What Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Feels Like When You’re at the End of Your Rope

My extreme burnout led me to 8 Monday nights in a tiny yoga studio that changed me forever.

Image by the author using Canva.

Now, more than ever, I need the strength that comes from being still. COVID times are drawing out, and we are coming up on the one-year mark since the world changed forever. I am thinking about re-taking an MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) course via Zoom, soon. It’s hard to not want to revisit the best thing I ever did for myself.

“I see you! I see you there,”

was something my MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) teacher had passed on to us from her instructor when she became certified. Our teacher encouraged us, a rag-tag group of 7 total randos, to acknowledge those thoughts and feelings and sit with them. Be still. This wasn’t my style and still doesn’t feel like my go-to state. I have liked to chew on worry, anxiety, and future narratives racing through my mind like a canker sore. It seemed like maybe I liked it too much.

It was before COVID19 times. I was in a session with a sleep CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapist) addressing my lifelong insomnia (I can remember padding around the house in the middle of the night as young as five) when he suggested meditation.

“Hard pass,” I said. “I already do restorative yoga, and I’ve tried to meditate before, and I hate it.”

Two weeks of terrible Benadryl-addicted garbage sleep later, I was asking for his suggestions. “What was it you said I should look into for learning to meditate? I’ll try anything, even that bullshit.” (This Gen-Xer wasn’t gonna go embracing mindfulness while it’s all the rage these days. No way, nuh-uh.) He recommended MBSR because it is a significant evidence-based treatment for insomnia (and loads of other maladies too.)

The timing of it all happened so that all of the “first one is free” sessions/orientations required to join the MBSR classes were all happening over the next few days, so I had to act fast. There were quite a few options in my area as well as online. I’m an over-researcher (duh, Librarian,) so I guess the insomnia was working in my favor for a moment. Reading study after study left me craving some anecdotal evidence to go all-in. I started asking everyone I knew, including a group email to my entire office of 600 coworkers, if they’d ever done it, heard of it, had success with it.

Only one person responded, my coworker-friend, and it was to tell me about the practice in which MBSR is rooted — Vipassanā meditation. She both excited and scared the shit right out of me as she regaled me with tales of her multiple Vipassanā retreats over several years in a small town outside of Olympia, WA.

“It will crack you wide open,” she said, glowing with zeal, as she gesticulated wildly for emphasis. “It’s amazing. You’ll also get ‘meditation body’ because you barely eat for the entire ten days — it’s so great!”

Ummmm, yeah, fuuuuuuck that! I thought to myself. Cracking wide open and skipping meals sounded terrifying, harsh, scary, and not gentle. I’d made a deal with myself to be gentle. And, going away from my family, which included a toddler, didn’t feel possible. Yet, all afternoon, I could not stop thinking about my friend’s incredible glow, smile, and sense of peace as she had talked with me. I wanted that, and I’d gladly take any one of the three, even in pieces.

As I dug into further, hurried research, I discovered my friend was ahead of the times, being a seasoned, repeat-retreater. Vipassanā was having a moment on a global scale. And, it was having its moment with fancy rich people and influential authors. “Sapiensauthor Yuval Noah Harari doesn’t seem to able to live without regular Vipassanā retreats, and so it would seem that at least half of the leaders in Silicon Valley feel the same way.

And, this 2001 study published in the Journal of Research in Medical Science made the benefits of Vipassanā very appealing to me. The 14 participants in the study all reported, upon self-assessment,

“significantly higher [quality of life] compared to their levels prior to the course, suggesting that the 10 days’ practice had significantly improved their physical and psychological well-being.”

Other research, internet posts, and musings aroused my paranoia that any of this could be too much for me to handle in my fragile, sleepless, fried state. And, I’m not looking to hack my mind like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey or other power bros. I’m just trying to get some goddamned sleep, hurt a little less during the day as I age, and be a better parent and person if I can be.

