One of the therapeutic approaches that I use to help manage my Depression that regular readers will have come across previously when reading my blog is Mindfulness. Among other things it is helpful for dealing with thoughts, coping with stressors and managing physiological symptoms. It has been used to help people manage symptoms of a range of mental health issues including Depression, Anxiety, Bipolar Disorder, psychotic illnesses, Personality Disorders and Eating Disorders.
My first experiences were vague explanations by people who I worked with about being present in the moment and awareness. These are true and make a lot of sense now – but Mindfulness made the most sense to me after my first experiments with it with my Clinical Psychologist when I was, myself, in therapy. The experience itself made an enormous difference to my understanding and appreciation of the discipline. For this reason, I thought that I’d share with you some of my experiences with the use of Mindfulness.
The first exercise
My introduction to mindfulness included eating a mandarin. The exercise involved taking the time to notice all of the sensations that were involved. The scent of the fruit, the feel of the skin, the firmness of the mandarin before it was peeled, the colour, the weight, the sensation of peeling the mandarin. I was to notice the texture of the inside outside of the skin and then the feel of the fruit without the skin on, the look of the fruit with its segments and the white stringy bits, the juice. While eating it I noticed not just the flavour, but the texture in my mouth and the sensation of swallowing. I paid attention to the sticky juice on my fingers and the sweet smell that it left on my skin before I washed my hands. The idea was to be fully in the moment and to engage and experience all of the senses. To be mindfully – deliberately into eating that mandarin.
The breathing exercises
After learning about the need to experience the full extent of whatever I was doing, I did some breathing exercises with my Psychologist. The idea was not to control the breath, but to observe it – pay attention to the movement of my muscles, the sensation of the air in my body, the sounds of the breath and to concentrate my focus on that. If I was distracted, I would just think to myself “oh, I’m distracted” – or whatever – and return my attention to the breathing. It was hard not to start controlling the breathing – but relaxing. It took focus, but was refreshing and left me alert.
My homework was to practice this and I also had an exercise where I was to start out with the breathing exercises and then imagine the breath that I was inhaling circulating all the way to my toes and paying attention to my toes and then following my breath as I exhaled. From here attention moved, with my breathing, progressively from the toes to the feet, up the legs, along the other leg and then through my body and my hands, my head and back to just focusing on my lungs. If you have ever done progressive muscle relaxation, the process is similar – however this was more to do with gradually moving awareness through the body. Again, the instructions were to allow yourself to just dismiss distraction and go back to the exercise at hand. I also felt more self-aware and awake after the exercise. That one lasted about 15 mins.
The Wii game
There is a game on Wii Fit where you have to sit really still. The graphic on the screen is of a candle and from time to time you get annoying things like a fly or mozzie and footsteps and so forth that come to distract you. But you need to sit upright and still on the balance board for 2 mins to win the game.
I have found that this is a great exercise for my Mindfulness skills. I sit in an alert and comfortable posture. I focus on my breathing and I use my skills that dismiss distractions by acknowledging that they are there and accepting it to deal with the insects and so forth. I can sit for the whole 2 minutes using my Mindfulness skills!
A while ago I was staining a piece of furniture. I needed one hand to hold the tin of wood stain. I was using an elbow and shoulder to stabilise myself in the most awkward position ever (!!). The other hand was occupied with cloth working the stain into the grain of the wood. And there was a fly buzzing in my face throughout.
Now, the same way that you consciously turn all of your senses, you may choose not to do so with some – so I am not focusing upon the fumes. But again, with the discipline to focus on the here and now and what I want and is important, I can also notice and dismiss what I don’t want. The fumes. More particularly in this instance, the fly that just wouldn’t go away. Rather than let it get me irritated and waste all that energy, the practice allowed me to focus on my work and when the fly was distracting just acknowledge “There’s that fly again. That buzzing is loud. I wish it would go away.” Yes I would blow at it to try to discourage it – but no, I managed to deal with the fly without it driving me mad. I considered this to be an achievement!
The job interview
I had a job interview at the other end of town. I had a horrible time getting there. There was more traffic than I anticipated, I think the tail end of a blockage after there had been a prang. Plus I had been pushing the clock harder than I had wanted to be to start with. The end result was that I was late to my job interview.
I was so flustered by the time that I got there that I couldn’t think. My mind was pumping in circles. They handed me the interview question for my preparation and all I could do was think,
“How am I going to pull together to do this?”
So I stopped myself. And before I even looked at the questions I took 2 minutes out of my prep time to do my breathing exercises. I then gradually brought myself back into awareness of the room around me and focused on the task at hand. I was alert. I was focused on the task and I was calm. I had also put myself into a position that I could acknowledge that the situation was less than ideal and just accept it to focus on what I could do something about. I could have compassion on myself for finding myself in an embarrassing situation, yet function within it and set myself to do my best in the here and now. I prepped my questions briefly in what time I had left although I didn’t have time for much depth and then did the interview – again thinking clearly, because I was able to focus on the here and now.
In the end I think the fact that I pulled myself together worked in my favour. I was offered the job, but turned it down. Mindfulness got me through the job interview but it would not get me over the travelling time in peak hour traffic any quicker.
The terrible, no good, very bad day
Then there was the day that nothing went right. Well it seemed like it. I slept through my alarm. Right through. Things went wrong at home after I got up. The trip in was slow. I was very, very, very late for work. Lunch time late. I missed several appointments and was flustered about what was left of the day. I had no idea how I was going to finish the day or face anyone. After freaking out when I finally got to work, I finally stopped and thought, “I know better than this.”
So I paused. I took a deep breath in and let it out, focused my attention and started observing my breathing. I then started to pay attention to the feel of the pressure of the chair that I was sitting in and the sounds around me – not listening, just noticing – the clock, various voices, footsteps; I paid attention to the feel of the clothes on my skin and then turned my attention to my muscles and which ones were tense. I relaxed my shoulders and my jaw and went back to my breathing and did a short version of the breathing exercise where I imagined my breath reaching every part of my body and then just focused on how it felt to breathe for a couple of moments.
After this I allowed myself to think about what I should do next. I had to accept that I was late and that I’d missed morning appointments and that because of that my afternoon wasn’t going to work as well as I had planned. But I could now, thinking in the moment accept that just as it was and act in a manner that was compassionate toward myself, rather than sit there blaming myself for things that I might or might not have done. It was okay that I was a bit frazzled, that was understandable – so I just needed to plan for that too. From there I was able to return to the moment and begin the rest of my day, planning things out and actually achieved a reasonable amount – something I wouldn’t have done in the state of mind I had been in when I arrived.
The road so far …
It has taken a while to learn some of the basics of Mindfulness and get used to putting them into practice, but the journey has been infinitely worthwhile. I still have a long way to go. I’m not good at meditation – I tend to be more utilitarian in my use of it. I still need to remind myself to start and could prevent some situations by starting earlier. However, it helps me to focus and to be able to be where I am, doing what I need to or want to be doing at the moment of time that I’m at. My next step in the journey is to become better at noticing things about myself in the moment. I think that this would prevent a lot of difficult situations and to help me to monitor my early warning signs.