For May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month, I challenged Kristen to join me in practicing mindfulness meditation. It was an odd dare, since Kristen is well-versed in the practice and I didn’t even really know what it was, but that’s never stopped us before.
So how did we do?
Sometimes I surprise myself. I fully expected to fail at this challenge. I didn’t.
I still battle depression. I still have a family full of folks I love that battle depression, anxiety, addiction, bi-polar disorder, PTSD… This one month of breathing and paying attention didn’t cure any of us. It DID make me more mindful of what is actually going on in a given moment, though. Paying attention allowed me to recognize that not every moment of every day was dark. It makes getting through the tough days so much easier.
How did I do it? Well, I tried a bunch of things. I will admit that some of that is because I knew I was going to be expected to write about my experiences. Mostly, though, I was curious about the different kinds of meditative practices I’ve been learning about, and wanted to at least attempt some of them for myself.
I reread Jon Kabat-Zinn book Mindfulness for Beginners to remember the science behind the practice, and the practical steps for “breathing and paying attention.” His work at UMASS began back in 1979, so there’s plenty of science. There are not a lot of practical steps. Get comfortable and quiet. Breathe. Pay attention to your breath. Get distracted. Go back to paying attention to your breath. Repeat. It is remarkable how calm I feel from doing something so easy.
Years ago, while working my way through Julia Cameron’s course The Artist’s Way I started a writing meditation she calls “Morning Pages” where you write 3-pages a day in a notebook, first thing in the morning. It is a brain dump kind of meditation. It helps clear the way for the thoughts and work of the day ahead. I managed to write at least 3-pages a day for 17 days of May—so more than half of the month.
Sometime this month, this article about the “Hail, Mary,” the devotional prayer to the Blessed Mother, crossed my desk. I have never been a big fan of the Rosary. I have always been put off by the example that has been made of Mary—how can I possibly compete with that level of perfection?! –and I tend to prefer praying conversationally (or beseechingly) to God, than to repeat rote prayers. This article shifted my viewpoint, though. I still haven’t “said a Rosary,” but I did begin a Rosary-linked practice in my classroom. As I am sitting with individual children who need some help calming their bodies for rest time, I would recite the “Hail, Mary” in my head, counting the repetitions on my fingers. If I reached ten repetitions—a decade—I would say a small prayer for my student (or myself as a teacher). Like the mindfulness meditation exercises, where I breathe and pay attention, this exercise has helped me remain patient with the non-napping tinies. That is more of a miracle than I care to admit.
Now that Spring has finally arrived for real, I have spent many happy, contemplative hours engaged in my gardens. There is the daily walk through the yard to see what changes have appeared. (The tulips and daffodils have passed season, but my lupines and bleeding hearts are stunning right now!) There is the watering, the pruning, the weeding… So many small, tedious, daily chores that connect me to the earth and the cycle of birth, growth, and death.
Lastly, on Memorial Day, I finally stopped by the local Universalist Church, because a while back I learned that they have a labyrinth, and I was curious. I met a lovely member of the church who brought me to a pine grove to where the labyrinth was, and then left alone to meditate while I looped through the granite and pine needle lined path. I arrived there a bit muddled. It has been an emotional weekend for me on a number of fronts. Walking this structured, twisting path was unexpectedly moving. I left feeling better.
I fully expected to grab May by the horns and meditate the heck out of it.
I started out OK. Kristen sent me a copy of Mindfulness for Beginners, so I might have a clue what it was about after issuing the dare. Better late than never? I dug into the book with gusto, and finished it on a packed charter bus full of 5th graders and chaperones on the way back from an extended-day field trip to Philadelphia. The environment was nothing like what Kabat-Zinn suggests for meditating, but I took some deep breaths and focused on my reading. I could not wait to start a life-long practice of mediation.
And then life happened. One of the kids got sick, and another, and another. It was the beginning of over three weeks of several different stomach bugs that marched through our entire family, looping and swerving and hitting several people two or three times over. Although I tried to sample the guided meditation CD that comes with the book, most of my meditating was done while wiping down toilet seats with Clorox wipes, again and again. And again.
Kristen mentioned the Hail Mary. My love/disdain relationship with the rosary is currently in the “love” stage, as I’ve been trying to say one daily for my parents. I found during this past month that the rhythmic repetition of Hail Mary’s involved in this traditional form of prayer was both soothing and contemplative. That’s not quite the same as meditation I realize, but it’s as close as I got some days.
I also discovered that when I’m already feeling stressed and anxious, slowing down to focus on my breathing so I could empty my mind was next to impossible. I would hyper-focus on my breath, and almost hyperventilated a few times. Did I mention I’ve never meditated before? I can see why this is a practice that takes a lifetime. I also had some issues when instructed to shift focus from the breath to the body. It became clear to me very quickly that I am not at peace with my body. The part where you’re supposed to observe your thoughts and then let them pass without judgment had me crying in frustration more than once. I’m trying to count this as a Mental Health Awareness win, since you can’t work on a problem until you know it exists—right?
I also took my practice outside a few times, often to just walk around the neighborhood. Once this week I finally checked out the outdoor Stations of the Cross at a local Catholic Church. There is a short winding path with tall (maybe 7-foot) crosses marking each of the 14 stations, plus a 15th to stand for the Resurrection. Each cross had a plaque on it depicting the station. (For those not familiar, the stations represent the events from the time Jesus is sentenced to death until he is buried in the tomb and are often recited with traditional prayers and spoken meditations, particularly during Lent.)
I did take a good deal of solace in the Encountering Silence podcasts, particularly Episode 6, Our Silence Heroes. I’m looking forward to catching up on more of them, as silence and mindfulness are so closely linked.
Overall I’d say it was an eye-opening experience, and I look forward to much more practice—almost as much as I look forward to Kristen’s reveal of her June dare.