The Mindfulness Experiment
My yearlong search for inner calm
by Shelley Daily
From the September, 2017 issue
Since I'm the mom of two teens and a tween, my life can get frenzied and stressful. I've longed for more meaningful and relaxed moments. So last year, I signed up for a class in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). It's based on the teachings of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who calls mindfulness "paying attention in a particular way--on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally." The course incorporates meditation as well as informal mindfulness techniques that students can use in everyday life--with the goal of improving mental health and well-being. What I didn't realize was that my life was about to take a major detour, and mindfulness would come along for the ride.
When the class meets for the first time, our teacher, Libby Robinson, gives each of us a raisin. She asks us to use all of our senses to experience the raisin: we look at it and describe it, we touch it, and we smell it. When we are (finally!) allowed to put our raisins in our mouth, we first just feel its texture and size--then finally, slowly, bite into it. It's our first lesson in "cultivating awareness of the present moment." I eat raisins in my oatmeal almost every day, but I've never savored their sweetness or smelled one until today.
Each week Robinson gives us new exercises to "break the chains of our old automated responses." The goal is to notice the present moment and begin to choose our reactions to events. Stress, she says, begins with perception--so we need to learn how our mind perceives a situation and how our bodies react. Our homework includes listening to a CD with twenty-minute meditations. For the first week I do the "body scan," which brings awareness to physical sensations starting at the top of my head and moving to the tips of my toes. It is so relaxing--and so boring--that it puts me to sleep. In the following weeks Robinson introduces us to different forms of
meditation--mindfulness of the breath, silent guided, walking--and yoga, encouraging us to discover the activities that we like best.
We also keep journals of pleasant and unpleasant events to become more aware of moments, instead of "living on autopilot," as Robinson puts it. When I experience a pleasant event I note how my body reacts, as well as my feelings and mood. I jot down my perception of the budding trees on my springtime walk, a cute baby I see in the grocery store, and my daughter laughing with her friends.
Then, just a couple weeks into the course, I experience a very unpleasant event: a biopsy reveals that I have Hodgkin lymphoma. Just that week Robinson had talked about how mindfulness is not about avoidance--it's about "this moment, however glorious or horrible." Although the cancer was in its early stages, I'd have to undergo chemo and radiation in the months to come.
My family and friends provided amazing support, but the chemo regimen threw me into an emotional tailspin. I'd be sick in bed for a few days, start to feel more normal, and then become depressed about facing my next treatment. Mindfulness wasn't on my radar. How could I be in the moment when I just wanted the moment to end?
When I told Robinson how I felt, she encouraged me to be kind to myself and to focus on my breath--for just three breaths. I could handle that much. I continued to go to class whenever I felt up to it and also discovered a gentle yoga class at the Cancer Support Community of Greater Ann Arbor--a relaxing mindfulness practice for me.
Mindfulness also came into social worker Grace Helms Kotre's life at a critical point. In 2008, after a medical crisis and hospitalization, she lost her baby halfway through her pregnancy. The traumatic experience, she says, led to "a deepening of my chronic depression." A friend introduced her to a meditation teacher, and she began practicing every day. "Everything changed in a period of months," Helms Kotre says. "In less than a year I had a shift in perception. It was mindfulness meditation that guided me out [of the depression] for the long term."
The experience "led me down the path to further study," and last fall, Helms Kotre, who's thirty-four and the mother of two, became certified as a mindfulness instructor. Through her business, Power to Be, she teaches youth and families about mindfulness; her Rec & Ed class for preschoolers, called "Mindful Me: Discovering My Inner Superpowers," uses games, movement, books, and crafts to teach kids and their parents.
One of my MBSR classmates, Jennifer Dupuis, forty-two, who suffers from a chronic pain disorder, says she chose it because "it is science based. Because I'm a librarian, good info is important to me." She says she took the class "very seriously" and did all the homework. A year later, she still practices meditation daily, even if it's for just a few minutes with a phone app. "While it hasn't changed my health, it's changed my relationship with pain," she tells me. Instead of the pain taking her "to a negative place, now I can be in a more neutral or even positive place."
Besides helping with pain and depression, research on mindfulness-based interventions points to reductions in anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, and stress. A 2011 article found physical changes in the brains of meditators after an eight-week MBSR class. Researchers also identified four mechanisms for why mindfulness works: attention regulation, body awareness, emotion regulation, and changes in self-perspective.
Despite such findings, mindfulness has its critics. One of my classmates decided that "Mindfulness Inc." was not for him (mindfulness-related products and services rake in billions of dollars annually). He emails that "like so much else that is instant in our culture, I see a lot of sloppiness among mindfulness purveyors about how much craft and discipline is actually required, and premature celebration."
A November 2016 New York Times opinion piece by Ruth Whippman titled "Actually, Let's Not Be in the Moment," consigns mindfulness to "a special circle of self-improvement hell," in which participants must strive not just for a "Pinterest-worthy home, but a Pinterest-worthy mind." She notes that other relaxation techniques are at least as beneficial, and suggests that it's another practice for the privileged. Like massages and manicures, it's rarely an option for the poor and marginalized.
On a positive note, the 2012 documentary Room to Breathe looks at how mindfulness transformed the behavior of at-risk middle school students in California. Rita Benn of the Michigan Collaborative for Mindfulness in Education (MC4ME) says the nonprofit is working to bring mindfulness into K-12 schools in underserved communities such as River Rouge and Detroit's east side, as well as into the Ann Arbor Public Schools.
"Mindfulness is the underpinning to social and emotional development," says Benn. "So many triggers are in our body, and we don't teach kids in our schools about stress and our nervous systems." She believes that teaching teachers to better manage their own stress will also have a trickle-down effect on the kids. "The climate of the classroom is related to the teacher's well-being ... teachers have the highest level of stress--particularly in this climate with all the demands."
