A calmer mind: meditation and mindfulness

This post is part 3 in a 3-part series on my quest for a calmer mind. Part 1 on social media is here, and part 2 on healing and boundaries is here.

Before I dive into the next part of my quest for a calmer mind series, two other things to report from November. First, an update on how the month-long social media fast went! In short, it was glorious. It was far, far easier than the first time I did this back in the spring, but it also felt a lot more positive all around. The impact of the fast was more significant, I had hardly any withdrawal pangs (especially compared to the fast I did in the spring), and I found I adapted easily to not having it in my life.

Bruno decided to join me, and it led to a pretty interesting month for both of us - we both did a bit more reading than usual, worked on our personal projects more, and spent more "quality time" together, just hanging out, cooking, and yes...I'll admit we may have watched a little extra Netflix. I certainly lost my compulsion to pick up and check my phone all the time, and it didn't actually lead to much sense of increased social isolation, like it did during my first attempt. Between the increased connection with Bruno, actually spending more time either writing (mostly via email or text message) back and forth with friends, and occasionally socializing in person, I actually felt very connected. Though the number of people I interacted with may have dropped, the quality of the interactions was better.

Finally, a quick note on one of the things Bruno and I did during the last month. He built me a snazzy virtual bookshelf here on my site, and I filled it with my favourite books on life, health, and creativity! I'll be adding more as I come across books that I fall in love with and want to share with you all, so if you're looking for something to read, go have a look!

Alrighty, now to the topic at hand...

droplets on lily leaves

Thought control

Racing thoughts. They make life go by in a blur, and make it hard to appreciate the simple and wonderful things that can make each day happier and more fulfilling...if we are actually tuned in and paying attention. It can seem like an impossibility to stop that brain tornado if you've lived with it for years or even decades. I sure never thought that I would see a day where I was able to step outside it - or maybe it's more stepping inside it, into the eye of the storm. Being able to think clearly and in a slower, more conscious way no matter what is going on around me (at least on my better days!).

The first step for me was not one I was very in control of: being pushed to the brink (more about this in the previous installment of this series), to a place where the discomfort of flipping my universe on its head paled in comparison to the discomfort of things staying the same. This moment will certainly look different for everyone, and I hope some people can even make a calculated decision to do this before they find themselves at their breaking point.

The second step was learning where the swirling negative thoughts were coming from, and how to separate them from the real me. That real me wanted peace and contentment, not self-flagellation, wanted to be able to enjoy all the great things in my life, regardless of how sick I was on a given day, or how small my external world had gotten. It's easy to feel wonder and awe when you're on an adventure to a new place, or on a vacation far away from the "daily grind". But to harness that feeling when you can't leave your home for weeks on end, when your ability to do the things that you enjoy is tenuous at best...that is a learned skill. Learning to do this has been an amazing journey, and it has allowed me not to feel so much like I am missing out on everything that I cannot do, but to appreciate what I can.

It doesn't make all the difficult days go away, and it doesn't mean less pain and discomfort, or fewer doctor's appointments, blood tests, upset stomachs, or days where I'm housebound... (Or does it? Maybe in time...) What it means is that I don't feel like I'm drowning in under the weight of all the things that are not going the way I wish they would. Patient endurance (a term I learned from Toni Bernhard in How to be Sick) becomes easier to access. I have a little more grace in coping with this less than ideal life - sometimes, for better or for worse, I even start to forget that my life is so restricted... I've developed the ability, at least a majority of the time, to control the way my brain interprets my life, my health, my environment, and my relationships, and it's bringing me peace.

Meditation

Yeah, yeah, meditation...eyeroll. We all know it's good for us, and everyone should be doing it. Are you tired of hearing about how great meditation is yet? Too bad! Just kidding, sort of - I mean I get it, the resistance. I feel it too, and it's incredibly confusing! Why is it so hard to just stick to doing this simple thing: sitting still for 20 minutes and trying to keep your mind steady, like the wheels of a car on and icy, rutted prairie road in the depths of winter??

Why indeed... I could list the 101 excuses I've used to skip meditating, but none of them matter. Like yoga, going for a walk, doing art, reading a book, or any of the other things that make us feel so good once we're actually doing them, for some reason they are just hard to start. It's so much easier to passively have link after link fed to you on Twitter or Facebook, or to channel surf the night away... and those things are okay in moderation! But when we do them instead things that actually make us feel good and actually leave us with something to show for our time the next day, then maybe it's time to re-evaluate how much we are living at the whims of our cravings to just zone out.

I first meditated during my inaugural yoga class at the gym I used to go to in Burnaby when I was in grad school, circa 2004. It was an evening hatha class once a week, and the teacher would have us do a short corpse pose meditation at the end of each class. I didn't really know what I was doing, but it was usually relaxing, so I went with it. It never really stuck, but whenever I did yoga from then onwards, whether in a class or at home (I was not a hardcore yoga attendee by any stretch of the imagination) it'd be tacked on at the end.

