Several weeks ago, I began a class called, “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.” At the encouragement of a close friend, who has followed me through the ups and downs of my breast cancer treatment, I sought out various integrative medicine approaches to help the healing process begin. This class was being offered nearby at our community Wellness House, a place for people living with cancer to find healing. I signed up knowing very little about what to expect and having never meditated before. There was an initiation class to understand the commitment to the class work, and then you had to be accepted into the class based on your own personal statement and circumstances. People in treatment were given priority, given the high demand of the class. I am grateful I was accepted.
What is Mindfulness?
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Mindfulness meditation is moment to moment awareness. It is being fully awake. It involves being here for the moments of our lives, without striving or judging.
You have felt it. Remember doing something you really, really enjoyed? Stop reading and close your eyes. Take a moment to remember that time. How did you feel as you thought of it? Did you notice there was little room left for distracting thoughts or feelings? Bringing full attention into anything is mindfulness. You step fully into the moment. There is a sense of completeness, of enough-ness. These are the moments of our lives when we feel most at home (This definition is an excerpt from http://www.mindfullivingprograms.com/whatMBSR.php.)
Our first meditation of the class was taking our seat – chair pose. The instructor calmly asked the group to choose a chair and sit down for class. She asked us to notice our feet on the floor, their stance. Feel the balls of our feet. Feel our heels on the floor. Take our shoes off to connect better with the floor. Become aware of our knees. Do they hurt? Do they tingle? Is the chair the right height? Do our feet rest well? She asked us to move our awareness to our hips and our butt bones in the chair. Did we feel even? Settled? Rested? Was the back of the chair hard or soft? Was I even leaning on it? Was I erect? Was I upright and not touching the back of the chair at all? She moved our attention to our shoulders, our necks and heads. Did my head feel heavy? Were my shoulders clenched? Was I holding tension in my shoulders from my day? Could I sink into the chair more? Could I breathe out tension and let my shoulders relax? Relax my jaw. Relax my face. Listen to myself breathe. Then, we listened to our breath and became aware of our bodies changing as we breathed in and out.
And, in a matter of five minutes, she’d gotten our complete attention – she’d guided us to focus our attention on ourselves – through simply sitting in a chair. And class began.
Next, the instructor passed around a small bowl of raisins, asking us to pretend we did not know what the object was. We placed it in our palms and reviewed it carefully, looking at all of its curves and wrinkles. We talked about where it came from, and how it grew. How far it had come to get to our hands. All the places it had already been to be here, in my palm. We squeezed it. We listened to it. We smelled it. We put it to our lips and felt our mouths begin to salivate. We put it on our tongue, but did not chew. We smashed it to the roof of our mouths. We held it between our teeth. We slowly sank down on it, but then held it there and let the flavor run. Then we chewed. And chewed. And chewed until it was no longer a raisin, but still had weight and texture. Then we swallowed. The exercise took 10 minutes – 10 very long minutes. As long or longer than it takes most of us to eat a meal. And there was no TV. There was no music. There was no newspaper or book. No kids asking questions. Just one raisin. And one voice leading us through a mindful meal of one raisin. I actually don’t like raisins, but I did enjoy the process and the idea of savoring and enjoying something slowly, thoroughly.
I know what you are thinking – I’m losing my marbles. This woman took five minutes to sit in a chair, 10 minutes to eat one raisin and felt good about it.
Bear with me.
There were several other meditations during that first two-and-a-half-hour class. A body scan that started with us lying on a yoga mat, focused on our big toes and proceeding up our bodies. Forty-five minutes later, having paid attention to absolutely every part of our bodies, we were breathing through the tops of our heads and out the bottoms of our feet.
I walked away from that first class refreshed, thankful I was accepted and curious what she had in store for the next week. My week’s homework was to take the CD of her voice and do the 45-minute body scan each day, recording my observations in our workbooks.
I won’t make the next class, but I will be back soon.
I had to have surgery on Monday. After several weeks of waiting on an open wound to heal, we collectively decided something had to be done to force it closed – a process they called debridement. My plastic surgeon cleaned out the mastectomy cavity, removed all scar tissue, took off all of my radiation damaged skin and gave me a new, tighter seam using skin from my arm pit to heal the wound. The hope is that my skin will adhere to my body, and to itself along the seam, without any pockets of open space. And I will stop producing serum – as I have been for several weeks.
Stressful to say the least, I woke up sore from surgery violently sore. Most of my prior surgeries dealt with scar tissue areas or severed nerves. I typically couldn’t feel anything but pressure. Now, those areas were cleaned up and gone. I felt everything.
The second day, post-surgery, a young woman came to my hospital room from Gilda’s Club, a group that offers integrative healing to cancer patients during their stay. She asked if I would be interested in a 10 minute relaxation/breathing meditation to help with my pain and healing process. Surprised, but happy, I told her of my very new experience with mindfulness and the difficulties we were having getting my pain under control. She said, “It’s time to put your practice to work. You already have what you need.” For those 10 minutes of guided meditation, I couldn’t feel anything but the rise and fall of my breath and could only hear the sound of her voice.
There it was. I felt it, reducing my anxiety and refocusing my attention on my breath. Focusing on letting my muscles sink a little deeper into the bed, letting the tension go from my shoulders and temples and feeling the sore skin sensations as healing ones – focusing on my new path forward.
Breathe in, breathe out. Let go. Be mindful. Heal.
There’s a ton of information out there about mindfulness living. You have everything you need to do it now- right now – today. It can help any situation, any illness, any pain. A few resources I have used are below for your reference. The Anderson Cooper interview on 60 Minutes is particularly good. He’s woven mindfulness into his everyday routine, starting out a skeptic like many of his peers.
Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes with Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDxIBQT7F54
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Program at U-Mass: http://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/stress-reduction/
A Meditation Body Scan with Jon Kabat-Zinn: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8oKWQiEWYs
You can follow my story, too, of the ups and downs of dealing with breast cancer: http://www.Paintitpinkandchew.com
Contributed by Jeni Moore
Married to Bill for 20 years.
Mother of 3: Madison, Lilja and Ray Ray.
Designer by day, potter by night.
Recently added: Breast cancer warrior.