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I’m a cynic by nature but I was surprised by how mindfulness helped me

Mindfulness is not about feeling better, it’s about being better at feeling. Without a doubt it has helped me to take charge of my emotions.

Image: Shutterstock/Ollyy

It’s becoming more popular but, to the uninitiated, mindfulness practice can seem daunting. Here, a person who had never practised mindfulness before shares their weekly diary entries about learning this skill in a group setting.

MINDFULNESS: THERE’S A lot of discussion about it, you may have friends or family who practise it, you might even have given it a go yourself.

I’m a cynic by nature and although two friends swear by their mindfulness practice I can’t help but think it’s all a bit too wooly for me. However, drugs can only do so much when you’re battling bipolar disorder/depression and the psychiatrist I’ve been seeing for the last few years has recommended me for a mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) group course. My counsellor is cautious because he’s not a fan of CBT, the GP tells me that it works for 50% of people.

Whatever the outcome, it will be two hours out of my day, once a week, for ten weeks. What’s the worst that can happen?

Week 1 – starting out

The course is taking place as part of a clinical study in a psychiatric hospital. While I recognise one or two faces, I have enough life experience to be able to spot varying levels of depression, despair, anxiety and stress among the participants. I’m one of the lucky ones because I’m coming out of the other end of this particular battle. Just as well, because the literature recommends not taking on a course in mindfulness if you are in the depths of depression.

There is a tension in the room. We are asked to introduce ourselves to the group and explain what we hope to get from the course. I have had some bad news this morning which has sent me into a tailspin of negative thoughts. All the more reason to be here because that’s what mindfulness is all about. But with the despair comes an all-consuming fuzziness that prevents me from connecting the two thoughts.

We start with “mindfully eating a raisin”. Yes, it sounds stupid and it also feels stupid when you are doing it, but I’m not alone. However, after trying it, we all agree that if you could eat mindfully you would never have to diet.

The next exercise is a guided 20 minute body scan which involves focusing the mind on parts of the body to bring awareness to what is happening in the here and now. I’ve tried this at home (you can download a body scan meditation from palousemindfulness.com) but it never seemed to work because I always fell asleep. In the group session I find it incredibly hard to focus and miss out the entire left leg. However, what I learn from feedback is that there is no “wrong” as such – when your mind wanders, you acknowledge the fact and bring your focus back to where it should be.

Our homework for week one is to practise our body scan meditation six times, to eat mindfully at least once, and to choose a daily practice to complete mindfully.

The daily task is easy to select. It’s amazing to learn when you are brushing your teeth how little your mind is focused on the task. The mind races, your thoughts are everywhere, you notice the bathroom needs a good scrub. But practise makes perfect and within a few days I can complete the task mindfully. I don’t see the point, but I can do it.

As for the body scan, choosing a time when you are guaranteed an uninterrupted 45 minutes isn’t easy. Everything else gets in the way, there’s so much more important stuff to be getting on with. I fail miserably most of the week but on day six, some success – I manage to stay awake, I can bring my focus back to where it should be for the most part, but I’m still not convinced this is for me. However, its been recommended we stick with it so I’m going to give it my best shot.

Something positive

In the group session there’s still a sense of tension that I can’t quite put my finger on, but if I had to guess it comes from a feeling that what we are doing is an absolute waste of time. There has been some drop-off in attendance since session one and most of us agree that we really, really don’t want to be here. I have an inkling of why we are doing what we are doing, but I can’t quite make the leap from doing to feeling to everyday life.

Our homework includes continuing with the body scan every day, completing a 10 minute mindfulness of breathing exercise every day, recording one positive and one negative experience every day, focusing on how the body felt at the time of the experience, what the mood was like and the thoughts that went through the mind.

It sounds a little bit navel-gazey and I can only speak for myself but when you have spent years living in your mind and focused almost exclusively on negative thoughts that continually spiral out of control, to be forced to focus on something positive is energising and surprisingly . . . well . . . positive. The smallest things can bring happiness – the smell of your first cup of coffee of the day, the sun coming out in the garden.

Something starts to click with me.

It could be working

We focus on the idea of using the breath to anchor you and bring you back to the here and now. It occurs to me that this is something everyone can use. We all have bad days in work when a minor problem threatens to ruin the week. With a sitting meditation we can bring ourselves back to the present and rein in spiraling, negative thoughts.

