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Whose mind is it anyway?

Taking my first steps in mindfulness meditation

There’s no denying it: following the OMS Recovery Program involves making some fairly substantial and permanent changes to our lifestyles.

We do it because we believe it works, and with every passing month we are rewarded with more evidence to support this belief, from the experience of our own bodies to the progress of our fellow OMSers, to the latest paper from the HOLISM project and numerous other scientific studies.

So we get on with it: we change our eating habits, exercise more, we sort out our vitamin D levels. But I believe that for many of us, it is getting into daily meditation that feels like the most daunting change.

Meditation can seem daunting

The “m” word can invoke visions of sitting in an improbable pretzel-like pose while forcing our minds into some kind of submission. And maybe we worry about what we’re going to find out about ourselves in the process.

Just getting started with meditation, it seems, can require a good deal of courage. At least, that’s how it was for me. I became very adept at creating long lists of stuff that were much more important to do than tackling this dreaded “discipline”, for that’s what I’d labelled it in my mind.

It was oh so easy to say that I would try meditation “soon”, “after I’ve got my diet sorted out”, “next month when I have more time” … In truth, I’ve been running from meditation for years.

Running towards meditation

George Jelinek wasn’t the first doctor or expert to suggest that I would benefit from regular meditation. With my history of recurrent depression, I’ve known this for years. I’ve even tried to do it occasionally.

Or rather, I’ve bought dozens of books about it, even reading one or two of them. I’ve bought all the gear too. I’ve sat down on my meditation cushion next to my husband when he meditates, and tried shutting my eyes for a minute or two, before getting up to do the washing up, checking my emails, reading the newspaper, anything

This month, I stopped running. I am now in my second week of an 8-week course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). This renowned secular program was devised by Jon Kabat-Zinn and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1990.

MSBR: a short history

Since then it has spread world-wide and has been the subject of numerous scientific studies. The program’s results are highly impressive, particularly in helping participants to manage and reduce their levels of stress and physical pain.

Many have seen chronic complaints diminish or even disappear altogether. Many have even learned to manage and overcome depression*.

That kind of evidence is hard to ignore. So, after years of not caring about myself enough to take the “meditation medicine” for depression and stress, now that I also have MS, and a reputable doctor “prescribing” it for that too, I’ve finally stopped arguing and decided to collect my prescription.

Getting caught in a thought vortex

So far, the biggest surprise in is discovering that the aim in mindfulness practice is not to try to make my thoughts stop. What a relief! Because - and here’s the scary bit - as soon as I sat still long enough to notice my thoughts, I felt that I must be absolutely crazy! Or rather, that my thoughts are.

Endless circles of repetitive nonsense, like a housefly buzzing around a room, repeatedly hitting itself against a window that it can’t get through. It was good to hear from others on the course that their thoughts are just as bewildering, just as manic.

But we don’t need to make them stop; we only need to notice them, and then notice that they pass. Yes, thankfully the only requirement in mindfulness practice is to become aware of what is happening right now.

What thoughts do we notice? What sensations do we feel in the body? What feelings or emotions are arising? 

What “thought loops” are cycling? This may sound dull but it really isn’t; I’m actually finding it fascinating.

Me and my mind

I’ve been the one and only not-so-careful owner of this mind for 40 years, and - who woulda thunk it? - I’ve just discovered that I have no idea how to drive it! Weirder still, I was never truly in the driving seat anyway.

The vast majority of our thoughts are automatic, often taking place below the level of our conscious awareness. So we’re not actually in control of our thoughts most of the time. Scary thought? It kinda makes me wonder: who is in control then? Who’s driving this thing? Whose mind is it anyway?

I had a crazy idea recently. (And now that I’m beginning to realise that a thought is only a thought and will pass, I don’t worry so much if some of my ideas are a little crazy.) It came to me the other day when I was supposed to be washing up “mindfully”, but was mostly getting carried away by my own thoughts instead.

The BFG and me

I fell to thinking about that wonderful children’s book “The BFG” by Roald Dahl. The BFG, or “big friendly giant”, goes around catching dreams and then delivering them to sleeping children.

These dreams, when not actually being dreamt, seem to waft about the countryside like dandelion puffs. The BFG catches them in a butterfly net, stores them in jars and then creeps into children’s bedrooms at night to deposit them into their sleeping heads, through the ears, naturally.

As a child I grew up with this mental image of dreams as pastel coloured wisps floating about, belonging to everybody and nobody. Decades later, I’m wondering: isn’t that a cool metaphor to describe our thoughts? What if thoughts are not “mine” or “yours”, and not “original”?

What if they just drift out of my ears and into yours? What if they’re no more a part of me than the weather, or that irritating tune they keep playing on the radio? They’re not really objectively “true” most of the time anyway.

No procrastinating

They just are. And we can choose to chase around trying to keep up with them, to follow wherever they lead, or we can let them drift by. When I consider how much energy I’ve expended just trying to get the thoughts in my head to be agree with each other and to repress the ones I saw as negative, it’s no wonder I often have fatigue! I wish I could tell you that I no longer avoid meditating, that I never put it off for “later”.

Truthfully, I don’t do my MBSR homework as diligently as I did my school homework. But, unlike homework, I am finding that meditation is in fact a very pleasant experience most of the time. It’s a few minutes out of each day where the task is simply to stop rushing around, stop trying to achieve, stop berating myself for tasks not completed, housework not done.

Being observant

All I have to do is notice what is happening. Just that. No wonder George says it’s helpful for reducing inflammation. I can imagine it’s good for a lot more besides. I may not be driving this car, but at least I can stop trying to push it, pull it and steer it by hand all the time. And reelaaaaax….

*Please note: for people with depression, the standard advice is to find a program and/or therapist in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), rather than the standard MBSR program mentioned here. Often seen as an offshoot of MBSR, MBCT is an amalgamation of some elements of Cognitive Therapy and of mindfulness practice. As I have not been able to find an MBCT program in my area, the MBSR teacher kindly allowed me to enrol on her course instead.

Recommended reading: MBSR Full Catastrophe Living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation, Jon Kabat-Zinn PhD Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world, Mark Williams & Danny Penman  

MBCT The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing yourself from chronic unhappiness, Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, Jon Kabat-Zinn

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