Mindful in May – my journey into stillness (but mostly frustration)

I had this big long explanation (*cough-excuse-cough-cough*) all ready to go about why it has taken me so long to post this particular blog article. Long story short, I am a perfectionist and a chronic procrastinator. I would sit down to finish it, and because I was still not quite sure where I was going with it, I would inevitably wind up fluffing around on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, clean the house…clean the bits of the house that I meant to clean last spring but found something more interesting to do…sort through old magazines, read old magazine articles (funnily enough I stumbled upon a useful one about decluttering and procrastination!)…   …   …You get the picture, basically any form of mindless task that could keep me busy while avoiding the task at hand. So today I have eliminated distractions (as best one can when one lives in an inner city apartment), sat myself down with a coffee, headphones plugged in, laptop fully charged, Yoga done, and committed to a deadline…blog must be published by 3pm! GO!

So, a long time ago in a month called May, I embarked on a challenge called Mindful in May! (That was not meant to be a cheesy rhyme, it just came out that way). So Mindful in May or MIM is a month long meditation challenge, designed to help participants become more present, centred, focused, calm, less stressed, and also, to recruit sponsors and raise funds for Charity Water, to provide clean water to developing countries. The sponsors and fundraising part, I managed to achieve, and for those sponsors I am truly grateful as you helped me raise enough funds to provide 10 people with clean water for life! So I would like to say a special thanks to Mum & Dad, Katie Taylor, Rhonda Lawrence, Alison Crofton, Bianca Leef, Ann McIntyre, Alison Nash and Christelle Molle, for their contributions 🙂

Back to MIM:

The practice of mindfulness has been shown to be effective in assisting the treatment of anxiety disorders including stress and mild anxiety, generalised anxiety disorder, OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), as well as depression, and assisting with other forms of mental illness such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Developed initially from meditation principles derived from Buddhism and Hindu Yoga practices, mindfulness is a form of personal awareness meditation, that helps us to reconnect with ourselves, our mind and the sensations of our bodies, while screening out the irrelevant distractions of everyday life.

So this is a little bit of insight into my experience with practicing these techniques during Mindful in May.

While I would love to say that this process enlightened me, de-stressed me completely and I experienced some kind of mega-spiritual uprising from within…unfortunately, I found it frustrating as hell, and it made my perfectionist-self feel like something of a pathetic loser of mammoth proportions. Meditation, is no walk in the park for the faint hearted, motivationally challenged, or the easily distracted (moi)!

I started off on day one with all intentions of being a “good little meditator”. I felt refreshed, calm, relaxed and inspired after my first Mindful in May meditation, yet this was not to last. In fact, after day two, I found myself more aware of all the little things I “should be doing”, and it was hard to kick the feeling of anxiety rising up inside me at how much time I was wasting by sitting here doing nothing and just “being”. Enter the 2 minute “catch your breath” meditation, my little-bit-of-a-life-saver throughout the month of May. It kept me going on the days when I wanted to quit altogether because that annoying point of logic in my head, called my brain, kept trying to derail me by constantly reminding me that I had “more important things to do, you can do this later…the laundry is trickling down the hallway, you have to get to your second job you don’t HAVE 10 mins to clear your mind, you have work and support group emails that need replying to, and some text messages that people are going to get annoyed about if you don’t reply soon…this painting is due in 2 days! We’ve run out of bananas, how am I going to make a banana smoothie?” it just didn’t end.

So after trying desperately to focus my mind for the first week, I decided, that perhaps it wasn’t the meditation specifically or my inability to focus that was the problem (I may have been slightly deluding myself there), and that it might have more to do with the meditation recordings for the Mindful in May program. This was not a cop-out. The first week of meditation consisted almost entirely of the exact same “Body Scan” recording every single day, apart from the mini 2 minute “catch your breath” meditation mentioned above. I don’t have the greatest attention span on the best of days, so to have to listen to the same 10 minutes of relaxing my “feet, ankles, calves, knees, thighs…” etc etc every day for a week, I started thinking to myself “what exactly have I signed up for?” To be honest, I expected a little bit more from the program. This program was clearly for absolute beginners, and yet also for those who already had extremely good concentration, and tolerance to boredom. Nevertheless, I had to continue. It was for a good cause, and I already had a sponsor by this point, so I could not let them down!

I persevered!

As I was not unfamiliar with the concept of meditation, (I have been a daily yoga practitioner for over a decade, which always culminates in a short meditation), this particular practice began to lose my attention fairly quickly. By the time I got to week two, I had already downloaded some apps on my phone with alternative meditations to ease my boredom and keep on track.

