Behavior Modification, Meditation, Mindfulness, Self-Care, Stress

Resisting the Right Now: My Own 7 Day Journey of Paying Attention to the Present

“Have you ever tried Meditation?” is a question I get asked A LOT by colleagues, friends, and clients. My answer up until recently was always “no” followed by, “there’s no time”. I am operating my own practice seeing clients 3 days a week and every other Saturday.  In addition to that, I work 2 days a week consulting in public education. I am married, have a wonderful family, and some very good friends all with whom I enjoy spending my free time. I enjoy traveling, and am also engaged in many community based activities through various organizations. My days begin at 4am and don’t end until around 8pm – 9pm. So, see? No time. And to avoid any additional stress, I certainly can’t be adding one more thing for me to do. I already had self care practices incorporated into my life, so I was good. My stress was managed. Reflecting back, though, I can now see how blinded and overcome with being overwhelmed and stressed I really was.

To my own dismay, I recently (within the last year) have come to the realization that a lot the self care I was incorporating into my life wasn’t self care at all. Many of the behaviors and activities  in which I found myself engaged, would be characterized as reactionary measures to the stress I experienced. Only until I felt the impact of my stress would I then respond. How did I not recognize this?! I am helping my clients set up and implement self care plans all the time. This one hurt. But, it allowed me to take a step back, re-evaluate, and create a different path. A path that lead me to learning how to be more mindful.

John Kabat-Zinn, who is considered one of the leading experts in Mindfulness defines it as, “The awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose in the present moment, nonjudgementally.” Paying attention to what? Present moment? In what other measure of time do I live? This all seemed to too philosophical for me. I didn’t have time for philosophical. It was then that I decided to start reading about others’ experiences. Maybe I could take some of the context from their writings and experiences and make some sense of this, but much of what I read made the whole practice seem too complicated for me. That was mostly because many of the steps laid out or guided practices seemed to always start with ‘carving out time’. What time? Am I going to get up even earlier than I already do, so I can sit in my living room and listen to myself breathe? I decided to give this whole idea a rest for a while, which only lasted 2 weeks. During that 2 weeks I re-focused my energy on getting back to basics with my own self care plan.

Part of this plan involved cutting out unnecessary stressors. One biggie included  not listening to anything news related. So I started listening to various podcasts. One podcast I happened upon was Tim Feriss’. In one of his episodes, he was interviewing Tony Robbins. They started talking about morning routines and rituals. I wasn’t very focused on much of what was being said. I was driving and tasking out my day. But then Tim said this, and I am paraphrasing a little, “someone once told me that if you can’t take 30 minutes of time to yourself every single day, you’re probably someone who really needs 3 hours”. I have never had something resonate with me as much as this. Because, yes! This was me! It wasn’t that I didn’t have 30 minutes for myself each day. It was how I was choosing to spend the time I did have. And it was almost never for myself. This brought me back to being more mindful and how much I needed to try out this strategy.

The last several years of stress I was experiencing was taking a real toll. Not only was my lack of true stress management taking a very negative physical toll (added weight gain, chronic exhaustion, hair loss, etc), I was an emotional wreck. If not daily, definitely weekly. Engaging in emotional liable responses to nearly every negative event was my new M.O. If I didn’t have a good distractor requiring my attention, it would often take me a day or more to recover from a setback. Working 65+ hours each week, I was constantly feeling like I needed time off. I was also hyper-focused on future events. I was nearly obsessed over all the “what-ifs” of potential situations, and I found it difficult to concentrate on much else. My need to be in control of EVERYTHING was causing me to…well…not really have any. I then found myself engaged in activities and tasks that were just time wasters. I became completely entrenched in the act of putting things off. This was not me; not who I am, and the fact that I do what I do for a living – it all made me feel like a fraud. So, the time had come to practice what I preached, but first I needed to know where I was starting, so I could really gauge progress.

Baseline data of behaviors wanting to track and change, before starting meditation sessions: 

Behavior

Frequency (average per week)

Emotional overreactions (anger/sadness)

3.4

Intense feelings of worry (future events)

2.3

Number of work outs

2.0

Hours of sleep

25.6

After I took some data on behaviors I wanted to change, I decided to do some more research, find an app, and try it out. After reading about several choices, I opted to try Headspace. It seemed like the best fit for my level of experience and life style. Headspace is available through iTunes and Google Play, and the best part? The first ten sessions are free! This seemed like a perfect start for me. I was very unsure about guided sessions because I have tried them before, and I have never come away from anything feeling more frustrated. I am someone who describes my brain as never (ever, ever, ever) shutting off or even shutting down a little. Listening to someone talk me through something in which I struggled was infuriating.

Headspace sessions are guided by a man named, Andy Puddicombe. He has an incredibly interesting background and is a meditation and mindfulness expert because of it. He also created short animations, within the app, that explain why meditation is sometimes difficult. He also includes little tips to make the most of each session. Maybe it was his British accent, his naturally smooth voice and cadence, or a combination of these things, but I found everything about him very calming. This was very encouraging, and based on my own baseline data, I was very much looking forward to realizing the benefits of becoming more mindful. I clearly needed a new strategy.

