(This is part of a series on mindfulness based stress reduction: a secular, evidence-based meditation practice that I’ve recently started.)
Note to self: This works.
It has been a bad, bad couple of days. I don’t want to get into a lot of details… but it hasn’t been good. My depression, which has largely been lifting over the last couple/few weeks, relapsed with a resounding crash. I’ve been feeling alarmed, unsafe, exposed, powerless, despairing, unmotivated, hopeless.
I’m on a plane as I write this. With several hours to sit in one place and do nothing, I decided to meditate.
It was difficult: my mind has been racing even faster and wilder than usual, and it has been perseverating on all the dark things, all the failures of my past, all the worst possible outcomes of my future. It was more than a little difficult to just sit and be: be with myself, be with my thoughts and feelings and sensations. I bloody well didn’t want to be with my thoughts and feelings and sensations. My thoughts and feelings and sensations were freaking me the fuck out. I wanted to shut them up, shut them out, drown them out. But I knew — both from my own experience and from the research that’s been done on this mindfulness-based stress reduction thing — that this might work: that this might quiet me down, restore some sense of peace. Or at least, restore some sense of self.
So I did it. I sat still in my seat on the plane, and closed my eyes, and focused on my breathing… and my breathing… and my breathing… and on the sole of my left foot where it was pressing against the floor of the plane… and on my left big toe… and on my left pinky toe… and on the toes in between…
And when I finished, I felt better.
Like, really better.
I’m still upset. But I feel… I don’t quite know how to put this into words. I feel like myself, feeling upset. I don’t feel like the upset itself. I don’t feel swallowed by the upset, or carried away by it. I’m still upset… but I feel like the stuff I’m upset about is manageable. And I feel like it’s worth it. I feel like the stuff I’m upset about is one sour note in a good piece of music… not like it’s swallowing me whole.
At the beginning of the session, my mind was stubbornly racing to all the dark things. It took me I don’t know how long — I wasn’t looking at a clock — to really feel the sole of my left foot, even for a second, and really experience the sensations in it. My mind would not shut the fuck up: I had to keep noticing the thoughts and gently pull my focus back… and notice the thoughts and gently pull my focus back… and notice the thoughts and gently pull my focus back… like every three fucking seconds. I wasn’t looking at a clock, but I suspect it took me a good half hour just to get through my left leg.
But by the time I got to my right leg, I was starting to feel better. My mind was still racing, still frantically jumping from branch to branch… but at least some of the branches it was landing on before I pulled my focus back on were happy ones, plans I was excited about, ideas I’ve been having fun with. By the time I got to my pelvic girdle, I was remembering that I actually enjoy meditation and take pleasure in it: that it is a deep and genuine pleasure to set aside time and experience my body, to notice that I am my body and to return to that awareness. (I always like it when I get to my pelvic girdle.) There was a weird scary moment when I got to my mouth and nose: the feeling of awareness of each part of my body felt like sinking into a warm bath, and when it got to my mouth and nose, I had a sudden panicky feeling like I was about to drown. But I noticed it, and paused, and just stayed with my neck for a little while, and finally I reframed the “sinking into water” thing as “sinking into a pool of super-oxygenated air,” and moved on. By the time I got to the top of my head, the process of noticing thoughts and letting them go to be in my body, noticing thoughts and letting them go to be in my body, had become second-nature. And by the time I was finishing, by the time I was experiencing my entire body as a whole entity and was returning to noticing my surroundings and my sense of myself in the world, I felt… not just calmer, not just happier, not just more hopeful. I felt like myself. I felt capable of experiencing pleasure, capable of managing the problems in my life, capable of doing the work that I love so much… because I felt like I had a self. I felt like there was a there there.
It was like a circuit-breaker.
This is not a panacea for depression. Far from it. I don’t think this would be working without meds, and therapy, and exercise, and sitting on the sofa with Ingrid petting cats, and all the other things I do to heal my depression.
But it sure as heck is helping.
So I’m writing this: partly to let other people know that they might want to check this out, but mostly as a reminder to myself:
So keep doing it.
I wrote something a few days ago about the meditation practice, about how after a week of doing it I was already seeing noticeable results…and about how then, inexplicably, I stopped doing it. As if it were a theorem in math, and once I’d figured it out, I didn’t need to do it again, and could move on to the next theorem. But it’s not a theory. It’s a practice. And there’s a difference between theory and practice. I can’t say to myself, “Aha! You now know that meditation helps with your depression and anxiety and makes you better able to focus — problem solved!” Any more than I can say to myself, “Aha! You know that working out builds your muscles and gives you strength and stamina — problem solved!” I have to actually freaking do it. Several times a week. Every day, if I can.
But when I do it, my life gets better.
So yeah. Note to self. This works. Keep doing it.