Pie a la Mode–May Mindfulness Wrap-up

 

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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?

From Kristen:

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.

 

From Mary:

I fully expected to grab May by the horns and meditate the heck out of it.

I failed.

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.)

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My favorite station, Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus

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.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/encountering-silence/id1310186933?mt=2&i=1000400033803

 

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.

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Favorite Dishes for Memorial Day Weekend

 

 

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From Kristen:

I do so love weddings

It is rivaled only by my love for the Boston Red Sox and the Dropkick Murphys.

And after throwing down this kind of wisdom:

who WOULDN’T want Cookie Monster as their life coach?

From Mary:

I was also thinking about cookies, while practicing this month’s dare:

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And Kristen had me going down the Cookie Monster rabbit hole with some much-needed dance lessons:

On a note with fewer carbs but equally as sweet, I finally saw my first Blue Angels show during Commissioning Week (the week leading up to graduation at the Naval Academy). We’ve lived in Annapolis for 21 years and I’ve heard their power and caught glimpses of them passing overhead as they turned to head back to the main show area, but I’ve never gone downtown to actually see the whole show. It was truly spectacular. I hope your holiday weekend brings you something equally awe-inspiring.

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Blue Plate Special for May: Kristen’s Response to the Thought of Sitting Still and Not Talking

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I can’t do it. I just can’t. I can neither sit still for any length of time, nor can I keep my mouth shut. (I even talk in my sleep.)  I know for a fact that I am doomed to fail this challenge.

And yet, I am more excited about trying this than anything we’ve discussed together. Why? Because I know it works—have known it for years, but haven’t done it.

I know it works, because I battle both depression and a chronic illness, and medication has not done enough to manage my symptoms. In an act of desperation a decade ago, I turned to a western-trained doctor who incorporated “complimentary therapies” to the treatment of his patients with chronic fatigue and pain issues. You can go ahead and imagine hearing Mary’s dad grumbling about some hippie dippy quack. I’m with you. I had serious doubts, but did I mention that I was desperate? I was in constant pain, I was past the point of exhaustion, and depression had me in a dark place.  Seriously, I was ready to try anything to feel better–even a hippie dippy quack and his new age-y alternative medicine weirdness.

Then I walked into a very normal-looking hospital, sat in a very normal-looking waiting room and read a normal-looking (outdated) issue of Better Homes and Gardens, until I was summoned  by a normal-looking doctor in a white lab coat with a stethoscope and a laptop computer.

Dr. R very thoroughly reviewed my medical history, including the various treatments I had already unsuccessfully been prescribed. He then proceeded to teach me, patiently, about the science that backs up the alternative practices he employs. Guess what his primary “alternatives” were: diet, exercise, restful sleep, and therapy. Hardly hippie dippy.

He sent me to a nutritionist to help me address trigger foods that exacerbated my conditions. He gave me solid advice about “sleep hygiene” [Just Google it. It’s all the common sense stuff that helps you sleep better.] I was sent to physical therapy for six weeks to reclaim some mobility. [Okay! Really, I just needed adult supervision to get regular, moderate exercise.] And finally, I was sent to therapy, to help me deal with my depression. Susan, my therapist, was the closest thing to a hippie in the practice. She wore flowy clothes made of natural fibers, and was an early adopter of the scarf comeback. Anyhow, she did all the standard cognitive behavioral therapy stuff you expect from the normal-looking practices.

Once I was lulled into a sense of security, though, she tricked me into something “alternative”–meditation. See, folks at UMASS Medical Center were doing some really cool stuff with people like firefighters and roofers and other salt-of-the-earth types who suffered injuries that left them in chronic pain. Their research found that mindfulness meditation for stress reduction did in fact relieve their pain—both the physical pain from the injury, and the mental pain of depression and anxiety from dealing with the injury– so that they could function. As Susan explained it, meditation is basically just breathing and paying attention. It’s not actually all that hard. She convinced me to try it out for a few minutes at the end of our sessions.

Guess what? I felt better!

And then my insurance ran out, and I went back to work, and in a stunningly short amount of time, I stopped doing all of the things I learned make me feel better.

I’m old enough to be a crone, but I clearly am not wise enough to be. I woke up above the ground today, so there’s still time. I’m going to do it. I’m going to sit still and stop talking. I will breathe and pay attention. Just thinking about it is making me start to feel better.

