What an 8 week course in Mindfulness has taught me

So last week the Government announced more commitment to mental health services.

Good.

It’ll probably still fall really short of what’s required. But it’s a start.

It’s only really in the last year that I’ve been intrigued by my own mind. Just how much does it influence my body, health and confidence? Am I limiting my own potential by clinging on to the tail of big bulky worries or negative thoughts? Am I tiring myself out unnecessarily by the constant barrage of thoughts? Am I putting the wrong vibes out to the universe?

Last weekend I finished an 8 week course on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at The Mindfulness Project in London. I signed up just after my ectopic pregnancy at the end of April. The course began in June as I returned to work.

It cost just over £300 and took place for two hours every Tuesday evening plus a 6 hour silent day retreat which was just last Saturday.

I cannot tell you how great the course was. But i’ll give it a good go.

The course leader was a guy called Doug Vaughn and he is brilliant. What a brilliant, brilliant man.

Every week we’d meet at a townhouse in Fitzroy Square, take our shoes off, abandon our phones and step into the light room with chairs set out in a circle. There were I think, 11 of us in the beginning, 4 being men.

If you come along to a course like this thinking it’s going to be easy think again. By the end of the course we’d lost half of the students, which by the way is no reflection on the course material or delivery. Mindfulness can be tough going. In fact before I found The Mindfulness Project I was searching for a course local to where I live for convenience. I found one and it was due to start early May. The course leader asked my reasons for wanting to attend. I divulged some truths about the ectopic/miscarriage and she warmly suggested that I didn’t start that particular course. She was concerned about my emotional state.

Mindfulness can crack you open to such a level of awareness to the traffic in your head that it can be overwhelming. Back in the seventies when Jon Kabat-Zinn started treating chronically ill people by teaching them to meditate (which some people scoffed at), they would break down in tears as they started to become aware and still. The reality of what you might be putting yourself through, the weight you add to your own shoulders every single day, multiple times a minute even, can make you feel really…sorry for yourself. Is it a mental form of self harm? Perhaps.

Some people can’t help but fall asleep each and every time they lay down to meditate, therefore not really consciously practicing. Others just cannot fathom how to fit it in to their lives every day. Because that, as Doug taught us, is the key. To practice every single day. To do so you are challenging yourself. Because every time you’re aware of thoughts darting in and ricocheting around your head, every time they manifest in physical responses in your body, you are challenged to notice them, non judgementally. To gather awareness around them, almost separating yourself into a more observational role and then drawing your attention elsewhere. To your breathing or sounds or a particular body part.

Are you still with me?

Who can be arsed you might be thinking? This sounds new age and weird and unless I’m gonna levitate I ain’t interested.

Well let me tell you this my friend. Why on earth would you dare not to invest in your mental wellbeing?

Regardless of your emotional state, even if you think you’re pretty together and stable, becoming more mindful makes life that bit more wonderful. You get inner triggers that ask you if you really need to check your phone this minute. Or to lift your head and look at what’s really going on around you, just now, in this moment.

Autopilot transforms into a truly engaged, aware and tuned in pilot. I know who I’d feel safer flying with.

Mindfulness is not about switching off as many people assume. It’s about, as Doug puts it, falling awake.

Each week we would be guided through a number of mindfulness practices by Doug, discussing our own individual experiences of them afterwards. Practices like the half hour body scan, seated meditation, a quick check in with our bodies and thoughts (called the 3 Step Breathing Space), mindful movement, mindful eating, sound meditation. Doug would share thought provoking readings with us and gently explain some mindfulness theory.

As we shared our own experiences of the practices with the group, Doug would be so tuned into what we were saying that he would quite often expand on our own accounts with words and explanations that surely we should’ve been speaking. He absolutely got it. He would build on our own stories in such a way that would rationalise them and make them completely OK. Phew, not crazy then. Just swirly whirly busy minds in need of a calming influence.

The Mindfulness Project course was timed just right for me. Coinciding with my return to work and finishing weeks before I tread the fertility assistance path again.

Some of my key takeouts from the course were:

  • Our thoughts are not facts
  • How in milliseconds we interpret and make huge assumptions in daily situations
  • Some things are out of our control so spending time getting angry or frustrated at them is utterly pointless
  • Doing vs Being; and whilst doing is really important, upping our awareness to just be instead of planning or scheming  or reacting is a necessity.

I think kids should be taught Mindfulness as early as possible. I think it should be prescribed for anxiety or depression by GPs and that anyone with chronic pain, or even terminal illness should be offered this as a complimentary therapy.

Answer these questions and if they are mainly yes, consider giving yourself a treat by booking into a Mindfulness class.