Day #1:

The first session, like all sessions, was 10 minutes. There was a little animation explaining about what to expect, and I appreciated that. It was nice to hear that this process may be difficult and that it was sort of supposed to be that way. I chose first thing in the morning, so that I could set my day up for success. Once the session began, I found it incredibly difficult – painful really – to sit. I was in an over-sized, stuffed chair in my living room, so it wasn’t uncomfortable in that sense. The act of remaining seated and still  for 10 minutes was uncomfortable. I immediately found my mind wandering off thinking about everything I needed to be doing. It was 4am after all. I had lots to do. At one point, Andy has you counting breaths, and this was SO helpful! This helped me remain focused and I found that I wasn’t thinking much about anything else. The 10 minutes went by so quick too. Before I knew it, he was telling me to open my eyes and “have a stretch”. I was surprised at how refreshed I felt despite it being rather difficult. Day #1 turned out pretty good. I stayed on track with my tasks and schedule. It was an uneventful, but pretty positive day.

Day #2: 

Today was difficult again. In fact, today seemed harder than Day #1 as far as my focus was concerned. I did find the sitting aspect less uncomfortable today as compared to Day #1, so that was a nice surprise. Reigning in my thoughts was harder. My two cats were making lots of noise as was our home humidifier and the coffee pot, and I was very much drawn to this extraneous stimuli. I learned that I was supposed to be noticing the sounds around me, so once I realized this and started counting my breaths, I was able to focus much better. Again, the 10 minutes went by so very fast. I still felt refreshed despite feeling like I had a really hard time gaining my focus.

Day #2 was pretty good, overall. I stayed on track regarding my tasks and schedule. I did have a high intensity emotional moment at the close of my evening; however, but I noticed something different about myself. I reacted as I normally would by overreacting, but I recognized this almost immediately. I then took a little time out from the task in which I was engaged, in another room. It took me all of 2 minutes to realize I was focusing on future events again. I took a couple of deep breaths and resumed what I was doing. The night ended really positive, and I was very happy and incredibly proud of how I handled myself in that difficult moment. I did consider that perhaps this was all too good to be true, and that I was experiencing a “honeymoon” phase or a placebo effect of this new practice, but the whole point of practicing mindfulness is becoming more mindful and staying aware of the present. Isn’t that what I just did? I became aware that I was too focused on something that hasn’t even happened or may not even happen, and got myself back to the right now.

Day #3: 

Today I woke up craving the next session. I was so excited about my quick recovery about the stressful event the night before, I wanted to get session three in right away. This session had an animation preceding it about how wanting to control our thoughts work, or don’t work for us. It also explained how to deal with thoughts in a more mindful way. This was very helpful. I discovered I was more relaxed and focused this session. I also didn’t find myself focused on how uncomfortable I found sitting still. This practice, while only 3 days in, really felt like it was supposed to be apart of my daily routine. I also found myself really savoring those 10 minutes when they weren’t really a thought before. I didn’t feel like they went by too quickly, but that it was just the right amount of time. Overall, Day #3 was a positive one. I am juggling two very different jobs – both within my field of practice – and I started to feel that my focus was on only the job I was doing this day. Normally, as I work through my schedule for the day, I am also very focused on the next day and what its schedule looks like as well as its task list. For the first time in over 3 years, this didn’t happen. This brought a real sense of relief. I could be completely present in what I was doing right now, and I discovered that the quality of my work increased as did my productivity.

Day #4:

I completed session four in the same manner I had all the others. First thing in the morning. This session felt really easy. Almost too easy. I definitely had more control over my focus and thoughts. I was relishing in the fact that this process was getting so much easier. The sense of calm I felt while engaged in the session was a shift from the previous sessions. At the end of session four, I discovered that I was disappointed when the 10 minutes were over. I also noticed that I had not thought about the difficulty of sitting still during the process in two days. As I was getting better and better with my focus, I discovered that I was also noticing my tension areas during the body scan. Areas that I wouldn’t have normally felt or was use to feeling tension. I was becoming more in tune with my body and the messages it was sending me. This allowed me to focus on some targeted stretching and therapies, which seemed to melt it all away.

Day #4 was a very long day. It was a 12 hour work day that ended with two very difficult clients. I generally schedule these two as the last appointments of the day. I was expending a significant amount of energy invested in their progress – much more than they were – and I was almost always very frustrated by the time their sessions were over. I almost felt like I was experiencing some compassion fatigue. Recently, I had also noticed I was becoming short with them, and I wasn’t communicating feedback to them appropriately because I was worried about my tone. On this day; however, I found myself looking forward to their appointments. I was able to provide them with constructive feedback and my impressions in a very positive manner. After their sessions came to a close, I felt as if I could have scheduled a couple more. I didn’t feel the need to close up and get home, and this was FANTASTIC!!