Then a few years ago, I discovered the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of MSBR or "mindfulness-based stress reduction" and founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. I haven't studied his work extensively, but it was my first more in-depth introduction to mindfulness meditation, and how and why it works. Suddenly it all made a lot more sense and appealed to my science-loving mind a lot more than the vaguer, "just sit here and don't think for as long as you can".

In late 2012, I found myself wanting to try to manage my ongoing anxiety with more regular meditation, so I tried out a handful of meditation apps I was able to find... They were okay, one of them was very soothing, but they were all very repetitive and sometimes irritatingly "serene". 

But shortly after that, I discovered the Headspace app, and it changed everything for me. Headspace founder Andy Puddicombe is a registered clinical mindfulness consultant and a former Buddhist monk. He spent a decade training in Buddhism and meditation before returning to "layperson" life and dedicating himself to bringing meditation to the masses. Something about Andy and Headspace's approach just stuck. They don't dumb it down or woo-woo it up, instead it's a very practical guided meditation journey through learning to understand your own mind, and the ways it impacts your day to day life. I love this quote from an old article of Andy's I dug up, as it so accurately describes my experience with doing regular guided meditations:

I sometimes wish that people could see what goes on in [our meditation] clinic, to be reassured that far from being completely crazy, they are actually surprisingly normal. I think that sometimes there can be a temptation to assume that we are the only one feeling a certain way. It can be hard to believe that other people would indulge or suppress thoughts and feelings in the same way as us. After all, the patterns in our mind feel so unique and personal. We tend to live so internally (in our own heads) that we forget that very often other people are experiencing exactly the same thing...

[M]editation is not about trying to dial back the craziness. It’s about understanding the craziness—knowing it, watching it, having some perspective around it so that you can relate to it in a way that feels comfortable. Of course, when you learn to do this, some of that craziness may start to settle down a little and perhaps even disappear altogether...

Though I've rarely managed to meditate daily for any extent of time, even just having done it every couple days, or sometimes for many days in a row, then sometimes not for weeks, I always come back to it and it always helps. I'm still working my way through the original set of guided meditations (only available to older subscribers), but I have no doubt the new version is as good. The progressive and cumulative nature of the guided meditations (in contrast to a lot of other apps where you just repeat the same thing over and over) has kept me interested and committed to this day.

brown flower pods

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is an enormous topic, so I will only graze the surface here, but it's been an integral piece of what I've learned over the last couple years, both as part of doing the guided meditations, and from some of my reading and research into the connection between the mind, the body, and chronic illness. At its core, mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to feelings and thoughts, and looking at them in a non-judgmental and accepting way. It's a skill that can be learned and cultivated, and becomes a very powerful way to distance ourselves from the thoughts and feelings that come and go... Not as a means of numbing, but just enough to maintain perspective, and ride the waves a little more smoothly.

I'd like to share with you some of my favourite resources on mindfulness and meditation (some specific to living with chronic illness) that I've found the most helpful:

How to be Sick by Toni Bernhard

This book specifically focuses on applying Buddhism and mindfulness to coping with chronic illness, but it was a great introduction to many of the concepts, and catalysed my accepting and adapting to living as a chronically ill person. I also recommend it to anyone who has a loved one dealing with chronic illness, as it could help immensely with a caregiver/loved one's ability to both support and cope with life with someone else with chronic illness.

There is Nothing Wrong with You by Cheri Huber

This one is specifically good for those racing, self-deprecating, negative thoughts that fly through some of our heads at a dizzying speed. Cheri Huber has many helpful books on various topics, but this one was my favourite. It helped me identify and filter out those thoughts that were conditioned into me by other people, and led to a lot of increased peace of mind.

The work of Jon Kabat-Zinn

There's a great interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn on the podcast On Being (play button on the upper right) about what mindfulness is and how it works. There's also some interesting commentary on the impacts of digital life on our wellbeing in the second half. Both his work and Andy's guided meditations (from Headspace) are my favourites because they explain the background, logic, and science behind meditation so well. It really takes it from being a mysterious practice to something that makes a lot of sense.

I also recommend the talk and guided meditation session he did at Google, which you can watch on YouTube. It's a good starting place, and of course he's got tons of books and guided meditations you can follow up with.

Headspace

Again, I can't recommend it enough. It's the reason I finally became a fairly regular meditator, and actually started to benefit from the practice in concrete and long term ways.

The Last Best Cure by Donna Jackson Nakazawa

This book isn't specifically about mindfulness and meditation, but meditation is one of the major tools that is explored for its impact on chronic illness and auto-immune disease. If you ever needed more motivation to spend some time and effort on learning these techniques and incorporating them into your life, this book will do it.

The Connection

An excellent companion piece to The Last Best Cure, The Connection is a documentary on the topic of how meditation can impact illness and healing. It's a modern and science-based investigation into the power of meditation and the physiological changes it can create.

And there are so many others!

I've got much more to learn, and there are so many other wonderful teachers whose work I hope to read down the line - Pema Chodron (who apparently lives in Nova Scotia, who knew?), Tara Brach, Thich Nhat Hanh... If you've got some favourite meditation and mindfulness teachers or resources, please share them with me and everyone else below!

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