Friday, January 20, 2017

What is meditation?

I'm currently in a 7 day consistency challenge hosted by my friend/health coach  Kelly Fogarty
( ). The activity I chose for my challenge was daily meditation.  When I first started posting in the group challenge some had questions about what meditation was all about so I said I write a post on it and share it with them, and heck why not all you guys too. 

I am by no means an expert in meditation.  I'm a beginner and still learning. Prior to the class I took I always thought of meditation as a somewhat mystic/magical- even "hokey" practice, and for some a religion.  So if I felt this way what brought me into the practice and opened my mind?

2014 I had a major injury (2nd time tear of ACL) and require major surgery (ACL repair with tibia break to realign my leg so further damage couldn't be done to my already "60 year old knee"- I was 38 at the time).  Along with long rehab and some bumps along the way, 2nd surgery to remove some floating bone where it shouldn't be floating, I mainly struggled post-surgery with the fact that I'd likely not be running any time soon or really no long distance running in the future. 

I'm no super star athlete, but I was pretty active and loved having races: marathons, half-marathons,  triathlons, 5Ks etc., to train for. Losing these goals in my life were pretty tough.  To add to injury I had another major life- "not fun" -event occur in my family that shook my world.  I was pretty down and out and the clinical term appropriate would be depressed. 

I'm not one to be super patient with feeling "blue" and I was realizing how my depression was affecting my immediate family so I wanted to look into ways in which to help me get through this tough time.  The hospital I work at has a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction class that they offer to the public and employees.  I was lucky enough to get into the class and for 8 weeks (2 hour class time one day a week and one all day retreat) I was a MBSR student.  During that 8 week period I was a "good student" and did all the required homework and daily practices.  Well as is so frequently seen in my life after the 8 weeks were up (i.e. goal finished) I had a hard time staying consistent with my daily meditation practice.  I've practiced it on and off, but not consistently and so this recent challenge has been perfect and I'm hoping will remind me of what a difference daily meditation means in my life.

Again, not an expert, but this is what I've learned about meditation and mindfulness over the last year.  I'll start by sharing what I learned by reading Jon Kabat-Zinn's book "Full Catastrophe Living".  This book was the only textbook used in the class, but there were several articles, poems, and handouts given on weekly basis- and I'll share info from them too. 

Brief intro...Jon Kabat-Zinn is a professor emeritus at University of Massachusetts's Medical School.  He has brought his experience with meditation and science together and leads the Stress Reduction Clinic.  He has looked at ways to accomplish healing the mind and body together through mindfulness based stress reduction. (This brief synopsis is really minuscule and he is a very interesting person whom I'd recommend you read up on if at all interested in theories behind mindfulness. He is currently doing and has done studies showing major brain changes (good changes) through MRI findings of the patients who practice meditation).  The following are different quotes that I think best explain, in his words, what mindfulness and meditation mean and can accomplish...

"allowing yourself to be as you are, and discovering the fullness and vast potential within such and approach " - on mindfulness and meditation  

"cultivation through practice"- self-discovery and being present

Mindfulness is "awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally."

"The present is the only time that we have to know anything.  It is the only time we have to perceive, to learn, to act, to change, to heal, to love."

"Health is a dynamical process. It is not a fixed state you 'get' and then hold on to."

"People come to us when they finally decide that they have had enough...when they finally decide that there just has to be a better way to live and a better way to handle their problems." - in regard to those who attend the stress reduction clinic.  Some have major chronic health conditions, chronic pain, and some with mental health concerns.

The foundations of Mindfulness Practice are:
1. Non-judging ( I found this to be tough- when you are lying down trying to be present and focus on your breath, or focus on an area in your body and instead you are thinking about all the "to do's" on your list - i.e. not being present, it is easy to be hard on yourself and almost mentally punish yourself for one more thing you can't do right- being present.)
2. Patience (Pretty tough one for me- throughout the 8 weeks some of the students in the class with me would report these profound "aha" moments and I just wasn't having the same experience and so I was inpatient to experience my own "aha" moment.)
3. Beginner's Mind-- "a mind that is willing to see everything as if for the first time". (again hard to do because of preconceived notions, past history, etc.)
4. Trust
5. Non-Striving ( again tough for me- wanting to make sure I'm doing the best and doing it right- instead I had to learn to "just be")
6. Acceptance-"doesn't mean you like what has occurred or that you are merely passively resigned to it".
7. Letting Go

The class practices done during class time and outside of class as our homework (goal of 6 days/week) were:
1. Body Scan- lying down on yoga mat, floor, or bed you would listen to a 35 minutes recording that leads you through the practice.  Focus on breathing, clearing your mind and only focusing on the present and the directions of the recording.  The body scan was tough for most of us students.  Some students would fall asleep- which although sleep isn't bad, this isn't really being present and not a goal of meditation.  As Jon Kabat-Zinn writes "meditation is not relaxation spelled differently". For those students who just couldn't stay awake they would stand or sit for their body scan practices. 

2. Breath Sitting Meditation- could be done sitting in chair or on floor with legs crossed, really can be done in any position, but I did find sitting on the floor with legs crossed I was most apt to stay focused.  This practice was again about 30 minutes.  The hardest thing with this practice for me, besides not letting my mind wander all over kingdom come, was just sitting still. 

3. Floor Yoga- this exercise was excellent and reminded me of what I think of restorative yoga practice.  I liked this practice as it made me feel like I was doing something physical (gentle stretches, holding poses, etc.), but I didn't always feel I was present in the moment due to always thinking about what the next pose would be.

4. Mindful Communication- this was pretty fascinating.  We paired up with partners and the first exercise was one partner would talk for 5 minutes straight and the other partner would just listen, no response either physical or verbal was allowed.  It made me realize how "not present" I am when communicating with others- kind of half-listening.  You hear what the other person is saying, but so many times I was already thinking about how I was going to respond or interact- so I wasn't really hearing all they were saying.  This practice also made me aware of how many people weren't really listening to me when I was talking.  How many of us have experienced or been the culprit of cell phone or computer use during conversations when we really should have eye to eye contact and be purposefully listening to those who communicate with us?

5. Walking Meditation- It is as exactly as it sounds.  Take a walk and notice the movement of your body, the presence of your step in detail, the breathing pattern, and then add some external parts of the walk- weather, nature.  No talking, no cell phone, no ipod, no sound other than your breath and the sounds that nature brings to the walk.  We practiced this during our daily retreat and the walking was slow and purposeful- not a speed walk, or walk to burn tons of calories. 

Another topic that was touched in an article by Mark Williams and Danny Penman during class was about "autopilot".  If there is too much information constantly bombarding our brains our working memory begins to overflow.  The human reaction to this "overflow" is called stress, forgetfulness, exhaustion and feeling out of control.  If one can recognize through meditation and mindfulness when this "autopilot" is occurring then changes can be made.  They write, "You need to relearn how to focus your awareness on one thing at a time."

At the end of the class I came to the realization that I would likely not have an "aha" moment.  I did however, have a better feel for how being present in my daily life, purposeful communication, and meditation practices had brought a calm that I much needed.  Meditation didn't solve my personal problems, but it really did make me feel like I was responding to my life not just reacting to it.  I don't think you need to do a formal practice everyday, but I think the formal practice does lend itself to the realization that you are carving out time to work on bettering your mindfulness and being present.  I feel being mindful and being present will allow me to better experience my life- the good, the bad, the sad, and the happy. 

I'll leave you with this lovely poem by Christina Feldman
How can we know
all of who we are
unless we take the
time to be silently
with ourselves, and
to listen to the
many voices of
our heart?

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