful breathing meditation and exercises designed to help see the world in ways more attuned to cultivating mindfulness.
Call it coincidence or wishful thinking, or maybe it’s a glimpse of the insight afforded by embracing the “beginner’s mind” (scrapping preconceived notions and forging ahead nonjudgmentally), but as week two unfolds and my fledgling practice settles into a habit, I feel as if my body current has been dialed down a few amps and layers of brain fog are dissipating.
As this happens, I become especially aware of sidestepping the trapdoors that have been my undoing. For instance, one morning my wife appears to be uncharacteristically subdued, and I panic over the clearly inevitable prospects of her again careening over the edge. But I recognize this manufactured thought, then let it go and return to the present moment. An hour later we’re at the park with our dog, enjoying a perfect autumn day.
WEEK 03—Man of La Mantra
Getting more intimate with the body via a mindful yoga practice, as well as noticing the pleasure of being in the present moment.
For the first time since starting this course, I miss my mantra. After all, learning Transcendental Meditation was quick and easy, and for 44 years thereafter my behavior rarely wavered: close both eyes and sit for 20 minutes, morning and evening, performing an effortless technique of unquestionable benefit to mind and body.
By contrast, MBSR instruction and practice demand an escalating number of hours, some dedicated to tasks I’m finding boring, baffling, or, despite that recent triumph with my wife, not apparently useful. Last week, for example, we reflected each day on a pleasant event, while this week our journal entries dissect unpleasant ones in all their wretchedness. We’re now to “capture” moments throughout each day, pondering why our mindfulness knuckled under to the automatic pilot that typifies our muddled thinking. Our expanded readings in Full Catastrophe Living still feel like they’d benefit from a cipher machine. And we’re alternating body scans with hatha yoga, which is intended to let us inhabit our anatomy with full awareness. While I appreciate the benefits of yoga, my limbs and torso are as flexible as rebar, so I perform my series of Sphinx poses with eyes on the clock, unable to practice with the same mindful attitude I’m bringing to body scans and sitting meditation.
But as the week winds down, a succession of Aha! moments effectively squelches my creeping skepticism. First, I impulsively revisit our earliest readings, including passages cataloging the seven attitudinal factors underlying this mindfulness practice. They include nonjudging—rejecting the impulse to get caught up in one’s ideas and opinions, likes, and dislikes; letting go—intentionally putting aside the tendency to elevate some aspects of our experience and reject others; and patience—allowing things to unfold in their own time.
These pillars of MBSR speak uncannily to my ambivalence, and they’re followed in the book by musings about commitment and self-discipline that, as a longtime distance runner, crystallize my thinking: An athlete trains daily, despite the conditions or circumstances, whether the goal seems worthy or not.
Finally, I’m reminded that while practicing TM has paid dividends, I’ve chosen this new path because of my pressing need to find something more helpful. So the next morning, I dutifully unroll the mat for my Cat-Cow stretches.
WEEK 04—Stressed to the Nines
Becoming more familiar with what causes us stress, and learning how mindfulness can help respond to those stressors as we choose how to respond rather than react automatically.
Since Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, 23,000 people have completed the MBSR program, both in classrooms around the globe and via online sessions. The medical community, in particular, has embraced the idea that developing this skill of mindfulness can be an effective complementary treatment for the likes of panic attacks and depression, cancer and chronic pain. In fact, nearly eight in 10 medical schools offer their students elements of mindfulness training, while the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society—the organization that grew out of Kabat-Zinn’s original clinic—has conducted research to demonstrate the effectiveness of such training for everything from curbing obesity to treating addictions.
Most notable, though, is that this eight-week program has been shown to reduce anxiety and keep it at bay for years, giving meditators the wherewithal to function effectively even when facing undue stress. This week’s course work, which coincidentally focuses on understanding stress and our reactions to it, puts those research claims to an extraordinary test: the ability to survive the gut-wrenching US presidential elections.
Our formal practice in the run-up to that polling increases the amount of time spent doing sitting meditation and yoga or body scans. Furthermore, our informal practice (reading, journaling) explores in detail our physical and psychological responses to stress, along with ways that mindfulness can help short-circuit the cascading damage it can inflict. This stepped-up approach has the feel of graduating from playing scales to making music, as if finally building atop a hardened foundation.
