Week 1: Tiptoeing into mindfulness
The positive benefits of mindfulness are being confirmed by science, this is one of the reasons that I've decided to take a course on mindfulness offered by Brussels Mindfulness.
The course is based on the mindfulness programme developed by the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. It is based on mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, part of the third wave of evidence based cognitive behavioural therapy techniques.
"I'm here because I can't ask my clients to do something I'm not prepared to do myself. That's the reason I give, and in part it is true."
There are also aspects of my behaviour and personality I want to change and develop. I know that this will be a challenge, working on being in the moment, without judgement, isn't as easy as it sounds.
I'm not new to meditation and mindfulness techniques. I've regularly attended yoga in the past, and tried to establish a meditation practice at home. The best way to establish or change behaviour is to make it a habit and have lots of support around you. This is the attraction of the course; twelve liked minded people discovering what it means to be more mindful. Together we will face the challenges of establishing a practice by sharing our successes and failures.
Taking time to arrive and using our senses to discover something we already know
Before the introductions, we start with a small practice, breathing in deeply through the nose and forcedly out through our mouths. Allowing ourselves to arrive and reduce the anxiety of being in room full of strangers.
Out of the twelve people sat in circle of chairs, two come from the same country, the others a typical mix of Brussels internationals from across Europe and the world. All of us listening to each other's reasons for attending our eight-week mindfulness course. Others want a better way to handle the stress of work or to be more present with their children, or want to understand themselves better or want a way to quiet an overactive mind.
We close our eyes and a small object is placed in our palm. We are told to take some time to use all our senses to study it. Suddenly grows in weight as I focus all my attention on it; I feel its presence in the palm of my hand. Rolling it around between my forefinger and thumb, it feels rough, delicate; with my nail I can feel ridges and valleys.
"Smell it.", comes the instruction.
Bringing it up to my nose, I breathe in an earthy sweet smell. I already think I know what it is, but part of mindfulness is to suspend judgement for curiosity, so I gently squeeze it and listen to it squeak in protest. We are then allowed to open our eyes to discover that we've all been exquisitely examining for the past few minutes. A raisin! Placing it on my tongue, I move it around my mouth, and the texture changes. It is less rough now, softer, but the ridges and valleys are still present. My mouth fills with saliva and I finally allow myself to bite, slowly chewing to savour the taste.
"How was it?" asks our instructor. "I normally grab a handful of these and quickly eat them without a second thought" one of us volunteers, "but this was like eating a meal".
What are the challenges of mindfulness?
The rest of the class passes with us discussing what mindfulness is and what it isn't. It is not a relaxation technique, it is not about being without thought, and unfortunately it does not need to be pleasant. Mindfulness, we are told, is about being here without judgment, in the present, even when that present is unpleasant.
Ultimately mindfulness is about practice; constantly bringing your mind back to the here and now every time it wanders off to the past or the future. Establishing our practice outside of the course will be our challenge; fitting in our exercises and reading into already busy lives.
Three days later, I've already struggled to find the time to do my guided meditation, but I've been fitting in the exercises whenever I can. Today after exercising at the gym, I found a spot in the corner, closed my eyes and started to focus on my breathing, the post exercise glow adding a sense of calm and peacefulness.
Week 2: Wandering off and coming back
As our instructor tells us to focus on our feet, on our toes, then on our ankles, I'm reminded of a poem by Henry Reed, "Naming of Parts", To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday, we had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning...
We continue to name our parts, and I struggle to keep my ankle joint in mind. It takes me until my knees for my mind to stop actively resisting my attempts at remembering where my lower legs are. There is a word for this sensation, proprioception. This is your ability to sense the relative positions of neighbouring parts of your body. But I find that maintaining focus in the body scan meditation is difficult to achieve. I keep wandering off to think about last night's events, or my next coaching session, even what words I'll write in this blog.