I started off week two with the “Mindfulness of Breath and Sounds”, which was OK for a couple of days, but again, an entire week of it was just way too much, and to be honest, the meditation was not all that different from the first week, so did not inspire a lot of confidence for weeks 3 and 4 of the program. I decided to simply extend my yoga practice with a 10 minute meditation at the end of each session in Supta Baddha Konasana, AKA Reclining Bound Angle Pose, while listening to a guided relaxation meditation using my “Simply Being” iPhone app, or my “Take a Break” app from Meditation Oasis . I found these apps to have a much better calming effect, subsequently helping me to focus more easily on my relaxation, and bring my mind back to the feelings of my body and breath. I still continued with the 2 minute meditation from the MIM program when I was in a rush, or at work and just needed to re-centre myself for a couple of minutes…it is a really great little meditation.

By week 3 I decided to take another look at the program and see if there was anything new to the recordings. On day 22 I listened to the “Mindfulness of thoughts” meditation. Again, the meditation recording started exactly the same as all the other recordings, so I listened to the first one and then switched to my iPhone apps for the rest of the week. Again, the loving-kindness meditation of week 4 started the same way, and then changed into some self-reassuring mantras which were quite lovely, yet still there was something lacking in the recordings that I just couldn’t put my finger on. After completing the program, and reflecting, I realised what this was. They seemed very clinical, rather than natural and calming.

As I knew a bit about the spiritual aspects of Mindfulness, through my yoga training, I decided it was time to explore the evidence-based therapy technique. Normally this is the first place I would start, however, Yoga is one of my pre-science education pleasures, so this time I started on the “spiritual” side of the fence. I recognise that this may be why I had such an aversion to the clinical, repetitive recordings (one of the benefits of practicing Mindfulness is developing insight into one’s own reactions to things…maybe I got more out of my month than I’m giving it credit for)?
I’m more used to a creative, free-flowing, semi-structured yet with room to drift, type of meditation…this “step into my virtual office and I’ll check the boxes on my Mindfulness worksheet” approach just wasn’t cutting it.

My initial Google search of “Mindfulness” did not inspire confidence in this practice as a therapy.

Mindfulness, is the new buzz word in mental health, and while the Black Dog Institute describes it as:
…not simply a relaxation technique or ‘power of positive thinking’. The technique is based on Buddhist meditation principles but was described by Teasdale and Beck for use in treatment of depression and then used by Linehan as a core skill in her cognitive behavioural therapy for Borderline Personality Disorder. Linehan (1993) describes three “what” skills: observing (simply attending to events and emotions), describing (applying labels to behaviours, emotions and situations) and participating (entering into current activities) and three “how” skills: taking a ‘no judgemental’ stance, focusing on one thing in the moment and being effective (doing what is needed rather than worrying about what is right or second guessing the situation).

My feelings, after completing Mindful in May, are that the Western Therapeutic take on the technique, seems to have sucked the soul out of the practice, which is at it’s core, meant to be a spiritual journey into self awareness and acceptance. I’m not entirely sure that the spirituality of the practice can be removed, and replaced with a clinical distancing, without indeed removing the very thing that makes Mindfulness an effective therapy in the first place. Connecting with the soul, the inner-self, or from a psychoanalytic perspective, balancing the needs of the id with the requirements of the ego and super-ego.

I have noticed Mindfulness training institutes popping up all over the place, in much the same way as the phenomenon of “Life Coaching”. While I don’t disagree with the use of Mindfulness in therapy, or the practice of Life Coaching for that matter, I do feel that the capitalisation of such beneficial therapeutic techniques by large corporations with the sole intent of making huge profits, has largely contributed to the watering down of these practices into nothing more than a pyramid scheme. It was this type of pre-fabricated, mass-produced detachment that I felt in the recordings for Mindful in May. If this is the style of teaching that is happening with therapists practicing Mindfulness, then I feel that contemporary psychology is dramatically missing the mark. It seems to have taken the “human” out of human behaviour, and is instead focusing solely on changing the “behaviour” while forgetting about treating the “human” behind the behaviour. A human with complex feelings, emotions and a capacity for a mind-body-self connection that is being sadly neglected in contemporary Psychological Mindfulness Therapies.

Essentially I feel that the effectiveness of Mindfulness therapy, as with any therapy, lies in the ability of the therapist to empathise with the patient or client. However, I also feel that Mindfulness therapy itself, should be taught to therapists in the context of it’s history and spiritual basis for centering, rather than as a clinical, detached, step-by-step box checking process, because the heart and empathy within Mindfulness rests in it’s ability to treat the whole person, not just the brain, or the behaviour, but to reconnect the person with their inner-self, otherwise known on spiritual terms as their “soul”.


2 thoughts on “Mindful in May – my journey into stillness (but mostly frustration)

  1. katieeaxford

    One thing I struggled with as a psychology student was the serious lack of “soul” that some of my classes had, similar to what you said the MIM program had done to meditation. Until I took a class on transpersonal psychology, I felt there was something missing from schooling. Being expected to put people into a 1-2-3 equation and therapy felt.. wrong. Too simple. I found your post very relatable 🙂 thanks for posting. I’d recommend reading The Wise Heart.

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