Blue Plate Special for May: I Dare You to Sit Still and Stop Talking

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April was Autism Awareness Month and May, not to be outdone, is Mental Health Awareness Month. We have both aplenty in our home. We may be some of the aware-est people you know (not that it’s a contest—wait, are there prizes?—no, scratch that, it’s totally not a contest).

I find “awareness” to be an odd thing to set as a goal for a month. I think I see the concept, that if people who don’t already understand anything about mental illness take some time to learn, we can all behave a little more humanely. Maybe we can be more understanding and compassionate.

But “be aware” sounds an awful lot like “beware,” which in turn sounds like a warning. Some people have mental illnesses—beware! I imagine this statement punctuated with “alarm hands,” a sullied and more menacing perversion of jazz hands. We’re already inundated with that subtext through sensationalistic news coverage and the villainization of mentally ill characters in literature and film. (I hope later this month to explore some of the less stereotypical portrayals.)

Those of us who live with mental illness daily, whether our own or that of those we love, are already aware. We can’t NOT be. I don’t wish to play a pity-fiddle, nor do I wish to sugar-coat it with phrases like “it’s such a blessing” or “God only picks special people,” because according to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in six adults in the U.S. lives with a mental illness (see nimh.nih.gov). It strikes all sorts of individuals and all sorts of families—rich, poor, educated, ignorant, wise, foolish, optimistic, pessimistic, compassionate, and downright assholes. Those who deal with it can’t be lumped together as purely monstrous nor magical—we are simply human.

In thinking about the dare for this month, I remembered the seminar at Loyola that a dear friend invited me to attend last June titled Stress, Mindfulness, and Self-Care. I went eagerly, because a) I was stressed, and b) I adore this friend and we had plans to go out for a drink after. I knew nothing whatsoever about mindfulness, or what to expect.

As we entered the seminar, we realized that it was a small part of a multi-day workshop for Montessori teachers. (Neither of us is a Montessori teacher.) Awkwardness aside, we found seats in the back, took some notes, self-consciously participated in some stretching and breathing exercises, walked a bit through the lovely campus, and went to the restaurant. I thought the concepts were intriguing, and planned to look into them further.

The next week my father entered hospice care unexpectedly, kicking off an 8-month span during which I lost both of my parents. It’s been a time when I could have used a little stress-relieving mindfulness, but was also least able to take the time to research and explore it.

When I mentioned to Kristen that I was thinking of daring her to participate in some form of meditation for Mental Health Awareness month but that I didn’t really know what I was doing, she was on it. Two days later a copy of Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn arrived on my porch. I eagerly opened it, thinking “I’m gonna learn to meditate! Woot!” I gobbled up the introduction. I started in on the first section. I got about 50 pages in before I realized I was reading about mindfulness, but not the HOW of it.

How do I do this?

I flipped back through thinking I missed something. Nope. I resorted to the Table of Contents.

Entering. Sustaining. Deepening—Ripening—a-ha! Finally! After 135 pages I will arrive at Practicing.

This mindfulness thing is going to require some patience.

I am through the first two sections. I admit to having to really work at adjusting my attitude about several things. On the very first page, the author speaks of the “emotional topology of the moment of beginning,” and I am simultaneously struck by the poetry of it and chuckling at the sound of my dad’s voice in the back of my head asking, “Is this a load of that hippy-dippy new age crap?” (Dad always thought that psychologists were the “real crazy ones.”)

I was also panicked by the section that explains a desired shift of consciousness from a narrative focus to an experiential focus. Perhaps it’s the specific words used, but as a writer, I enjoy playing around in the narrative of my mind. I could live there, really–it’s where I do my favorite parts of my work. It’s going to take a degree of trust and release to voluntarily let go of that for even brief periods.

But if even a few of the potential payoffs are real—relaxation, peace, awareness, interconnectedness, greater compassion for others—I am willing to try.

Would you care to sit still with us for a while?

Please note that we are beginning a practice of mindfulness as a method of centering and stress relief—not as a substitute for professional mental health care. If you are experiencing symptoms of mental illness, please consult with a physician immediately. Some helpful resources:

 

National Alliance on Mental Illness (nami.org)

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)   (24 hours a day, 7 days a week, confidential, toll-free, connects you to the nearest crisis center—for the Veterans Crisis Line, call this number and press 1)

As always, if you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, call 911.

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