Despite that, I’m still doubtful that four weeks of MBSR can blunt my terror of this election tipping in the wrong direction. But in the days preceding the voting, I manage to turn the incessant election chatter into vaporizing background noise. And to my astonishment, I greet the dreaded outcome with a sense that my life is intact, that whatever I fear is for now, at least, rooted in my imagination.
I attribute this to my newfound sense of mindfulness, although I soon wonder if it’s actually shock. Or denial. Or some combination thereof. In the days that follow, as I’m overcome by irrepressible rage and foreboding that meditation simply won’t dislodge, I get my answer.
WEEK 05—Señor Moments
Adding walking meditation to the MBSR practice and learning to accept with kindness and compassion what’s happening in the present moment.
From the get-go, the message to those enrolled in this course hasn’t wavered: Suspend judgment and stick with the program. “When the eight weeks are over,” Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “then you can tell us whether it was of any use or not. For now, just keep practicing.”
Halfway home the class roster is still intact, although some fear they’re not doing that practice correctly or their efforts won’t be rewarded. But the commitment has paid obvious dividends to others, who are learning to temper self-doubts, moderate impatience, or stifle tendencies to turn uncomfortable thoughts into crippling ruminations.
Particularly striking is a man whose anxiety on day one was so palpable he appeared to be tightrope walking the black hole that swallowed my wife. A month later, he not only speaks with startling ease about his emotional triggers, but he looks as if years lost to stress and sleeplessness are magically being re-gifted.
As for me, I’m most heartened by my newfound ability to sometimes recognize stress emerging and respond in a mindful way, rather than automatically react inappropriately. For example, I’m learning to stop fighting those debilitating rip currents of anxiety, and instead ride them out until I can peel away from their grasp.
Despite such progress, this group of Washington, DC-area Blue-Staters is so discombobulated by the election outcome that our instructors, thrust into the roles of grief counselors, gently nudge us toward recognizing our feelings, rather than resisting them, as a means of coping. This makes sense, although it feels like trying to thrive amid a plume of volcanic ash.
But we’re thankfully introduced to another strategy to help calm minds and bodies: As a complement to sitting meditation, we’re taught to slowly and deliberately walk a narrow lane, feeling the weight of our body as we lift, move, and place our feet, then turn and repeat the process.
I find walking meditation to be uniquely quieting, and adding it to my routine pushes my daily formal practice to more than an hour. By week’s end, all this time devoted to MBSR provides welcome, albeit fleeting, glimpses of what I hope will be a more regular benefit: the sensation of my life evolving moment by moment, rather than in its usual haphazard rush.
WEEK 06—And the Unrest Is History
Practicing sitting meditation and standing yoga, as well as examining how mindfulness can help us communicate with greater compassion and clarity.
A month before this class started, my wife’s doctor listened to a brief description of my mood and behavior over recent days and, without pause, handed me his colleague’s business card. “Make an appointment,” he said. “She’s skilled at treating such problems.”
In addition to those unnerving swells of anxiety—or perhaps because of them—my problems included insomnia so enfeebling that I sometimes had the sensation of peering through layers of mosquito netting, as if my surroundings had been blurred with a Photoshop tool.
In the end I forewent the inevitable prescription pad for MBSR, as an impressive body of research has demonstrated that mindfulness training can be a fast and efficient foil against sleeplessness. For example, University of Minnesota clinicians showed the eight-week MBSR course to be as effective as drugs like Lunesta in improving the quality and duration of sleep for those suffering chronic insomnia. Total sleep time among study participants increased by some 30 minutes, they nodded off more quickly, and their “sleep efficiency” improved—i.e., they spent increasingly more time sawing wood than staring at the ceiling.
To my glee, I’ve had a similarly positive experience: According to my fitness tracker (however imprecise it may be), my average nightly deep sleep so far has increased by 24 minutes, compared with the six weeks immediately prior to the start of class. Even more impressive: my average nightly deep sleep this week is 74 minutes greater than it was when my environment appeared scrubbed of its usual clarity.
As a result, I no longer awake feeling as if I’d been riveted to the bed or gray matter has been leaching through my skull. My mood swings are far less frequent and decidedly less intense. My anxieties about my wife’s health have further receded. Some days, in fact, I have the welcome sensation of feeling entirely sound of mind and body.