Meditation was also having a moment in the ’60s, when Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist, activist, and pain sufferer, started meditating while studying at MIT in 1965. He did not identify as a Buddhist, however. He envisioned a world full of secular mindfulness clinics during a vision on a retreat in the New England woods in 1979. (I have come close to visions in the New England woods, so I enjoyed imagining myself on retreat there, finding a patch of sun in a forest clearing, and listening to the many birds of that region sing.) Kabat-Zinn was able to return home with his vision and put it into practice at UMass, developing and honing this 8-week program, and later, a book. (The instructors recommend holding off on reading this if you intend to take the course, and I loved listening to the audio version about a year after the course.) He wanted to take a scientific approach to provide access and learning to mindfulness. This, to me, sounded like a gentler way to access the benefits of a mindfulness retreat.

Three days after my friend shared her Vipassanā experience with me, I was the only grown-ass person sobbing in a conference room in the secret upstairs of a Whole Foods, surrounded by strangers. The instructor, a diminutive lady-wizard, seemed alarmed, and that made me feel a lot worse. She was encouraging, but she also explained that my therapist was going to have to write a letter saying I could handle it. Fuck! Really? What if my therapist, who put me on this trail, was wrong and I couldn’t handle it? I tentatively signed up for the class because now I wanted it, despite my fear of it. I went to a second therapist for a second opinion.

The second therapist was a Hakomi Therapist (not one of my 600 coworkers had tried that, either), working in the mind-body connection space. And, she felt that it was a great idea, but she also thought she could teach me a few tricks to use as coping mechanisms should my anxiety spiral out of control during an MBSR class and/or meditation session. She taught me to focus on the sensations on my skin and to pick another area of my body to scan if any particular meditation was going too deep or just freaking me out. It was in Hakomi sessions that I realized I carry a lot of trauma around visualizing my brain inside my skull, and I carry a lot of stress around my shortness of breath and shallow breathing episodes. It was also in these sessions that I fully acknowledged the ridges on the insides of my cheeks were there because I clenched my jaw while I slept and clench my jaw all day long, too.

Feeling ready, I sat down and re-read the paperwork I’d been provided with at the orientation. I would need to spend a few hundred dollars (there are plenty of courses to be found for less, and they all work to reduce financial barriers to enrolling), commit 3+ hours ever Monday night, at least one hour per day to meditate on my own, and a full day for an “all-day silent retreat.” 😱

Fuck it, I thought. Let’s do this. I really wanted it now. It was pulling at me and sounding like the only thing I could do next in my health journey.

The first Monday night came, and we all gathered in a tiny, carpeted yoga studio with low, acoustic tile ceilings. There were a lot of questions and answers as well as brief introductions. It was refreshing how much we were not to share, and it was refreshing how much this was not group therapy. We did our first meditation, and it was guided by our tiny lady-wizard. Everything was guided. And she was guided by an obviously-honed-to-perfection curriculum. The next eight weeks were indeed gentle, accessible, and lovingly shepherded. Every meditation was guided, which completely threw my assumptions about what meditation is back in my foolish face. Yes, I was quiet and still, but it was not maddening in the slightest. Sometimes we walked, sometimes we did yoga, and one time we ate a raisin with rapt attention.

I did my “homework” diligently, every day. I became defensive of my hour of meditation — disgruntled if it was denied to me or if I was made to wait until bedtime to do it when I would automatically fall asleep a few minutes in. Yep, I was only a few weeks in when I began to fall asleep. And, I wasn’t pleased with it, but I was amazed by it. I was amazed that I was finally sleeping, and amazed that I loved my practice so much that I guarded it like it was my second child. The wizardess smiled and laughed when I shared I had started to fall asleep while meditating. “Ah yes, we often joke about the recorded meditations curing sleeplessness. I’m so happy for you!” Instead of explaining how mad I was that I was falling asleep and missing out on my meditation hour, I laughed too.

The full day of silent meditation was approaching, and I was beginning to feel anxious. I remembered having anxiety attacks during the crushing quiet of exams in school, and my flight response began to kick in to protect me from the horror of having to shut the fuck up for HOURS in a row. Our wizardess explained to us what to expect (sooth, sooth, sooth,) and what to bring for nourishment (of course I’m on a terrible, fussy set of dietary restrictions,) and how to get our needs met throughout the day (sigh, OK, calming down, I was.) My favorite thing about the full day of silent meditation, and the thing that remains the most remarkable to me: we were asked to not make eye contact, speak to each other, or engage in any way with each other. The relief I felt in that moment sent a bolt of realization back through my life to early memories of gathering my energy to meet the expectations of social interactions, and to also be good at it. To just get a whole day without it, but still be in the world? Really? Amazing.

