Stumbling Back into Mindfulness
Margaret Landale teaches mindfulness as a resource in psychotherapy practice. But when she collapsed during a workshop, she realised she had neglected to listen to her own body’s urgent somatic signals. In her first occasional blog about mindfulness, the specialist in stress-related and psychosomatic disorders encourages busy therapists to pause and pay attention – and shares a simple three-minute exercise.
In the middle of running a workshop exploring mindfulness as a resource in psychotherapy, I feel a sudden wave of nausea erupting from my guts, and a horrifying certainty that I am going to be sick. I manage to tell the group that I am feeling unwell and rush out of the room. Sometime later I find myself on the toilet floor surrounded by concerned others, and am told the ambulance is on its way.
Several tests later, my GP and I come to the conclusion that my collapse has been stress related. How could it have come to this? I would have described myself as a calm, resilient individual and therapist and would amongst other things have credited my longstanding mindfulness practice with keeping me well and in balance.
Yet in the middle of a workshop, and immediately after guiding a mindfulness meditation (oh clever irony), my body has a different message for me. It simply shuts down and forces me to stop, slow down and to challenge my ways of living.
As I take stock of what might have contributed to my collapse, it becomes clear to me that I had neglected to listen to the increasingly urgent signals that had preceded my blackout. Tiredness, fatigue, feeling overwhelmed and emotionally much more unstable and volatile in ordinary stress situations. Stomach problems, headaches… I could continue this list. If a client had presented with these symptoms I would have been alert and tried to draw their attention to this. But in my own life, there just didn’t seem the time to pause and reflect or act.
Recovering from collapse
It took many weeks to recover from my collapse. My body had taken control, and I knew I had to give in, to slow down and refuel. And I came to recognise that I had neglected drawing on vital inner resources such as my mindfulness practice – in fact, I had not kept up with my mindfulness practice for many months.
My life simply had felt too busy to find even 20 minutes in a day to pause and reflect – might sound familiar? I had been aware of this but, hey, what else was I meant to do with the demands of my busy life? And after all, I told myself, I still was practicing mindfulness in everyday life! Or did I? Come to think of it, when was the last time I walked our dog and didn’t spend most of the time far away in thought? Had I noticed any of the bird song, the play of the light, the sense of wind or rain on my face? Yet I saw myself as an active mindfulness practitioner, happily teaching, waxing lyrical about its benefits… Well who needs the practice when we already know what it is all about –at least in theory?
My idea of myself as a mindfulness practitioner and the actual reality had drifted apart over time. I had not paid any attention to the widening gulf between my ideas of myself and the actual experience. Grudgingly, I had to admit it was time to pause, to reconsider and renew my commitment to mindfulness as an ongoing practice.
Time to pause
Mindfulness practice simply starts with pausing, interrupting what we are habitually doing, what drives and compels us. Mindfulness invites us to pay attention to our direct lived experience in a more deliberate and skillful way. As Jon Kabat-Zinn put it, ‘Mindfulness can be thought of as moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a specific way, that is, in the present moment, and as non-reactively, as non-judgmentally, and as openheartedly as possible’.
In hindsight, had I taken the time to truly practice mindfulness, to pay attention to my lived experience in a non-judgmental, openhearted way, I would have probably been able to slow down sooner and avoid my collapse.
Mindfulness is also a practice for everyday living. It is possible to open up into mindfulness at any point in our day. The challenge is to remember or to wake up from our habitual mental and reactive processes and choose to pay attention to whatever it is we are experiencing in the moment.
A simple exercise
A helpful stepping stone is the Three Minute Breathing Space, adapted from The Mindful Way Through Depression:
Pause whatever you are doing and focus your attention inwards. Notice first what thoughts occupy your mind and perhaps try to silently put them into words. Now notice what feelings are present, including any unpleasant feelings, simply acknowledging what is present emotionally – without judgment. Move your attention now to body sensations, scanning the body and noticing the different textures of your physical experience such as tingling, tension, temperature etc.
Gather your attention now to focus on the breath and, for the next few moments, simply observe the physical sensations of your breathing. There is no need to influence your breath in any way, simply notice ‘your breath breathing itself’.
Lastly, expand the field of your awareness around your breath to include your body as a whole. ‘If you become aware of any sensations of discomfort, tension, or resistance, zero in on them by breathing out from them on each out-breath as you soften and open. If you want to, you might say to yourself on the out-breath, “it’s okay… whatever it is, it’s already here: let me feel it”.