Our MBSR class wrapped up a few days ago. We spent the last session reflecting on where we were when we started and where we are now after eight weeks of intensive mindfulness training.
It’s very hard to quantify the benefits of a consistent mindfulness practice (although brain imaging studies are attempting to do so). In our group, participants talked of feeling more patient, handling difficult situations more effectively, communicating more clearly, and recognizing physical responses to stress earlier. But these qualitative experiences are hard to measure.
I’ve noticed a subtle improvement in my ability to concentrate, sustain attention, and maintain an even emotional keel. Nothing dramatic, but enough to make me curious about what might develop over time and to keep me plugging away at it. Daily meditation doesn’t bring me bliss or elevate me to a higher plane of consciousness. More often than not, I have to push myself to do it. Sometimes it’s boring. Just sitting and doing nothing frequently makes me wonder if my time would be better spent in a more obviously productive endeavor, like weeding the garden or writing a blog post. But I’ve continued to maintain my streak (272 days and counting) because a growing body of research touts the merits of meditation.
So what has mindfulness done for me?
Well, I’m pretty sure it’s making my manicures last longer. I’m serious. I used to be able to keep my nails polished for a day, maybe two at the most. I’d see a chip and would be unable to resist peeling it off until every nail would be ruined. But since I started meditating, my manicures stay intact for a week.
There’s actually some evidence basis for my observation. Mindfulness is being used as a component of treatments for body-focused repetitive behaviors, such as trichotillomania, nail biting, and skin picking, to develop impulse control. So it might be helping me resist the urge to pick at my nail polish.
My manicures also may be lasting because I’m actually waiting for the polish to harden. I used to feel so antsy while my nails were drying that I’d leave the salon after a few minutes, reach into my purse for my keys, and mar the finish before I even got into my car to drive home. Now I take the opportunity to practice observing my breath while I wait, sometimes for as long as half an hour.
And one other mindfulness lesson may be helping preserve my nails: the acceptance of imperfection. In my premeditation days, I’d see a slight chip and not be able to stand it. But now I can notice the flaw, cover it up with a topcoat to keep it from getting bigger, and let it be.
You may think the grooming improvements I’ve reaped from practicing mindfulness are trivial. After all, a long-lasting manicure hardly qualifies as a major quality-of-life booster. But if you consider the value of learning how to wait patiently, resist impulses, and accept what isn’t perfect, you might agree it’s much more significant than it seems.
Fellow MBSR classmates: What has practicing mindfulness done for you? I’d love to post your comments.
When I signed up for an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, I thought it would help me “deepen” my commitment to mindfulness meditation. Now, going into the final stretch of the program, I’m wondering what, exactly, I was thinking.
I’ve had plenty of time on the cushion to contemplate the purpose of my intensive foray into the world of mindfulness—or, in the parlance of the meditation community, my “intention.” I think I was hoping to develop some serious meditation chops, to transform myself from a meditation amateur into a meditation professional.
Now I’m realizing the daily practice I’d fashioned for myself was deep enough just the way it was. Which, I guess, is the very essence of mindfulness: recognizing things for what they are, accepting them, and not trying to make them different.
For this achievement oriented striver, the concept of “good enough” has required a major mental attitude adjustment. You mean I don’t have to be an expert? And what would that even look like for a meditator? Going on a weeklong retreat? Becoming a Buddhist monk? No, I just have to keep plugging away to reap the subtle benefits—improved focus, better tolerance for frustration, more patience—I get from practicing meditation on a regular basis.
This observation came to me after the all-day retreat last week. (With hours devoted just to sitting and observing thoughts as they floated by like clouds in the sky, I’d have been disappointed if I hadn’t come away with at least one insight.)
I’d anticipated the day with a great deal of trepidation, as did many of the participants. Would I be able to stand being silent for 7 hours? Sit for long stretches without needing to get up and move? Endure just “being” without doing anything? Heck, I even wondered what to pack for lunch and how I’d slip away discretely if I needed a bathroom break.
But, as with many unfamiliar situations, the experience turned out to be far less taxing than I’d feared. We moved smoothly from one meditation to another—sitting, yoga, walking—so there was plenty of variety to break up the time. We could leave whenever we wanted and even had permission to take our lunches outside (which turned out to be an unexpected delight given the beautiful weather and fortuitous park bench I happened upon). The only rule was “No talking.”
Three hours passed surprisingly quickly. I enjoyed having nowhere to go and no chores to do. But when we returned from our lunch break, the afternoon started to drag. I felt drowsy. The last instruction of the day was to do any meditation of our choosing for a half hour. I welcomed the opportunity to stretch out on a yoga mat and close my eyes. And then I promptly fell asleep.
Even though improved sleep may be one positive outcome of meditation, sleeping isn’t meditating. But given the intensity of the day’s activities—yes, just being can be exhausting—and the focus on self-acceptance, I cut myself slack for missing out on the last part of the session.
So what did I learn? I realized more isn’t necessarily better when it comes to meditation, or many other pursuits, for that matter. Sometimes you reach a point of diminishing returns.
I plan to continue meditating. But I probably won’t be putting in 45 minutes a day, and I certainly won’t be going on a 7-day silent retreat any time soon.
I’ve discovered the importance of evaluating—mindfully, of course—what you need in any given moment. It might be meditation. Or it might, in fact, be a nap.
One topic of conversation in the MBSR class I’m taking has been how to keep up with our home practice. We’re now meditating for 45 minutes at a pop, and fitting it in has been increasingly burdensome.
Some people in the class have even been finding it hard to remember to do the exercises at all. I don’t have a problem on weekdays because meditating before work has become a habit. But on weekends, when I don’t have a schedule, I sometimes put it off and then find myself late at night reminding myself I need to practice before bed. A few slices of pizza and a glass of wine make me want to lie down and go to sleep, not sit upright cross-legged on a meditation cushion. So I’ve been trying to make morning meditation a weekend habit as well.
At the request of some of the group members, our instructor has been sending out reminders to prompt us to practice mindfulness. Call me childish, but his missives seem to have the opposite effect on me. Instead of getting jazzed up and motivated, I find myself irritated by the directives. My inner teenager starts rolling her eyes and acting sullen like my son used to do when I’d ask if he’d practiced his trumpet.
I guess I’m suffering from a case of mindfulness burnout. So I have to remind myself I’m practicing meditation out of choice, not obligation, and get on with it anyway,
But tonight I need to fortify myself for our daylong meditation retreat tomorrow. I’m planning an evening on the couch, watching Nashville reruns and mindlessly stuffing myself with potato chips straight from the bag.
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