I signed up for an MBSR group because I wanted to deepen my personal meditation practice and enhance my professional use of mindfulness. I’m finding it eye-opening on both fronts.
Every week we leave with exercises for “home practice”—a term I, too, adopted some time ago to replace the traditional CBT “homework” assignments. It’s hard enough to do the exercises without adding the negative associations and guilt (when the assignments don’t get done) attached to the concept of homework.
But as Shakespeare said, what’s in a name? That which we call homework by any other name would still be homework.
And so it is with home practice. The biggest challenge so far for me has been finding the time, especially since the demands have been expanding exponentially. And it’s only the second week.
After the first session, we were instructed to practice a Body Scan meditation for 30 minutes a day. Piece of cake! For someone new to meditation, starting with 30 minutes would be hard. But I’d already extended my practice to 20-30 minutes each day, so I didn’t have any trouble working in the Body Scan.
I shouldn’t have felt so smug. Because this week our assignment was to continue with the Body Scan daily along with adding a 15-minute Mindfulness of the Breath meditation and a 15-minute Loving Kindness meditation. You can do the math. That’s an hour of meditating each day.
Along with the formal meditations, we’re also practicing mindfulness informally by being fully attentive while engaging in one ordinary activity—such as washing the dishes, showering, brushing teeth, cleaning—each day. And we’re noting one pleasant event daily.
I’ve used all these exercises in the mindfulness groups I’ve conducted, with one variation. I suggest the participants ease into the meditation practice by committing to only five minutes a day. My rationale (and other CBT practitioners would concur) is that consistency is more important than duration when trying to develop a new habit.
There’s something to be said, though, for the total immersion approach. If you sign up for an MBSR program, you know up front you’ll be making an extensive time commitment, at least for the duration of the group sessions. And, although even five minutes a day of meditation can be beneficial, extra time on the cushion can produce even more immediate and dramatic effects.
Finding the time in a tight schedule for any valued pursuit isn’t as hard as it might seem. But it does take a certain mindset, as I’ve discovered. You need to be highly invested in the activity, you need to plan ahead, and you need to be flexible.
It can be challenging, as it was for me today when I had appointments from 8 am to 7 pm booked back to back. But I planned ahead and reminded myself I didn’t need to stick rigidly to the prescribed 30-minutes, which allowed me to work in an abbreviated (20-minute) Body Scan before starting the day.
You don’t have to be a super hero to fit a valued activity into your life. Take the marathoner I know who manages to put in his miles despite being a full-time grad student with a three-hour, round trip commute from his apartment in Brooklyn to his program at Rutgers. Or my neighbor who sets out at four am for an hour’s drive hour to a farm in Leesburg, Virginia to train her four Border Collies for sheepherding competitions before going to her job in Maryland. Or the law firm partner who gets home at 6 pm and starts cooking a full dinner from scratch because it’s important for her to feed her kids right, then logs back onto her work computer after the kids are in bed to finish a brief.
Those people get tired, just like the rest of us. But their strong investment in the actions they’re pursuing keeps them going in spite of how they might be feeling in the moment.
We all have the same number of hours available to us in a day. Being mindful about how we choose to use them is the most critical step in finding the time for what’s important to us.
I’m very familiar with the structure of the program. I’ve read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic, Full Catastrophe Living. I’ve based the mindfulness cognitive therapy groups I run on the MBSR model. But participating in a group is different from leading one. So I’m trying to approach it as a novice, using the concept of “beginner’s mind” for my framework.
Much easier said than done. Using beginner’s mind means seeing each moment with fresh eyes, without judgments or preconceptions. I found myself doing a lot of anticipating (“He’s coming around to put something in our hand. I’ll bet it’s going to be a raisin.”), comparing (“Oh, he’s having us do the raisin meditation with eyes closed. I usually do it with eyes open.”), and judging (“It’s better to do it with eyes closed.”) Those kinds of thoughts came up frequently as I struggled to stay focused on my reactions to the exercises.
That’s mindfulness in a nutshell: paying attention to what you’re experiencing moment to moment, cultivating awareness. Jon Kabat-Zinn says it best. “It’s simple, but it’s not easy.”
That’s for sure.
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