Sleep will do that, I suppose, although I attribute this shift in my well-being as much to assorted components of the MBSR practice, which now also includes principles of Nonviolent Communication, including interacting in ways that are free of judgment or interpretation. Suddenly, it feels as if I’m looking at the world through a wide-angle lens rather than through a constricting telephoto.
WEEK 07—Pause and Affect
Learning to pay special attention to the wide range of stimuli we encounter daily, from food and conversation to news and entertainment.
Along with the weekly classes, the MBSR course also hosts a daylong silent retreat devoted to the formal practices taught up to that point. At our retreat last weekend, we were guided through yoga done standing and on the mat, walking and seated meditation, the body scan, and a buffet lunch consumed mindfully. It was all capped off with instruction in one last major course skill: “loving-kindness” meditation, a breath-focused ritual intended to help cultivate feelings of concern and compassion for oneself and others, be they loved ones or those presumably undeserving of our affection.
In hindsight, most participating in this intense day of mindfulness felt like it had nudged forward their meditation practice in subtle but positive ways—even if the sentiment of loving-kindness aimed at the likes of the president-elect and his minions was a bridge too far. I had similar misgivings, but the overall experience nevertheless paid me rich dividends: I was again plagued by insomnia just prior to the retreat (another reminder that there’s no straight line to success), but since then I’ve reaccelerated my march toward full, restful nights of sleep, together with the benefits that conveys.
And as the course heads for its final session, I’m noticing other positive changes, both in the meditation practice and in my life in general. My time devoted to MBSR, which has become an indispensable part of my day, is more enjoyable and, as a result, keeps expanding. The once-baffling Full Catastrophe Living now provides me clear insights. I choose my words more carefully in conversation, so as to project empathy instead of snarkiness or dismissiveness. I’m less affected by what once were minor annoyances. Eating is a far richer experience. I strive to be more forgiving and less judgmental: the driver who nearly clipped my car in a parking lot wasn’t a jerk, as I used to reflexively think, but merely someone who didn’t see me.
In fact, this ever-developing trait of responding to stressors rather than automatically reacting has been nurtured along over the last week by the “sacred pause”—a newly learned adjunct to our practice that helps to purposefully reconnect throughout the day to the present moment. A few well-timed breaths, it turns out, deliver the pause that truly refreshes.
WEEK 08—Heal and Fare Well
Incorporating the lessons of the last seven weeks into our lives going forward, whether by solo practice or as part of a larger community.
In February 2008, four months after I had run a very strong marathon, I had a heart attack that nearly killed me. For the two years that followed, I nervously clutched a vial of nitroglycerin tablets in my pocket and always wore a military-style dog tag engraved with my cardiologist’s contact information. I ditched my career and spent most days aimlessly tending to my vegetable gardens. I returned to running, but innocuous blips on my heart-rate monitor caused panic attacks. I was depressed and anxious, certain that another heart attack was looming, this one fatal. My bum ticker was my sole obsession.
Sometime in year three, however, I noticed that I hadn’t thought about my cardiac mishap for days. Eventually, the days became weeks, and then the weeks became months. Nine years on, an event that once defined me has escaped my memory, as if it happened to someone else.
I’ve been reminded of that ordeal often recently, as history has repeated itself, although with two notable twists: 1) in this latest instance I was traumatized by my wife’s illness, not by my own; and 2) it was my body and mind, not serendipity or the time-heals-all-wounds approach to life, that provided a reprieve. Specifically, after some two months of MBSR—a time frame, research shows, that may alter regions of the brain associated with self-awareness and the regulation of emotions—I fervently embraced the notion that my focus on the dreaded past and unpredictable future left me missing out on the miraculous gift of my wife’s recovery. By instead more purposely grounding my attention in the present moment, together we’re experiencing an upward spiral of happiness and harmony, with each tomorrow seeming to eclipse each today.
Others in my class had their own successes, some of them also transformative, and all intend to keep at their practice. This isn’t surprising, since studies suggest that over 90% of those completing the program keep meditating over the following four years.
It’s certainly now part of my life, so I’m extending my mantra’s hiatus. Moreover, my wife and I have resumed a yoga class we abandoned upon her falling ill. The studio floor is as hard as ever, but I bought the thickest mat available, so I barely even notice.