At Ann Arbor Open, posters promote the school's guidelines: "Be kind. Work hard. Be mindful." Former principal Megan Fenech (now at A2 STEAM) even wrote mindfulness into the school improvement plan. "I wanted to include not just academic goals but also a social-emotional goal," she explains. She has used school improvement funds to train twenty teachers and staff in mindfulness. Half the teachers now integrate some form of mindfulness into their daily routine: mindful breath, guided meditation--and there's even an elective on mindfulness for seventh and eighth graders. If a student is sent to her office because of bad behavior, Fenech says they'll often discuss "responding instead of reacting," a foundation of mindfulness training. She believes mindfulness has "helped kids with their emotional health--with their attention and impulse control."
At the TEDxYouth Ann Arbor conference in April, Pioneer High student Sanomi Croos-Dabrera leads us through a guided meditation exercise. I sit in the auditorium with my eyes closed and listen to her count as I breathe deeply in and out. "Notice how the air feels as it travels through your body ... notice the weight of your body ... notice the sounds around you," she instructs. In seconds, I feel my tense back muscles relax into my seat.
Croos-Dabrera was born to Sri Lankan parents and says her personal practice of mindfulness is inspired by growing up as a Theravada Buddhist. When Croos-Dabrera is "freaking out because of exams or clouded by stress ... taking a two-minute breather calms me and relaxes me. It helps me to work more efficiently." She also uses the Headspace and Calm.com apps on her phone.
Ariana Headrick, twenty-two, a recent U-M psychology grad, thinks millennials are a prime audience for mindfulness. "It's kind of a pop culture thing," she says. "I see it as a reaction to how technology has distracted us from the tangible world, from each other, from ourselves." She says technology trains the brain to "think a certain way so that a long conversation or even a long class period becomes challenging." After taking two contemplative practice classes through the jazz department at the U-M School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, she says, she's "a lot more awake and able to focus and able to appreciate the little things more, from what I ate to the sun on my face."
Jazz professor Ed Sarath founded U-M's interdisciplinary Program in Creativity and Consciousness Studies, where Headrick took her courses. Sarath, an innovator in improvised music, says that, as the first university curriculum of its kind, "it's still controversial and a fringe area" but is gaining ground. A longtime meditator in the Vedantic tradition, Sarath says that "interior practices"--such as meditation and mindfulness--"nurture the source of our creativity."
Robinson, my MBSR teacher, also leads all-day silent meditation retreats. I attended two of them. Coming from a loud and busy household, I viewed a day of silence as a gift. Robinson told us to keep our sense of humor during the day, and I found it easy to smile when I heard a few people doze off and snore during meditation. I enjoy the metaphor of breath as a riverbank--and imagine myself sitting on the riverbank watching my thoughts float by. When I left each retreat, I was so relaxed I seemed to float to my car, my stress so low that it seemed I barely had a pulse.
Despite good intentions, though, I don't meditate every day. When I update Robinson, she reassures me that "any moment in which we're mindful is beneficial." When I ask her about a few people who dropped out of our class, she says: "It may not be the right time of life for them ... mindfulness is not for everyone, but it's one way to free ourselves from the traps we set. For some it's a walk in the woods, for others it's intense physical exercise."
Mindfulness came into Robinson's life almost forty years ago in the form of "Insight Meditation," which had its roots in Vipassana meditation, a practice in the Buddhist tradition. At the time, "I was a pretty miserable and emotional person," she says. "Mindfulness has taught me that all these feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations arise and fall away--it's all temporary. It's helped me to cope and manage my emotional reactions to life."
Laura Rice-Oeschger, a social worker and mindfulness teacher, has worked in dementia care for more than twenty years and leads mindfulness-based programs for the U-M Alzheimer's Disease Center and the Presence Care Project. Rice-Oeschger's passion for mindfulness work was inspired by her father, who she says had a positive outlook on life and an interest in Jon Kabat-Zinn's teachings. When he was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer, she says, doctors gave him just eighteen months to live, yet "he saw the world as always about possibility. He found meaning in his diagnosis" and ended up living another decade.
She facilitates the monthly "Catching Your Breath" series at Matthaei Botanical Gardens for caregivers of adults with memory loss, where she teaches mindfulness techniques to cope with stress. "There's a striking difference between who is living well and who isn't able to cope," she says. "Tiny habits of well-being can alter overall wellness in a radical way." She believes caregiving itself can be a mindfulness practice.
With cancer treatment behind me and a clear scan, my prognosis is excellent. Though daily meditation hasn't worked for me, I try to incorporate "mindful moments" into my days. I've chosen three areas where I try to just "be": waiting at red lights, interacting with cashiers, and at least one moment with each of my family members--whether it's our evening walk with the dog, driving to school, or saying good morning. It's slowed me down and given moments with my family more meaning. I also take "three mindful breaths" when I'm feeling stressed, and I've become very aware of how my posture affects my breathing.
The doctors don't know where the cancer came from, but they tell me that leading a healthy lifestyle can keep it from coming back. Although life is at times stressful and frenzied now, a year later, thanks to mindfulness training I have some tools I can use to make it a bit more manageable. When I'm ready, I hope to take advantage of a drop-in meditation session through the Ann Arbor Center for Mindfulness. But for now I'm focused on just learning to be a lot kinder to myself--and that includes not stressing about being the ideal mindfulness student.
[Originally published in September, 2017.]
On October 3, 2017, LizzieB wrote:
This thoughtful, personal account of Shelley's experience came at a perfect time for me, as I try to incorporate more mindfulness practices into my life.
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