We switch back to our breath and are asked to imagine breathing into our legs. Surprisingly, I find this easier to experience, imagining my breath flowing like water into my legs, which then become two sausage-shaped balloons. As I breathe in, my chest rises, my legs fill with air and I am pulled upwards. My whole body follows a slightly curving trajectory, as I'm being pulled up from the hips, then, as I release my breath, I'm pulled back down and I have a sensation of the yoga mat wrapping around me.
We continue to find parts of our body, identifying and noticing our chest, neck shoulders, arms and fingers. We switch back to breathing into our heads, imagining our head filling up with air and feeling a pressure from the inside out. Again this is easier to achieve than it sounds, but unlike my balloon legs, my head stays intact as I feel the pressure increase on the inside of my skull.
I'm not the only one who found enhanced proprioception difficult. We all share a similar but different experience. "Terrible," said one, "I found it difficult to feel any sensation," someone volunteers, "I had a headache and felt blocked in my chest". Others enjoyed the experience, becoming relaxed and nearly drifting off to sleep. I felt restless with either excitement or anxiety, I wanted the meditation to stop, but once it did I felt OK and calm. Subjectively, it feels much easier to focus on breathing than a part of the body.
"Even with the difficulties of the body scan, I already find it easier to catch wandering thoughts quicker, cutting them off before they are fully formed. And as subjective as my experience is, I already feel more calm and a sense of clarity."
I'm not the only one that has noticed an improvement in focus already, others share an ability to focus and feel as they have achieved more in the day.
Our instructor finishes the session by stressing the importance of practice and building up a habit of mindfulness and meditation as it is only through practice we will receive the benefits. I think the problem is that we wait until we have the burnout, suffer emotional loss or have a health scare before we begin with self-improvement practices when in fact, we need these resources already established to help us through our difficult times.
Week 3: The power of letting go
I'm struggling to write this blog post about my mindfulness journey, although I'm not really sure why. But once I stop worrying about the quality of my writing and let the worry go, my thoughts begin to take shape. It is only then that I realise that the main insight I've gained this week is the power of letting go.
Since starting the programme, I've been carrying out the meditations at least once a day, many times twice. Every morning before I start work, I lay on my bed and listen to the guided meditation. I begin the routine of locating my left foot before bringing the next part of my body into awareness. I hold the sensations in my mind, before breathing out and letting that body part go. I imagine it dissolving, breaking up into a thousand little glittering pieces before disappearing into blackness.
Letting go of emotions
Once, when focussing on my heart, an immense feeling of sadness sunk into my chest. As I breathed out and let my awareness go, the emotion lifted and dissolved. I don't get this feeling again on subsequent practices, even though I'm aware there is probably more to release. We're reminded in class that we shouldn't have any expectations of achieving any particular state of mind or result. There is no right or wrong way to feel. The only requirement is a regular practice.
In addition to the meditations, we are asked to complete other exercises each week and record our thoughts, feelings and reactions to pleasant events. As we share our experiences in class, someone talks about hearing birdsong outside their window while doing the body scan. Others share the pleasure of the sun warming their face, something I also took pleasure in this week. You quickly find that you can take pleasure in the small things and importantly, allow yourself to enjoy that moment, without sabotaging it with worries or concerns.
"It isn't all birdsong and sunshine, I still get stressed, angry or demotivated by external events, but I find it slightly easier to let the emotion go."
The biggest benefit I've noticed is that my low-level anxiety has started to reduce. I am also aware that stopping the practice would quickly bring this anxiety back. Externally, the changes are subtle. While my partner has remarked on my slight increase in calmness and reduction in anxiety, internally the change feels quite large. Maybe, because we tend to judge ourselves too negatively, even small changes in mindset will probably feel quite large.
Week 4 & 5: Being halfway
We are halfway through our group mindfulness course, and we begin our session by sharing what it means to be "halfway". Since starting the course, I've carried out my meditations every day and completed my homework. I now have an unbroken connection of daily meditations totalling 34 days. Lots of things are changing for me, and while what follows isn't an exhaustive list, these are the main positive outcomes.
