Thursday, 28 April 2016

Dear Mindfulness, Week 1

Dear Mindfulness, Week 1,

Yup, that's right. I'm writing to you. I'm actually writing a week late so really, if we're being completely accurate I'm writing to you, Dear Mindfulness, Weeks 1 and 2, but no need to be picky. I'm writing because on Monday I took part in the second session of what is to be an 8 session course in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy and I wanted to let you know what I'm thinking so far. I've even decided that this might become a weekly installment, a little update for you as the weeks go by on how I'm finding this whole lifestyle of living mindfully...I can say, so far, it's a struggle.

So, week 1. I walk into what is normally the waiting room of the Psychologist who first referred me for both CBT and this course. A room that is normally an array of comfy chairs and sofas, tables covered in clumsy piles of magazines and a machine thats' sole purpose is to provide hot beverages to those waiting - the best type of machine I find. On this day, however, the seats are very precisely and satisfyingly placed around the edges of the room, cushions still provided but with spares hidden away in the corner. The hot beverage machine: still present.

I arrive a few minutes early having left myself time to change from my stress stitched work clothes into my favourite socially acceptable pyjamas (because what other outfit would you show up in to a mindfulness group and when told to dress in comfortable clothing...). Apparently, not that. Apparently, the other 6 or 7 members of the group felt their city suits and snazzy stilettos were definitely the most occasion appropriate clothing to attempt to reach that feeling of complete and utter zen....each to their own I suppose. I couldn't feel like a complete mumpty though as I took note of the incredibly brightly coloured rainbow socks moving around the room, setting out piles of paper, a white board, saying hello. The man with the plan. The zen master....Or Hagen, as he is known by those he teaches.

Barefoot in nature, paying attention to my toes
So down sits the colourful sock man and down sits the rest of our group. I take a seat on a comfy armchair and start to remove my shoes...everyone else just sits, shoes still on feet. I discretely reverse my actions and wait for things to begin. We had an introduction, one about the class and one to allow our group to get to know each other. We turned to a partner and found out their purpose. No, not in life or anything big and philosophical like that. Just for why they were there, sitting where they were before a man with rainbow socks. I spoke to a lovely lady. A lawyer, an all too familiar career path that I've grown up watching. She explained that with a job like that, in the big city, long hours, high stress, clients who are completely wonderful and in no way annoying...she's suffered a lot of anxiety and felt mindfulness might help. A similar story all round really. Stresses of day to day life. A couple finding themselves being bullied at work, others not in work. Ellie, 20, dropped out of uni at Christmas because I was miserable, now work at Hamleys, volunteer at GOSH and do some childcare work. Anxiety has been one of my closest and most unwanted companions since before the age I could walk. Apparently, this, mindfulness, might help.

Having left this letter rather a long time, I am struggling to recall exactly what went on, except this. We practiced eating mindfully. Yes, you heard me. Eating. Mindfully. Now, if you've come across any of my other letters you'll know that food is my friend. I have an appetite. I love to cook and have normally finished a first helping of everything before my dad has even managed to sit down to Sunday lunch. On this occasion, therefore, I struggled. We were given a raisin (and no, that wasn't the only concerning part, although it became a part of it...I mean really, why use raisins when you could use chocolate buttons)...Anyway...a raisin. Actually, two. We were told to feel the raisin. Hold it between finger and thumb, look at it, bring it up, right close to the eyes and examine this dried piece of fruit. Bring it to our nose. Inhale and see what we can smell. To the ear and what can we hear............yes. On Monday evening last week, I spent approximately 30 seconds listening to a raisin. Put it in our mouth, sit it on our tongue, feel it, notice what's happening in the mouth, bite into it, chew, what's changed?? Swallow....but not too fast! Notice the swallowing......

Then we did it again, uninstructed, with the second one.

Can you see where this is going? Are you imagining this scene in your head. A group of adults sitting in a circle slowly, but mindfully, listening to a raisin.

This wasn't just for fun though. It was important to have something to say. For, having listened to the raisin, smelled the raisin, and finally, oh so mindfully, eaten the raisin, we then had to report back. What did we notice? What happened when we paid attention to the raisin? Well, I shall tell you. People discovered valleys and hills in the raisin, the up and down bumpiness of the surface of this dry fruit. People noticed that when you put it near your ear and rubbed it between your fingers, a raisin makes a sound. I noticed....that I was really hungry and should have eaten lunch. Oh well, maybe next time.

