Thirteen years ago, I was a member of a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) group at the hospital where I was working. MBSR is an 8-week program, first developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center by Jon Kabat-Zinn, which teaches the practice of mindfulness. Since it’s inception in 1979, over 200 medical centers in this country offer this course, as well as several international locations. The program continues to grow because it works. The beauty of MBSR is that it is evidence based. Many published studies in medical journals have shown the benefits of mindfulness meditation in working with medical challenges.
WAIT! Don’t stop reading. I know I used the “M” word. I can practically hear you saying, “I don’t want to read about meditation. There is no way in the world I can, or want to, meditate!” I get that. But just humor me for a moment.
So back to thirteen years ago:
I was STRESSED! I was at a job that I loved doing…but couldn’t stand doing with the people I was doing it with. Not all people of course. Just two. But they were making me miserable. (Actually, in retrospect, I now see that I was making me miserable, but that’s another story.) So, the environment was toxic for me. I hated going to work. When I was there, all I wanted to do was leave. I was in an emotional heap on the floor most of the time. In addition—quite probably as a consequence, my health was spiraling in a downward direction for the first time in my life. And to boot, I was about to become a mother! A good thing, yes, but as we know, even good stress is stressful.
I knew of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work, and when I saw the class offered, I jumped at the chance to do it.
In brief, the practice I developed during that 8-week course probably saved my life. It certainly helped me to calm down enough to make the rational decision to remove myself from an environment that was literally killing me. Ultimately, I retired.
And, I kept up the practice of meditation. I will admit, my practice waxed and waned. I didn’t always have a daily practice. In fact, at times I went months without a formal practice. I even played around with different types of meditation. What I noticed was that when I was diligent with just doing it, whatever type I used, life went smoother. No, that is wrong. Life was the same…constantly changing when I didn’t want it to (read: health declining), or presenting me with “opportunities” for growth (read: emotional pain). What went smoother was my response to life.
Fast-forward thirteen years:
I am now in the midst of taking a teaching practicum in MBSR. Yep, I want to teach it. In fact, I want to teach it to YOU.
So what is this about Mindful Shaking? Well, first let me just point out that mindfulness is pretty simple. Easy? No. Simple? Very.
Mindfulness is the simple act of being present, non-judgmentally, to the experience of living in this moment, right now. For instance, when you are mindful of breathing, you bring your awareness to the in breath as you inhale…you simply feel it, whatever that brings. Then, you watch your out breath, as you exhale. You don’t try to control your breath. You just watch it. And you watch whatever accompanies it: emotions, thoughts, sensations, whatever, in a non-judgmental, detached sort of way.
For me (at first), this brought a lot of anxiety! Learning to be mindful of the breath is not always the way to start with someone with lung disease! In fact, I don’t recommend it. Many people that I have discussed this with (most with CF) think that this means that they “can’t meditate.” This is unfortunate, because so much can be gained from the act of being mindful! You can practice being mindful of ANYTHING! It doesn’t have to be the breath. The breath is just easy, because it is always there. It is the path of least resistance for most people. Because of this, it is the default way of first teaching this practice. But this is clearly not the way to go for those of us with CF.
So here is what I propose: The next time you strap yourself into your Vest, instead of watching TV, or getting a headache trying to read a vibrating page of print, simply close your eyes, and notice the shaking. Notice the feeling of the Vest expanding and contracting as you breath. Notice the intensity of the shaking. It is always changing, depending on whether you are breathing in or breathing out. Notice how the shaking extends to the different parts of your body and how those sensations are always changing. Talk about impermanence! A vibrating Vest is the PERFECT vehicle to focus on to understand the concept of “always changing, always moving.” In fact, mine starts and stops 14 times per second!
If the Vest is doing what it should, it is quite likely that you will need to cough. This can be challenging, but what the heck? See if you can be mindful while you are coughing. If you pay close attention, you can sense the feeling of the cough-to-be. Watch it, and then you can watch what your body naturally does in response. Afterwards, it is interesting to watch how your body calms down again after multiple spasms of intense activity. Slowly…very slowly, it comes back into balance.
Notice your thoughts about all of this (and you WILL have thoughts). When you notice a thought, simply acknowledge it, and go back to the sensation of the vibrating. Thinking is what your brain is made to do. It is a normal process. So just because you catch yourself thinking a lot (and you WILL), this doesn’t mean you are not doing this RIGHT. It simply means you have a human brain. If you had a bird’s brain, this would not likely be a problem. However, then you would likely have other issues.
Luckily, as a human with a frontal cortex, you have a choice of whether you get lost in your thoughts, or whether you pull back as you notice the thoughts, and go back to awareness of the shaking. It’s tempting to go with the thoughts. After all, that is our pattern—our habit developed over years and years. But just for fun…just for a minute or two, try the lesser-known path, and go back to sensing. Not much happens if you do it once or twice and then quit. This practice takes some perseverance before you begin to reap the benefits.
Then, one day it will dawn on you that the You that is watching the sensations is not the sensations, nor the body that is experiencing the sensations. The You that is watching the thoughts is not, in fact, the thoughts. The You that watches the fear and anxiety is separate from fear and anxiety. And, the best part is that it ALL changes! Everything…all the time…is in flux. The only thing that doesn’t change is the Watcher.
One last suggestion: Make sure that for at least the last minute of the session, you are very focused on being mindful of shaking, eyes closed…very focused. The reason is that the moment of transition from shaking to non-shaking is so cool, that it is really hard to describe. It simply has to be experienced.