As we closed out our whole day of being silent, not talking to each other, and not even having to warm up our cheek muscles for obligatory smiles or anything at all, we all stood in a circle and our leader told us,

“one of my favorite things about today is knowing that there are literally thousands of us doing this right now, today, together, all around the world.”

This made my heart warm, too. I remembered that a lot of the people in the evidence-based studies of mindfulness-based programs, including the pilot of MBSR, self-reported having little to no quality of life and felt humbled by my privilege.

It’s been a couple of years now, and I don’t know anyone I would not recommend it for. Seriously. Even people I dislike. I want it for those assholes, too. Realistically, I know that one woman’s silent retreat could be another person’s solitary confinement, so I want everyone to first seek and then find, this gentle, structured, and methodical way to get care and healing. My gratitude for the support I received throughout the experience has been so great that driving anywhere near that tiny carpeted yoga studio with low ceilings creates a sense of warmth, and maybe a little bit of that shiny glow, in me.

My sister-in-law, if I were actually married, commented about mindfulness to me once that made my heart swell. She said,

“I wish I’d known all of this earlier. Oh well. At least our kids will benefit earlier in their lives.”

And, that brings it truly home. I am so glad to see mindfulness education being taught in schools. I occasionally use an app to do short gratitude and calm-the-fuck-down meditations with my young son. We had never let him play any apps on our phones or tablets when he was younger, so he initially thought it was a kind of boring videogame. But, he loves it, and he asks for help when he’s struggling with overwhelm, which puts him ahead of the game compared to my bruiser, latchkey childhood. (I highly recommend the book “Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting” by Myla Kabat-Zinn and Jon Kabat-Zinn.)

I’ve returned for a few all-day silent retreats as a grad (a perk that is easy to overlook during sign-up), and I’ve had what I would call “bouts of practicing meditation,” but I have never really returned to a regular, hour-a-day routine. I still listen to my instructor’s guided meditation recordings while trying to fall asleep. It works!

But what has truly changed in me is the way I work, communicate, process information, and regulate my emotions. So, you know, just about EVERYTHING. A transformation took place for me over the months after MBSR that changed the way I can be present, thoughtful, truly listen, give a shit when needed, and stop giving a shit/calm my tits when also needed.

And, it started to grow seeds of daily gratitude in my thinking — enhancing the way I love and appreciate the people in my life.

I now find myself able to be still enough to really listen to others instead of racing ahead and formulating a response. I have also started to be able to maintain and regulate my emotions and physical response to stress in a new way. For the past decade or so, I’ve been one of those unfortunate souls that starts tearing up or even crying when stressed or surprised by shitty information or confrontation. It’s driven me crazy for years that I display a bigger emotional response than what I believe I am genuinely feeling. It’s so humiliating and terrible to cry at work because someone has disappointed you, or really, just pissed you off. Now, I can sit through tough experiences, slow myself down, and observe what is happening, think about it, and then observe what is showing up for me and even decide how and when I’d like to address what is there. I was able to almost laugh a little when a person in power over me actually yelled at me in an elevator last year. I didn’t cry when I quit my job, and I also found myself able to say out loud, “this is difficult for me, I might cry, but I do not want to.”

On the last in-person day of silence that I could attend, the MBSR wizardess hugged me goodbye, then paused, stopped me from leaving, and said:

“Phoebe, I have really noticed a shift in you. I hope you have too. I hope it serves you well.”

I was taken aback by the rush of emotions hearing that gave me — joy, accomplishment, and a strange cathartic release that felt like a decades-in-the-making psychological exhalation. A little part of me felt sorry for past me — that fussy bitch that took so long to get here. Maybe even further back to the kid that didn’t get access to these tools growing up. These tools feel like something new — they feel like abundance.

And sometimes, that helps me sleep at night. Other times, I have a lot of gratitude for melatonin. 🙏

– Bob Sharples, from Meditation: Calming the Mind, on meditating as an act of love.

nerd with an MLIS superphoebe.com

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