By Merridy Pugh on Aug 27, 2012
This article was published on midlifexpress.com, a website celebrating midlife women, 2012.
I sit cross-legged and straight-backed on a firm sequined cushion. My eyes are closed and if I smile a little, it brings to mind images of serene buddhas, gold and silver shiny with lotuses in their hands.
I'm practising mindfulness meditation in the Vipassana tradition. Twice daily for thirty minutes I take time out to sit and quiet myself. This is my ninth week and I've not missed a session yet. I intend to do this for the rest of my life.
But why? I'm no shiny buddha holding a lotus, nor likely to become one. It's arduous sitting on a numb leg focusing on my breathing or body sensations. It's tricky fitting in meditation morning and night when the day's tasks demand attention, when I'm tired, when other things are more fun.
My mind scatters here and there, planning tomorrow, remembering this morning, writing the shopping list, rerunning conversations. Back to the breath, back to the body.
The short answer is: peace. I want peace.
A longer answer is that I want to change my brain into one less cued to stress, anxiety and the aftereffects of trauma. I'm curious. I want to experiment.
For years I've read about mindfulness and contemplated a Vipassana-style ten-day retreat. I liked the notions of being able to self-calm, to enter altered states of consciousness, to feel at one with the universe. On a more mundane level, the health benefits attracted me. Listening to the Health Report recently it seems mindfulness meditation is gaining increasing credence. There's even evidence it helps repair DNA damage.
But the way into the practice remained elusive. I tried meditating by counting the breath. I started yoga, listened to relaxation tapes, learned to visualise my 'safe place'. These were all beneficial, but they were not a daily mindfulness practice.
Nor did a bookshelf stashed with the likes of Jack Kornfield and Thich Naht Hanh give me the tools I needed.
These came from an unexpected direction.
My thanks to the MiCBT Institute in Hobart. Mindfulness Integrated Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has been pioneered by Dr Bruno Cayoun, a clinical psychologist who's melded the 2500-year-old Vipassana tradition with psychology practice to form a workable program for clients suffering a range of difficulties.
In my case, I wanted a solution to long-standing anxiety. Having found conventional treatments unsatisfactory, I was searching for something more in line with my personal philosophy, life-goals and felt experience. Antidepressants and talk therapy were not the answer for me. I disliked relying on a drug with dubious side effects, or on a therapist, however pleasant their company. I was unimpressed with offers of new pills to try without consideration of the root cause of my problem.
I knew that Western psychology had begun converging with Eastern wisdom about the mind. And here it was: a psychology practice in my hometown offering mindfulness as a method for tackling stress, trauma, and anxiety.
MiCBT has offered me a way in.
The program is graded, structured and evidence-based. I needn’t flounder alone trying to meditate from a book. I have a mentor of whom I can ask questions, and who explains to me, stage by stage, what I am doing and why. Elements of Western psychological treatments are incorporated alongside the meditation. Audio CDs initiate me into the techniques bit by bit.
The discipline to sit twice daily comes from me. I practise alone, and soon won’t need CDs to guide me. The knowledge that I follow a pretrodden path and have support offers the structure and direction I sought.
And the benefits are measurable. I hear my friends saying 'you seem so calm', and can see from the weekly scales and questionnaires how I'm changing – how my brain is changing.
One day I’ll embark on a ten-day silent retreat, but for now, the twice daily smaller silences are a good beginning.
Mindfulness Meditation: Loving Kindness
By Merridy Pugh on Sept 17, 2012
I’ve added a new element to my daily mindfulness meditation: the practise of loving kindness.
This ancient practise is one I’ve tried occasionally, sometimes looking at a photograph of someone I cherish. It lifted my mood, made me smile, and left me feeling warm and glad.
Now I’ve begun a more consistent practise as part of mindfulness training under the guidance of Dr Bruno Cayoun.
I’ve been following the Mindfulness-integrated Cognitive Behavioural Therapy program for 12 weeks (see mindfulness.net.au). At this stage I practise a bodyscanning meditation for 30 minutes twice daily, focusing on body sensations, followed by 5 to 15 minutes of loving kindness meditation.
To begin the loving kindness practice I focus on sensations of ‘free flow’ in my body, felt as tingling or vibration, often strongest in my hands. The instructions suggest focusing on the heart area in particular. I found this interesting as at times in my life of high emotion, such as grief, elation, or intense empathy for another’s suffering, I’ve felt a sensation of energy welling up from deep within my torso and flowing out through my heart area and my hands. I’ve never been sure what to make of this, but it’s been distinct and powerful and accompanied by overwhelming feelings of compassion. I imagine this is what I will feel during the practice once I am more experienced.
The next step is to think positive thoughts directed sequentially toward myself, my loved ones, those I know less intimately, those with whom I may be in conflict, and finally, all beings. I can use my own phrasing for these thoughts. An example: may I feel peace; may all beings feel peace. The thoughts are to be accompanied by an outward flow of positive feeling toward the person or beings I am contemplating.