For homework we are asked to complete a 40-minute stretch-and-breathe meditation three times and a 40-minute mindful movement meditation three times. There’s also mindful walking, which I can’t stand, and a three minute “breathing space.”

The three minute exercise doesn’t work out for me. I just can’t get into it – but instead of giving up I get a Chrome extension called Bell of Mindfulness that takes you out of what you are doing and brings you back to the now, once per hour. Sitting at a computer all day, I can recommend this to everyone. It’s really the simplest thing – it stops you in your tracks and reminds you that you are breathing. It probably sounds stupid but, in context, it works.

A setback

In the group, we all joke that it will be easy to focus on negative thoughts but I am genuinely tentative about it. I’ve spent months avoiding negative thoughts and the idea of “sitting with them” scares me. I’ve given up this exercise by day three. It leads to a bad week, all the more distressing because I’ve officially had three good weeks in a row. The night before the next session, my last thought before I sleep is of suicide, my first thought the following morning the same.

It appears I’m not alone. Attendance has dropped off. Everyone feels the same way about the negative thoughts exercise, some people are visibly upset. I suggest that it’s dangerous to force people coming out of depression to do something like this. It’s explained that the idea behind it was to help us to recognise aversion, to sit with bad thoughts so that we can learn to respond mindfully instead of running on automatic pilot.

This is a moment of clarity for me. I realise that the exercises are not about “successfully meditating” but about training the mind to think differently. It’s a radical thought and one that sits well with me.

It’s not a matter of ruminating on nasty things. Instead, we are invited to recognise negative thoughts and, I suppose, to think our way through them instead of going off on one.

I can honestly say that after various therapies, group work, psychiatrists and medication over the years, this exercise alone stands out as the most useful.

Some success

Over the following weeks, the group dwindles down to three or four regulars. I’ve thought about giving up so many times but always convince myself to continue.

Like everyone else in the group, finding time to complete the homework is the main problem. However, what’s become clear is that although practise is essential every day if possible, it’s not a matter of following a prescribed plan. Instead, over the final weeks of the course we are asked to work out what parts of the practice work for us.

This makes sense to everyone. I have to focus on a few different daily techniques. The most useful one for me is mindful driving which involves noticing physical feelings and sensations. I start this with two minutes when I start driving and increase it gradually to the first half of the journey – no radio, no music, just me and my sensations.

I find this hugely comforting and relaxing.

Mindfulness put into practise

I have bipolar II which is no fun at all but I have been managing it very well since Christmas – don’t ask, not a good one – with the help of my counsellor, the psychiatrists, exercise, positive thought and medication.

However, through various circumstances and events I dip into a hypomanic phase over the last two weeks of the course. The phase aligns perfectly with the last day of the course and one positive comes out of it – finally, I am able to recognise the signs of hypomania and what brings it on. Because of that I feel I am better equipped to “go with” the phase for want of a better term. This is not in any way easy but I learn to “sit with” the ever-increasing symptoms of a hypomanic episode, which in itself helps me to control it to an extent and recognise that it will be followed by a slump.

When the phase reaches its epic conclusion – that’s how it always feels with me – it is unfortunately in public and I frankly make a bit of a tit of myself in front of some people I don’t know very well. However, I learn that I can sit with the feelings that come with it – guilt, embarrassment, anger, worry and so on. To my great surprise, in the slump that follows I am more than able to deal with the symptoms and not let them get out of control. I feel that this is a culmination of the course, the ability to recognise what’s happening and not let it get on top of you.

Does mindfulness work?

Mindfulness is not about feeling better, it’s about being better at feeling. Without a doubt it has helped me to take charge of my emotions. I have no expectation that it will “cure” me, any more that counseling or drugs, but combined and with serious effort I can say that mindfulness works if you are willing to work with it.

I have struggled with suicidal ideation since my teens, almost every day, almost all of the time. There have been many attempts. Since the course finished I can genuinely say that these thoughts have receded significantly. It feels like a large part of my brain has been freed up.

I still have bad days, but while in the past these often spiraled out of control, now I have a toolset that can help me to address what’s going on. To me, it’s amazing that I can go for a week or more now without having suicidal thoughts. It’s not a cure, I have to continue to manage myself, but its a huge help. That can only be a good thing.

I’ve heard that mindfulness can be used for almost anything – pain management, giving up smoking, managing diet. If nothing else, I recommend trying PalouseMindfulness.com – I found working alone difficult but it gave me an idea of what mindfulness can do.

It costs nothing. Give it a go.

The author wishes to remain anonymous.

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