September 29, 2010
Sometimes I forget how lucky I am. Sure, I got the devil coursing through my veins but I also have a wealth of resources that I can tap into when the going gets tough. Several weeks ago, after discovering that my bout with depression could not be blamed on HIV meds, and instead required some more inward work, I began the arduous quest for a new therapist. Although it wasn't my first, I knew this time really had to be different; so I started asking around. As I've mentioned before, John happens to be in the mental health field. Subsequently, I had plenty of folks to look to for help.
Over a delicious lunch with one of them (who is also HIV positive), I confessed that since sero-converting my self esteem has steadily eroded while simultaneously, the anger and resentment inside of me has continued to build. Instead of lovingly treating myself as someone that had just been through a very difficult time, I was not just becoming my own worst enemy, I was getting quite good at it. The negative self-talk and judgments I was living with made it almost impossible to move forward with living a meaningful life. I was desperate to try anything else that he thought might help.
My lunchmate confided to me that when he tested positive 11 years ago, he felt much the same way for the first few years. I asked him if he knew of someone that could help me to stop beating myself up and proceed on with life, without rehashing my childhood and everything that's happened since (at $150 an hour). He proceeded to grin like a cat that's swallowed a canary.
"Mindfulness", he answered simply. "I have a book for you."
I must have looked confused, because he went on to explain what he thought made this book different from the hundreds of other self-help books available. Turns out, A.C.T (Acceptance Commitment Therapy) is really catching on and he felt this book, due largely to the percentage of success stories of true transformation of those who have used its simple methods, was the best. He however stressed the importance of doing every single exercise contained within.
In other words, if I was serious about changing decades of the voice that has been narrating my life, I had to make it a priority and had to be consistent in the work I was doing ? twice a day, every single day.
The next day, he passed me his copy of The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. As I read through the first chapters I noticed that mindfulness -- simply defined as being fully aware of whatever is happening in the present moment without filters or the lens of judgment -- was mentioned over and over and over. I first became familiar with the idea years ago while practicing yoga and meditation so I realize it is hardly a new concept. Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and other spiritual traditions have used it for centuries but it turns out that plenty of well-rounded therapists, PhD's and even MD's are taking notice of this movement in mental health. Why now? Quite frankly, because unless they're making stuff up, it seems to work time and time again.
Intrigued? I was. However, being the Doubting Thomas that I am, I needed to do a bit more research before I committed myself completely. John told me about an eight-week program at UCSF Osher that's been around for years that worked with meditation and mindfulness. Unfortunately their current class schedule clashed with mine until later in the fall, so I went ahead and ordered the book (Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn) and the corresponding workbook (A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook) the participants use to nurture mindfulness.
The introduction of the workbook contains the following poem:
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice --
through the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old rug tug
at your ankles
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried
But you didn't stop
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers at the very foundations --
though their melancholy
It was already late enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
and the stars began to burn,
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do --
determined to save
the only life you could save.
-- Mary Oliver
On October 1st I will begin my eight weeks of self-guided mindfulness. I am committed to spend 20 minutes every morning and 20 minutes every night to retrain the way my mind uses my brain. I plan on doing each and every exercise in the books/workbook I mentioned and will dedicate my posts here to the subject until December. I hope to include my successes as well as the aspects I'm having trouble with. I'm no expert but I am sincere about this. At the end of every week or two, I'll describe the exercises I've been working on with a mindfulness tip thrown in here and there.
I'm inviting all of you who find yourselves in a battle with the voice that narrates your own life, to try this with me.
If you are able to get one book, I'd recommend the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook. It also contains a CD that contains quite a few guided meditations (in a very pleasant voice) that have already helped me get started when I'm not feeling especially mindful or quiet at the end of the day.
If you can afford it, don't be frightened off by the Full Catastrophe Living book title either. Jon Kabat-Zinn is considered by many to have written one of the best books on this subject. He does a nice job of mixing the science angle and the touchy feely side in a relaxed yet informative tone.
Those who care to share their experiences on this subject, please post them in the comments section below rather than e-mailing me directly. That way we can learn from one another. More viewpoints can only make it better.
So ... who wants to get Mindful with me?