I'm not being triggered as much by events and thoughts that would normally make me anxious. My partner has noticed this lack of anxiety, commenting that at first it was strange for this aspect of my identity to be missing, feeling a need to ask me constantly if there was anything wrong.
My desire to work and focus has improved dramatically. I'm able to sit down and start my day without resistance, and I'm less easily distracted. One of my changes to my environment at the start of the year was to remove Facebook and email from my phone. I now avoid social media during the day, unless it is to progress my business.
I exercise more effectively and I'm motivated to exercise more. I wasn't bad at completing at least some exercise every week, but I wasn't really working to my full potential. Now, I'm focussed on working hard for the hour of exercise. I enjoy getting out of breath and I'm more connected to my body during my workout.
I sleep much better and wake up with a clearer head. This was a surprising change. I've always been an early riser, but I notice now that the fog of sleep lifts quickly, and my mind is clear within minutes of waking up.
Turning towards difficulties
But after four weeks of daily meditation practice, recording thoughts, feelings and behaviour, it is time for us to put our skills to the test and turn towards our difficulties. Our instructor warns us that this is when we may stumble, and that some people turn away from this stage of the course. I suppose that deep down I've felt this aspect coming.
"My ego is dying, I can feel it being chipped away with each meditation, like an iceberg. I've only just started to remove what is above the surface, and sometimes I have a sense of sadness, as if I'm mourning lost aspects of my identity that are fighting for survival, although they weren't beneficial."
We begin our meditation, and are asked to turn towards a difficulty, and then to explore how our body reacts. I bring my difficulty to mind and a constricting burning feeling starts in my solar plexus that threatens to climb up my chest and take hold of my throat. My heart is thumping in my chest, and tears are starting to well up in my eyes. I move away from the anxiety and focus on my breathing. I can hear other people in the room struggling, their breaths sounding equally laboured.
We were advised that we didn't have to focus on our hardest concerns and troubles, but the beauty of working together as a group is sharing and hearing each other's struggles. It is a safe space. Someone shares a poignant story about a parent's death. My difficulty seems trite in comparison and I'm almost overcome with an emphatic response. The tightness starts in my solar plexus, then a tightening in my chest and tears welling up again. It affects someone else even more, bringing back painful memories of their own experience with loss.
Empathy and compassion
We discuss the difference between compassion and empathy, that compassion is empathy in action. With practice, we can become compassionate towards ourselves and ultimately towards others. The course has been leading to this point, giving us the tools to move into and explore difficult emotions and experiences, taking some kind of deliberate action over an automatic reaction that keeps us trapped in our past or fearful of our future.
It was the most difficult session so far for many of us. But even so, I know that meditation will become part of my life, that it is already opening up and helping me uncover insights about myself and the relationships I have with others. The future is no longer full of angst but an open landscape of endless possibilities and opportunities that are there for the taking.
Week 6: From fighting to kindness
As always, we begin with our group meditation, taking time to arrive and leave the outside world behind. The group meditations always feel stronger, deeper, than when I carry out my meditations on my own. For me, this brings home the strength of human connection and nonverbal communication. We all know from experience that even sat in silence the air can be filled with emotion and tension. Facial expressions, body movements and physiological responses communicate more than words do.
Someone starts by sharing how difficult it was after our last session, that they had a sense of sadness that stayed with them for a couple of days. I also spent a few days in a depressed mood following our last sessions of exploring difficulty. Others share the pain of losing loved ones unexpectedly, the empathic feeling is in the air again and I choose not to share my experiences, and save my words for this blog.
Stop fighting with migraine
The weekend after the class, I had a migraine, something I've suffered with for many years. When I have an attack, I tend to fight with the pain. My migraines start in my neck and shoulder, then the pain travels upwards towards the base of my skull, radiating across the left side of my face before finally coming to a point above my left eye. Sometimes the pain is so bad that I spend hours in the shower, numbing my head with the hot water, or even need to visit the hospital emergency room.
