There’s really no better word to describe the start to 2015 other than to say that it’s been intense.
My schedule as a therapist is quickly filling up, which means more and more of my ¨free time” is dedicated to staying up to date on how to best help my patients. Not to mention the fact that this is the year I’m going to be able to add a new honorific to the beginning of my name…Dr! Meaning that many mornings are devoted to doing research in order to inch my way towards completing my dissertation.
With a jam packed calendar and never ending to-do list, I absolutely need something that’s going to steer me away from living in the future of ¨What if…¨ and the past of ¨Should have…¨and back to the here and now. And what I’ve chosen to help me get grounded and focused on the present moment is…mindfulness.
I first heard about mindfulness meditation back in college when a university professor of mine described how she was researching the effects of mindfulness meditation on women suffering from Dysmenorrhea (i.e. painful periods). It wasn’t until I started my master’s program that I really learned more about mindfulness and how it was being used in the field of psychology, as well as medicine, to help people suffering from a variety of different disorders including depression, alcoholism, borderline personality disorder, and cancer, among others. There are several different treatment approaches that incorporate mindfulness, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), all with a component that helps individuals to be more aware of the present moment.
I myself incorporate mindfulness in my treatment plans with many of my clients. However, it’s one thing to learn about a technique by reading about it in a book or on the internet, and an entirely different thing to see what it’s like firsthand. As a psychologist, I think it’s important for me to ¨practice what I preach,¨ and lucky for me, I’ve tried yoga and meditation enough to know that I enjoy it, so signing up for a MBSR course this quarter at Madrid’s Compultense University also seemed like an ideal opportunity for being able to ¨preach what I practice.¨
Which is how I found myself heading out towards the Complutense´s Somosaguas campus in the NE of Madrid last Tuesday morning. Coincidentally (or maybe not? One of my classmates said that morning that “there’s no such thing as coincidences”), the prior week I’d run into someone that I knew from swing dancing who had also done this course and has since gone on to further explore meditation practices. He offered me words of encouragement for the journey I was about to embark on and reassured me that the particular professor I was going to have was without a doubt the very best.
While attending the course itself will only require two and a half hours of my time each week, the homework outside of class will include considerably more involvement. The six days that we’re not in class we’re expected to do 45 minutes to 1 hour of meditation exercises as part of the formal practice and aside from that time we’ll be working on gaining informal practice as well, which means focusing on the moment and the details as we go throughout the day (this is going to be great news for my roommate who is constantly complaining about how distracted I am when washing the dishes).
This won’t be the first time I have a regular meditation practice. Last year, every Monday to Thursday, I woke up 30 minutes earlier than necessary, rolled out my yoga mat and started off my day with yoga and seated meditation.
Last year, was a life changing sort of year.
I see this all the time with my clients. They start feeling better, reaching their goals, and they stop doing the things that helped them get to that point. Without realizing it, I’ve done the same thing by pushing meditation way down on my list of priorities. When the instructor led us through a guided meditation on Tuesday to help us reflect on why we’d signed up for the course, I discovered that my reason for being there was not merely to help my clients, or help me to bring more balance to my life. What I found beneath those reasons was a sort of craving to embark on this journey, a sensation that had previously been unbeknownst to me. When I dared to share this realization with my classmates, the professor said that this will be a recurring theme throughout the class–we’ll continually find new and different reasons as to why we’re there and why the practice is helpful to us.
At the end of the introductory session, the instructor warned us that many students complain that the course gives them even more stress because it ultimately is a 24/7 experience and involves coming face to face with parts of you that you weren’t aware of before, and which sometimes are difficult to accept. He also noted that while the title of the course includes the words ¨stress reduction,¨ he said it would be better named ¨how to learn to live with stress,¨ noting that
“trying to stop our internal state (feelings, thoughts, etc.) is much like trying to stop the flow of a river with your hands.”
Stay tuned as I share more of my discoveries about mindfulness while taking this course!
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Your comment about your roommate complaining about how distracted you can be when washing the dishes made me laugh. I too, get distracted when washing the dishes. I enjoy the warm water on my fingers a little bit too much. It’s been unusually cold this Winter, and my hands are quite dry. Despite my dry skin and the fact that I have a dish washer, I continue to hand wash my dishes. I have discovered that letting my thoughts wonder like that usually leads to my “best thinking” or interesting self-discoveries. Is that the opposite of what you are learning to practice? Is it not recommended? What should I be doing when I wash my dishes?
Great questions! And ones I don’t have the answers to just yet! I hope to have a response for you soon though, I’ll be checking in with my professor tomorrow!
I’m curious to hear what your prof. says. I hope it is insightful. Since I haven’t been able to stop my thoughts … I tried a relaxation tape once, and it pretty much had the opposite affect on me. I’ve been wondering for a while, “Does meditation really have a positive affect on everyone?” Then , “Why doesn’t it work for me?” However, I think there are important differences between mindfulness and meditation. I can be mindful without meditating, can’t I? (Just some random thoughts!)
PS – I’m really benefiting from reading your blog. I’ve been working on “5 things I would do if I could not fail”. Is it possible I want to do too much?
I’m really glad that you’ve enjoyed the blog so much! I haven’t been posting as actively as I’d like because I’ve been quite busy with all of my mindfulness meditation 🙂 Mindfulness is actually a form of meditating because it helps you to focus on the present moment and not get caught up in your thoughts and emotions. A lot of people find meditation to be difficult because your mind actually ends up wandering MORE and so you can feel discouraged (people who meditate refer to this as “monkey mind,” your mind is like a monkey jumping from tree to tree). It can be helpful to think of meditation as an exercise for the brain and just like any kind of exercising, it takes practice. Even people who have been meditating for years will tell you that their mind wanders sometimes, but they notice it sooner and don’t get as frustrated when it happens.
In terms of the “5 things” exercise, I don’t think it’s possible to want to do too much! But sometimes we have to accept that it’s just not possible to do it all. This exercise is great for challenging you to think about moving outside of your comfort zone. Have you thought about taking steps to try any of those 5 things you identified?