Moving on. To the body scan. Not a machine making funny noises that looks at your inside, but an exercise that encourages you to pay attention to the body. Lying down, heads on pillows, cardigans, hoodies, coats as blankets, we lay, eyes shut, legs straight and palms facing up. We got comfortable and then listened, as Hagen took us, body part by body part, tail to top, through ourselves encouraging us to breathe in and down into our toes and focus all our attention on each specific body part as he got to it. Starting with the left toes, we moved up the left leg, across the hips and pelvis and down the right leg to the right toes, back up, through the tummy, past arms, hands, fingers, to the back and up to the shoulders, to the head, the face and all its features. Each time our attention was drawn away from the body part at hand, to thoughts of food, that annoying customer at work or what you plan to wear for that party that you might go to in 2 months time with no specific dress code but set in a swanky, yet casual restaurant where you know you can't wear tracksuit bottoms but is black tie too much?....then you take note of the thought flitting before you...acknowledge it kindly, don't get mad, and then bring the attention back to....oh dammit! We've reached the shoulders already! We were at the toes last time I focused!

Wrap up in a blanket...lie on the floor...or on a sofa...and zzzzzzz
Once again, we followed this with a discussion. A talk about how we felt and what happened during this experience. People spoke of feeling numbness or tingling in their limbs as they paid attention. Or how lying there, eyes shut led to imaginings of each limb and some horror level description of it morphing into something else beneath the skin. I stayed quiet. That is, until a lady opposite, quite young, blonde, German, and seeming to share my feelings on these exercises, said that, honestly, she just fell asleep. Amen! A few other nods and I joined in. Yup, I fell asleep. Apparently we should try it sitting up next time, not allow that to happen again. Practice at home.

And that takes me nicely onto my next point. Practice at home. Accompanying the session was a booklet. A pocket filled with exercises to practice and make notes about at home in the weeks between sessions. Our tasks for this week? To do the body scan once a day. To pick one activity each day and try and carry that out mindfully: brush our teeth, get dressed, take a shower...but paying attention. To try and eat a meal mindfully. I did some of these. I tried the body scan most days. The days that I could. It was great, wonderful, a fabulous half hour attempt at paying attention to my toes and nose but simply waking up half an hour later having missed the entire body. Even attempting it sitting up didn't help. If I wasn't sleeping, I was just picturing the cup of tea I would be making mindfully afterwards or deciding what I'd make for dinner until suddenly the ankles had become the neck and the gong at the end of the YouTube video recording was playing, a wake up alarm to get me on my feet.

So, onto the mindful tea. To the process of trying to pay absolute attention as I opened the lid of the kettle, turned on the tap, filled the kettle, turned it on, picked up my mug, selected my tea, stood mindfully waiting for the water to boil, filled my mug, stirred the tea, removed the teabag and poured the milk. Watching my reflection in the surface of the tea and the colours change as the tea got stronger and then the semi-skimmed was added. Drank my tea. Feeling it in my mouth, realising it was too hot and then swallowing. Focus gone. Next day: take two. Dammit: I just turned the kettle on on auto-pilot. Oh well, just an excuse for more tea later I guess.

Can you tell I was mindful when I made it?
This week we added mindful breathing and taking note of one good moment in the day, to the list of practice exercises. Being able to take note of something in the day that had happened and produced a smile and write, what was it, how did I feel etc. etc. During the session we practiced this concept by being asked to close our eyes and imagine the following scenario. You're walking down the street and see someone you know, you shout out to them and they don't respond. How do you feel? What do you do? The answers showed exactly the type of person I am. A few said they'd not think anything of it. They'd thing 'obviously they didn't see me' or 'They were probably distracted'. Meanwhile there I am, stating that my response would be more like: 'What did I do wrong? Oh God, they hate me! I just made a fool of myself and they didn't want people to think they knew me? I can't remember what I did to make them mad but I must have done something! Gaaah, now I'm all red and embarrassed...' and so it continues. The point being that we don't take enough time to focus on a situation really and truely. We just leap into automatic and our thoughts run away with us. A problem I know all too well.
And that's it. That has been my experience, so far, of you and your funny pay-attention seeking ways. I know I'm laughing now but secretly (shhh, don't tell) I am kind of hoping my fondness for you shall grow. That I'll eventually understand it as a method and that it will in some well help, but for now, I'm just going with the flow. I'm taking a deep breath, paying attention as much as I can and....turning on the kettle.

Speak soon,

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