I have medication, but it has to be taken within a small window of opportunity to be effective. When I miss this window, the day tends to be lost to me fighting the pain and fighting the urge to vomit. This time I decided to use the meditations to accept the pain, breathing into my pain, exploring it in detail and using my breathing to let the pain dissolve across my head and throughout my body. Rather than fight the urge to vomit, I allow this to happen. I still suffered for most of the day, but felt that I managed my pain better, not struggling or fighting with my migraine. In accepting that this was happening, I felt less tired and worn out once the headache lifted.
"We spend some time in the class talking about accepting our difficulties rather than fighting them. For me, my migraine was the ultimate metaphor for this struggle. I can't control this pain, but fighting it never works."
I need to let it happen and let go my attempt to control my experiences. A great deal of our struggle is found in the denial of the inevitability of our pain and suffering. Acceptance doesn't mean we give up or roll over; rather we take what is given, embrace it and live it. By moving towards our pain, exploring and understanding it, we lessen the hold it has over us.
The discussion turns towards compassion. To truly change the relationship that we have with our difficulties, we need to develop compassion and kindness for others, but most importantly for ourselves. Our instructor introduces us to new meditation; this is one that I've practiced before the "metta bhavana" meditation - the development of loving-kindness.
First, we are asked to call to mind someone who invokes feelings of joy and happiness in us. Holding this person in mind I silently repeat the words, "may you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from pain and suffering". I feel a sense of love and warmth start to build in my chest as my emotion lifts, a smile forms on my face.
Next, we are asked to picture ourselves. I imagine looking at myself in a mirror, and start to repeat the words "May I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from pain and suffering". Suddenly, my eyes tear up and a tear forms and rolls down my cheek. I'm feeling the same sensation that I feel from empathy and compassion. I allow the feeling to happen rather than fight it, but it is difficult to keep an image of myself in mind and give myself compassion.
Finally we move on to someone neutral, someone who we don't particularly like or dislike. I think about someone I saw on the metro, and again I repeat the words, "may you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from pain and suffering". The feelings of empathy and compassion are still with me, and I silently send this out. We finish by bringing all three people to mind, repeating our words and sending out loving-kindness.
Again we share our experiences and discover that others find it equally difficult to give themselves compassion and empathy. As with exploring difficulty, giving yourself compassion and empathy is a difficult process. We constantly chide ourselves for being selfish, angry or not good enough. This message is amplified by western society and the messages around us. We are told to strive for the perfect body, the perfect face, and the perfect relationship. Anything less, and we are failures. Through this noise it is difficult to hear our self-critical thoughts for what they are, a request for empathy and compassion.
We all suffer. We all have failed relationships and we all have said things we wished we hadn't. We all haven't lived up to our ideals as a friend, a partner, a father, a mother, a son or a daughter. We all can empathise with our friends and family when they share these experiences because we recognise them ourselves. Rather than being selfish, compassion for ourselves enables us to be compassionate for others. We remove our feelings of guilt and shame and replace these with happiness and compassion that we can give to everyone around us.
Week 7 & 8: Only the beginning
My journey into mindfulness has ended, but I can't avoid the cliché that it is only just the beginning. The course has set the foundation for a richer, more fulfilled life that is there for the taking. In only eight weeks of instruction and weekly meetings and 16 hours of guidance, I have achieved a paradigm shift in my outlook and my sense of being.
In our final class, we undertake one last meditation as a group, and I feel that we all give ourselves completely to this ultimate experience of meditating together. The meditation is one of the deepest that I've achieved. For a while, I lose my sense of being as I lose the realisation that I am actually meditating. Unlike other meditations, I can't remember many details, like a dream that is lost upon waking up.