  • Do you respond to seemingly everyday things irrationally? Are you quick to anger?
  • Do things like getting cut up in traffic or being in a long queue or a train cancellation make you frustrated/overreact?
  • Do you worry what people think about you?
  • Do you ever feel overwhelmed with your mental to do list?
  • Do you fear certain situations? Do you get anxiety that feels out of control?
  • Do you get from A to B with absolutely no idea how or with noticing very little on your journey?
  • Do you panic or prefer to bury problems?
  • Do you wish you had more time to yourself?
  • Do you struggle to relax/switch off? Are you ‘always on’ and that’s just the way you are?
  • Do you default to problem solve mode if an issue arises for you or someone else?

Since completing the course I have noticed that I am wanting to look after myself even more, regardless of if this works or not within certain expectations, be it work or social plans. My acupuncturist last week reminded me that I am in control of my life, no one else. If a situation occurs that isn’t in my best interest, then I can change that. A simple reminder, but a very important one. We so often just do what’s expected or dictated. And this isn’t a rally cry to stick a fat middle finger up at things that don’t work for you anymore and become selfish, because as Doug described, saying no to something should not be a passive action. It’s not shrugging and saying ‘who cares?’ It is a mindful acknowledgment that something has to change.

The one day retreat last weekend was set over 6 hours, from 10-4pm.

Our group were feeling mixed emotions about it. It was a shame that it was coming to an end, a feeling that Doug also shared with us.

The rules that were encouraged were simple; silence, no phones, practice.

One of my favourite mindfulness practices is sound meditation. To tune in on the sounds within you, in your immediate area, outside, in the distance. I tried to describe why in one of the early Tuesday night sessions and could only really get to how it made me feel insignificant. Not in a ‘I am just a blob of cells and energy that doesn’t matter’ way, but in ‘wow, there’s so much life going on around me’ way. Excited, curious, comforted.

I was so looking forward to the no phones rule. I get annoyed with myself for my dependency on this brick of banal information, comparison and fake news. My to do list, the temptation to take photos of sometimes really unremarkable things (admittedly my favourite function of a phone). The hours I lose to it each day. So to tuck it deep in the bottom of my bag before taking my seat, felt like a liberation of sorts. Be right back peeps, not that any of you will notice that i’m gone. Because very rarely does something happen that needs immediate attention.

It was like Doug had ordered in the most perfect weather for our day retreat too. We had it all; sunshine and warmth, heavy and light rain, thunder for heavens sake. This offered up quite the array of experiences for the senses throughout the day.

The practices we went through were (in the wrong order):

  • Mindful movement
  • Stretching
  • Full Body scan
  • 3 Step Breathing Space
  • Mindfulness of Breathing
  • Sitting meditation
  • Mindful walking
  • Visualisation
  • Tea ceremony – where in silence we chose from a selection of herbal teas based on their aroma and mindfully sipped on them.
  • Mindful eating of a strawberry
  • Various readings and poems
  • Heart practice which is based on a loving kindness mantra; ‘may you/I be well, may you/I be safe from inner and outer dangers, may you/I be truly happy and free’

Doug explained that silence would kick in after our mindful movement practice which was first up. And we carried the silence through the rest of the day.

We were encouraged to bring our own lunch and to be mindful of our choices to make sure we didn’t hit a slump heading into the afternoon.

The weather was very changeable during the lunch break. I ate my food in the room then decided to head out for a walk and to a bench in the Square. No phone, just me walking around and perching on a wet bench for a bit.

It was fucking glorious.

Looking left I could see a busy London road with crawling cars bumper to bumper. Horns sounding. Straight ahead of me was the little private garden in the centre of Fitzroy Square where during a period of sunshine some pigeons were literally laying down, soaking up the rays. One was so low to the ground I wondered if he was injured. But as someone approached him he puffed up and took to his little pink feet which I noticed were in tact, not formed into a stump as some poor pigeons are. He really was just having a little rest in the sun. Then I noticed people. Dashing, heads down. Running, walking dogs. I noticed the rush and very little eye contact more than anything else. As if humans didn’t even notice their own kind anymore.

There was a moment when, sat on the bench, the wind grew so strong that I thought it had started raining again as it knocked the raindrops from the leaves and on to my face. The sound of the breeze through the garden’s trees was so loud that looking left again I couldn’t hear the traffic at the end of the road. Drowned out completely by nature.

Amazing.

In that moment I was in complete awe and wonder at life.

It then started to thunder as the hour long break came to a close and I headed back inside to rejoin the group and Doug.

At the end of the day when Doug signalled that we could break the silence, I didn’t know how. I loved the quiet and all it gave. He explained that it’s an odd coupling that in simplifying life you are actually increasing and gaining an abundance of awareness. Life seems fuller even though you’ve peeled away many often unhelpful layers.

Doug went around the group asking us to share our overall experience of the day. I described that I felt a sense of both personal and collective pride that we’d come so far. And then that I felt such a heightened sense of wonder at life and all the little things that make it. The really significant insignificant stuff. The perfect imperfections.

As we prepared to leave, one parting thought from Doug stuck with me;

We are always trying to put our minds somewhere. Our phones, next week, making plans.

What is it to just be, right now?

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For more on The Mindfulness Project head to their website here.

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