This is the first part in a two part post. Part two can be found here.
One of the best parts about working for the man is the benefits. We get a full pension after 10 years of service, dirt cheap health insurance, and a fantastic wellness program with badass incentives. Twice a year we get a nice little publication with all kinds of classes, activities, talks, and courses the wellness program offers, which are all free!! These can range from talks on retirement to cooking demonstrations to yoga classes – a couple of weeks ago, Andrew and I even did a paddleboard 5K on the lake at one of our large local parks! Well, as soon as I got my hands on my bi-yearly pamphlet, I immediately signed up for a 10 week course they were offering called “mindfulness based stress reduction” (henceforward referred to as MBSR).
I was vaguely familiar with the content of the course, but mostly aware of it because it had been recommended to me by multiple doctors in the winter of 2013-2014. I will eventually write a more in depth post about my condition, but I don’t feel like getting into heavy stuff this afternoon. In short, I suffer from chronic daily migraines, which is exactly what it sounds like. I have headaches every single day and have since September 2013. I have been to every relevant specialist and undergone all different treatment routines and medication to no avail. My current drug regimen suffices to keep the pain at tolerable levels so I can function like a normal adult. But the pain is never far away or even close to being gone.
I never took my doctor’s advice at the time, because the MBSR program, which is offered through the Mind Body Institute of our local hospital, costs a whopping $225 for 8 weeks. My thought process back then was along these lines: I’m a strong, independent woman and refuse to believe that my pain is caused by my inability to cope with stress. I wasn’t about to shell out the big bucks for some hokey pseudo-Buddhist new agey crap. I kept telling myself, there has to be some legitimate medical reason why this was happening to me. It had to be physiological, because mentally I’m all there! I’d taken care of myself for years and didn’t need some old fart hippie telling me to “get in touch with myself.”
By time I was reading the wellness pamphlet this past January, my headaches had been going on for 17 months and I had totally given up on western medicine. I had resigned to the fact that I would always have to be medicated and even then I would always have the pain. I just did my best to ignore it and get on with my life. So when I saw this course being offered for free, and I got wellness points for doing it, I said to hell with it and signed up. Ten weeks for only an hour a week didn’t seem like that big of a commitment.
My first class came, and I sat nervously in a room with five other middle aged county employees and the instructor (who totally looked like an old fart hippie). He began with a brief chat about the course, but it was mostly vague sounding phrases like, “mindfulness means ‘be here now.'” And then we meditated as a group, which felt ridiculously awkward, seeing as this was the first true meditation of my life. We all closed our eyes and the instructor calmly talked us through a full half an hour of meditation. I was so uncomfortable I started having a panic attack mid-mediation and spent the whole second half ignoring everything else and trying to talk myself down. After the meditation, we did this weird exercise where we prodded, sniffed, observed, and even listened to a raisin before slowly eating it. Intermittently, we were all asked to talk about our experiences, but people mostly diverted their eyes and remained mum. Finally came the homework: we had to meditate for 10-15 minutes every single day and eat at least one meal per day mindfully. How the hell did this man expect me to fit this into my already overloaded schedule?
I did a lot of internal arguing throughout the rest of that day. Should I just quit now? I don’t have time for this crap! It’s not gonna help anything, it’s just going to make me more stressed trying to make time! Maybe I can just attend classes and not do the homework? Eventually, I resolved to just give it a good ole college try, as I was desperate to get away from my headaches. A lot was going on in my life around this first day of class. I had recently started a new full time job, moved into a new apartment, gotten serious with my boyfriend. I figured with all this change, this was as good of time as any to give something new a shot.
The first week of meditation was brutal. I spent almost every second wondering how much longer I had to sit in the room by myself with my eyes closed. I checked the timer on my phone often. I dreaded peeling myself away from Andrew every night to meditate. I thought eating mindfully was a joke and rushed through it, often just eating one bite of my dinner mindfully.
Class was always the same: open with a long group meditation or gentle yoga practice, discussion about our experiences, ending with a topical talk for five minutes or so. With every week of class came more homework, and it piled up. Every week the formal daily sitting practices got longer. Every week we had some new formal practice, be it a guided body scan or gentle yoga. Every week we had to add one more informal mindful practice, like mindfully petting your cats, mindfully driving your car, mindfully brushing your teeth.
It is hard to talk about an MBSR course if you have a traditional western education. We expect the bulk of the learning to take place in the class room, with the teacher regurgitating material for us to digest. MBSR is different. The talks at the end of each class outlined the steps towards stress reduction, and were certainly the most structured aspect of each class. We had little booklets that offered flow charts and some readings about how to use mindfulness to reduce stress. However, the bulk of the learning takes place in your daily practices. The weekly meetings are only intended as support for the development of your own practice. The group meditations gave us ideas to incorporate into our personalized practices.
I stuck it out and the meditations slowly got easier. I never found the body scan practices to my liking, so I never really did them. The yoga was where I really started tasting the benefits of the practice. I’ve “done” yoga on and off for six years, but I’ve never actually understood yoga. What I mean is, sure, I’ve done posture sequences time and time again but I never did it with any clue about mindfulness. I just enjoyed the physicality and stretching. Practicing yoga is an entirely different experience. A true yoga practice revolves around mindfulness. Think of it as a moving meditation.
The MBSR course connected me to the true practice of yoga and around week four something clicked an I simply got it. I suddenly understood why the formal sitting meditations were important. I found ways to incorporate them into my work day. I realized what our instructor kept harping on all along, which is that the formal practices – meditation, yoga, body scans – are meant to help cultivate informal mindfulness in your daily life.
So all in all – worth it? Absolutely. It took me a long time to overcome my skepticism and give into the practice. It’s not easy to begin. Every fiber of your being will fight against mindfulness. Mindfulness brings us back into ourselves and to the present moment, but the world is constantly pulling us out. We are conditioned to spread ourselves thin and be totally caught up in the past or future. It took me four weeks of practicing in earnest before I was even able to recognize this and give in to the practice. I’m still not even close to having a stable, daily practice. But I’m on the journey, and that’s what matters most.
In terms of the pain … there were at least 30 days throughout the 10 week course where I had absolutely no headache pain. The most remarkable physical effect happened last Friday. I had an awful migraine all week to the point of fever. Friday night, I meditated for 30 minutes focusing only on the pain. Went to bed, woke up the next morning, no pain. Amazing.
I will end by saying that the actual effects on my pain levels are not what I feel is important. For the first time since the headaches started, I don’t feel hopeless. I don’t feel like a victim. I don’t feel like life is unfair for letting this happen to me. I don’t hate god for making me go through this. I don’t loathe myself for being susceptible. And that, is huge.