Someone shares about having an out of body experience, the initial fear of the unknown, but knowing they were in a safe space, so opening up to it and achieving a sense of peace afterwards. I didn't have this fear. I seemed to move into a deep state of relaxation where I lost awareness. And we all seem to have achieved this deep sense of relaxation, there is a noticeable shift of the energy in the room. We are all tired and in a state of reflection.
After the break, we start to share our experiences and changes that we've noticed throughout the course. First, we share this in pairs, and then with the rest of the group. While all of our experiences are different, they are all positive stories, of better relationships, more focus, healthy ways of being, feeling reduced stress, being happier, being able to cope with the chaos and demands of modern life.
Looking back at my first blog I can see this change unfold in my narrative. I remember the trepidation, the anxiety, the awkwardness and the excitement of that first lesson. The person I then was, seems so far away from who I am now. It has been a life changing experience on many different levels. I understand how incredulous this sounds to people because it sounds incredulous to me.
But science and recent studies continue to back up this subjective experience. The minds of meditators have smaller amygdala's, the part of the brain that is important for fear and stress. While other areas to do with mind wandering, self-relevance, learning, compassion, memory and emotional regulation, all gain in thickness and brain matter. And the changes can be seen after only eight weeks of regular practice.
It isn't only my subjective experience and science that confirm there have been changes. My partner and close friends have noticed that I'm happier, more engaged and calmer. The biggest benefit I've noticed is the loss of anxiety. I never realised how much this impacted my life and my focus. I now sit down, work and maintain focus for the day. I'm also able to be more focused when coaching my clients, quickly moving into a listening state to search for the meaning behind their words.
The journey definitely wasn't easy, but it wasn't as difficult as I'd feared when I started the course. There were times that I felt discomfort and dissatisfaction. Paradoxically, one side-effect of becoming more self-aware is that you realise there are things about yourself you'd like to change. This realisation is uncomfortable, but also useful. If you don't become aware of your behaviours that you want to change, you'll never do anything about them.
There were times that I retreated into myself as I thought through these periods of discomfort, and ironically my partner suggesting that I wasn't fully present. This feedback was useful, and I realised I didn't have to withdraw, that I could engage, be happy and yet still be introspective. All feelings are moment by moment events, and I'm starting to catch the unhelpful feelings of anger and frustration just as they start to happen. I hope that with continuing practice I'll be able to catch those responses earlier and earlier until I'm able to choose to respond more creatively.
This journey would not have been possible without the support of my instructor, my course mates and my partner. I feel integrating mindfulness and meditation into your life fully can only be done with support. The weekly sessions became a safe space for us to talk and share experiences, hearing both the positive and negative experiences of my teacher and others motivated me to keep practising. Having a supportive and understanding partner at home helped enormously, something I am truly grateful for and lucky to have.
There were many reasons for writing this blog, like self-promotion, marketing, recording my experiences, and sharing these experiences with others. But it doesn't feel like this journey has ended. I feel even more committed to following this path of meditation and mindfulness. I know that I want to share this gift with others if they are willing to receive it because it truly is a gift that you can give to yourself and others around you. And it isn't about becoming some kind of cultist and dancing naked in the early morning sun while chanting.
"Meditation and mindfulness are simply about coming to terms with who you are and having a better, more compassionate relationship with yourself. Ultimately, it helps you have better, more compassionate relationships with those around you."
It helps you navigate the constantly unfolding entropy and uncertainty of life, seeing it unfold moment by moment; and that what happens now, in this moment, influences what happens in the next moment.
If by any small chance reading this blog has inspired you to undertake a meditation and mindfulness course, but you still have doubts, my advice is to let those doubts go. Enter into the experience with an open mind and open heart and commit yourself fully. It will only be through patience, practice and perseverance that you'll see the benefits meditation and mindfulness can bring. It might not work the same way for you as it does for others, but it will be beneficial. You don't need to do an hour a day, you just need to start small and weave ten minutes of daily practice into your life. Make it a habit and you'll very quickly see the benefits.
Gary is a professional development and life coach living in Brussels.