Day #5: 

Session five was so far the easiest of them all. I noticed that I was still pretty reliant on the breath counting, but it allowed me to develop more control over my thoughts and focus.  I found my mind wandering very little during this practice now. The sense of peace I was feeling as well as the confidence in the ability to remain in the moment was nearly palpable. Gaining back control of my own emotional regulation felt so good. An interesting occurrence I noted as well, on Day #5, was that I wasn’t in a rushed panic, nor did I feel compelled, to constantly check any of my email accounts, voicemails, etc. In fact, I didn’t even realize that I was engaging in these tasks in this manner. Until I wasn’t. Bonus! I found myself engaging in these tasks more methodically and with some much better boundaries. I also noticed that I was craving doing another session in the day. It wasn’t because I had a stressful or negative encounter, but because I was actually enjoying it! I was so excited about my progress that I started recommending this app to some of my clients. Some of them felt the same as I did in the beginning – a little skeptical – but once I disclosed the progress I was feeling within myself, I got some buy in. I couldn’t wait to hear what their experiences were. Overall, Day #5 was uneventful, but very positive.

Day #6:

Session six was almost like all the rest. I felt a little more restless on this day than I had in the last few previous sessions. Rather than feeling frustrated about this, or like the “newness” of this practice had worn off, I remembered learning that each day will be different and some will be more difficult than others, no matter the skill level or experience. Recalling this made me feel at ease and I let the thought of feeling restless fade into the background. Day #6 was a Saturday; one that I had off, so I didn’t really have any expectations of the day at all, which was a very nice and peaceful change. One very important thing I noticed on Day #6, and it hit me like a ton of bricks, was how rested I felt. I had been tracking my sleep for over a year now, and during this past week I was getting more than I had gotten since the fall of 2015. This was truly incredible. I knew more than anyone how very important quality sleep was, and I had gone without for so long. I wasn’t getting a proper amount yet, but the increase and overall feeling I had, was significant.

Day #7:

Session seven was one I could not wait to get started. It was a little later in the day than I normally do the sessions, so there were a couple more distractions than I was used to. I found; however, that they didn’t detour me, and I was able to allow them to fade into the background with ease. Day # 7 was a Sunday. Its generally a stress free day anyway, but I felt an overall sense of improved well-being on this day. I was also given a true test of my newly developing skills.

I have experienced sound sensitivity for as long as I can remember. I find many sounds and combinations of sound incredibly overwhelming, which allows for what seems like a clinical level of distractability. Much of the sensitivity is rooted in some executive (dis)function I have. I simply cannot filter out different sounds. So, if I am in a restaurant, I can hear as clear as I hear the conversation with whomever has accompanied me, the conversations of all the surrounding tables, the sounds coming from the kitchen or bar area, the music or sound system used, dishes clanging together, the coffee maker brewing, someone’s text message notification, and on and on and on. This – no doubt -makes spending time with me in public difficult. “You with me?” is a question I get asked too often. I also have a specific sound aversion, and it involves ANY auditory  noise coming from someone else’s mouth.

Audible chewing, lip smacking, lip licking, chewing of crunchy foods, yawning, burping, and even a pet grooming itself would send me into a near rage. My poor husband can’t even enjoy a bowl of cold cereal without me having to leave the room or turn on some type of background noise. I had sort of subscribed to the fact that I would always react in this manner because I couldn’t explain why something so mundane as eating would have such an adverse affect. So what is my point, you ask? Day #7 was the day I realized I had some control over this aversion. As I was sitting at our kitchen island wasting time online, my husband got out a bag of very raw, very crunchy vegetables. Normally, I would’ve gotten out of my chair immediately and moved on to a new task, asking him, “When you’re through with those, will you let me know?” On this day, though, I remained seated. I was able to keep my focus on what I was doing and let the horrific crunching sound fade into the background. To be fair, I did have to engage in some moderately deep breathing as well as count the breaths, but this was an AMAZING improvement! Day #7 was another overall very positive day with some truly important realizations taking place.

With the first seven days down, and the experiences I had, I really felt more than ever that I needed to continue with a mindful meditation practice each morning. The positive results I experienced almost made me angry for being such a skeptic in the beginning. I repeatedly asked myself, “Why did you wait so long?” And it wasn’t that I didn’t experience stress during that week. I did. For sure. But I was able to let it surface and then let it go without having it ruin my day (and part of the following). Sometimes we can’t see how much stress is affecting us until we have different, more positive experiences. While it certainly felt like a punch in the gut; especially for someone who should’ve definitely known better and is the person others come to, I got a great deal of enjoyment out of this experience. What’s even better is the concrete difference I could measure in some of the behaviors I was tracking and wanting to change.

Data of behaviors after 7 days of meditation sessions: 

Behavior

Frequency (average per week)

Emotional overreactions (anger/sadness)

1.5

Intense feelings of worry (future events)

1.0

Number of work outs

5.0

Hours of sleep

44.7

Because I am such a visual learner, seeing these numbers change as they did has validated even more that this practice is a necessary part of my self care regimen. It is also a motivational tool I can use to keep me on track. I decreased my emotional reactions and intense feelings by over 40%, worked out nearly 2.5 times more, and gained an average of 2.7 hrs of sleep per night. How I was feeling confirmed these numbers as well. Becoming more mindful is something I am going to consistently recommend to my clients, family, and friends. My philosophy has always been “You never know until you try”, and that really couldn’t have been more true for myself.

 

 

 

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