The instructions also suggest using visualisation, and I find this easier than repeating positive statements. I visualise myself and my loved ones by imagining our faces, imagining sharing a loving look, touch or hug. The images that emerge often depict the loved one in a posture of openness and vulnerability, eyes closed as if sleeping. I touch their hair with gentleness, stroke their face, or rest a palm on their forehead. I see their beauty and their pain. I feel a deep empathy and compassion.
Interestingly, the flow of compassion comes most easily when I visualise my beloved guinea pigs, perhaps because my love for them is uncomplicated and they depend completely on my care.
I visualise also those loved family members, human and animal, who have died.
I am able to direct loving feelings toward friends and neighbours, but struggle to direct these toward people who have harmed me. In conclusion I direct loving feelings toward the blue planet with all her beings.
Coinciding with the start of this practice has been the onset of extremely pleasant, at times euphoric dreams. The dreams feature people from my present and past and a mutual sharing of goodwill and delight. I wake suffused with incredible wellbeing. They are very happy dreams. In the first of these dreams two former friends – people whom I avoid in daily life because of a hurtful falling out – were present and we hugged lovingly.
Is this an effect of my new practise? Can it be connected? I’m a novice at this form of meditation and look forward with curiosity to where it takes me.
Mindfulness Meditation: Meeting Difficulties Calmly
By Merridy Pugh on Oct 08, 2012
I’m exhausted from travelling all day. I skipped my morning meditation due to getting up very early to catch a ferry. I tried meditating on the plane but the roar of engines drowned out attempts to focus on my breath or body sensations. And now meditating is the last thing I feel like doing. Instead, I collapse in a hot bath to wash the travel grime away, and stagger from bath to bed.Such obstacles arise inevitably in the course of mindfulness practice. The challenge is to view these calmly and with acceptance.
AnxietyBecause I’m perfectionistic and diligent, skipping a meditation gives rise to anxious thoughts. Does it mean I lack commitment? Is it better to care for my body’s physical need for rest right now, or meditate regardless? Am I sabotaging my practice?
I watch the anxious thoughts, and try to accept these: they are simply thoughts, they will pass. And it is okay – yes, I missed a day’s practice, yes I have anxious thoughts, but it’s okay.
Intrusive thoughtsIt’s a myth that meditating means emptying the mind of all thoughts. Believing so leads to unrealistic expectations and a sense of failure, as anyone trying to meditate and failing (inevitably) to clear their mind of thoughts, will think that they can’t meditate. But the brain always throws up thoughts – this is what it does.
When I suddenly find myself rerunning an argument from yesterday or planning the next meal, I bring myself gently back to the meditation. The trick is not to engage with the thoughts, but to observe and let them pass. I’m learning not to get frustrated or despondent when thoughts intrude. There’s no need. I accept that my brain is an active organ, that recent or intense thoughts will arise over and over again during meditation. And I continue to focus again on the breath, on the body.
Pain and discomfortI thought I’d become skilled at meditating with a dying leg. At first I’d barely managed 30 minutes without desperate urges to move said leg. But I learned to observe the body sensations – tingling, pressure, throbbing, heat, cold – with detachment and without reacting. Sitting for half an hour became easy, the discomfort tolerable.
Then my sessions increased to 45 minutes and I encountered the same obstacle with a vengeance. The added 15 minutes were excruciating. Here I was trying to generate feelings of compassion during the loving kindness component of my meditation, with my leg screaming abuse at me for sitting on it so long.
The 45-minute session is a work in progress. But I know my leg won’t be damaged by a short spell of numbness. I try to watch the sensations and mental gymnastics with detachment. It’s intriguing to see the lengths one part of my brain will go to, to make me move that leg!
Confusion and doubtThe same principle applies to feelings of confusion about the purpose of all this sitting-on-a-dead-leg, and doubts about the purported benefits of it all. What if it’s not working? Will I ever have better control over difficult emotions? Will I be the first person in history whose brain is a complete dud? How can sitting on a dead leg make me calmer?
Back to equanimity – these too are merely thoughts. Doubts will pass. Equanimity helps me avoid spiralling downward: a doubting thought leading to annoyance leading to further doubts and annoyance, despair, despondency and giving up!
To my horror I recently missed three entire days’ meditations. My motivation plunged as I considered what a useless specimen I was. I struggled half-heartedly through several days of meditation before meeting with my mentor and trainer.
What a relief. He smiled gently at me, a twinkle in his eye, and said, the world won’t fall apart because you missed some meditations. He voiced the equanimity and acceptance I’d been unable to myself.
You can read a helpful account of common difficulties with mindfulness meditation in Dr Bruno Cayoun’s handbook Mindfulness-Integrated CBT: Principles and Practice.