Recently, a friend aptly described the fertility journey as “very emotional roller coaster-y”. Probably this time next year, she’ll have the same opinion of working motherhood. Roller coasters, of course, are one of the main attractions at the amusement park. Yet, sometimes the intensity is overwhelming, and they make you want to barf.
Periodically, it’s good to get out of the amusement park and sit quietly and collect ourselves. In this post, we present some resources to help you do that – mindfulness meditation and centering praying.
Mindfulness is “moment to moment nonjudgmental awareness”, as Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it in his book Full Catastrophe Living (such a great title). It is a technique that can be used to reduce chronic stress levels. It involves observing your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations without creating a story line or judgments. It’s also being researched as a holistic treatment approach for everything – 1,868 mentions on PubMed and climbing! Clinical trials have tested the effects of teaching mindfulness-based meditation to patients with diabetes, heart disease, stress from urban living, smoking, urinary urge incontinence, weight management issues, and headaches.
What about fertility? That combination of words only gets 2 hits on PubMed. (Hello, potential doctoral dissertation?) One study included only 9 participants. The other, which had a more rigorous design, included women who were taking longer than they wanted to conceive and found that mindfulness training made them feel better as measured through “depressive symptoms, internal and external shame, entrapment, and defeat.”
We think stress management is an essential part of the fertility and motherhood journey, although we NEVER say, “Just relax, and it will happen.” We do not say that because: (1) the science does not support that, (2) it is very annoying to hear that, and (3) telling a person to relax does not actually help her relax.
Mindfulness practice begins by learning to observe our feelings, thoughts, and body without judging them as good or bad and without forcing them to go away. This is a precursor to chaning our language around our experiences, which was discussed in a previous post . This creates less of a struggle with them and we can ultimately let them go more easily. The next time you are feeling tense, angry, or disappointed, try staying with the feeling by observing it like a detached scientist. Observe your physical state: are your muscles tight, jaw clenched, shoulders hunched, heart race increased? Notice all of these sensations while resisting the temptation to label them as good or bad. When your mind starts to add a story line to it (i.e. “I’m so upset my period came; I’ll never get pregnant. It’s so unfair!”), direct your mind back to the feeling “I’m upset”. You may literally need to firmly and kindly say to yourself, “I’m stopping this story line!”
Mindfulness meditation is when you sit quietly with your back straight (it can be supported—feel free to sit in a chair), your eyes gently closed, and your tongue behind your upper teeth and slowly observe your thoughts and bodily sensations as described above. Many people find it easiest to start with observing their breath. There is no need to change your breath, just direct your mind’s attention to the tip of your nose and observe the cool sensation there. Observe how it sounds and feels. It is totally normal for your mind to drift in 100 directions. Every time it does this gently, non-judgmentally redirect it back to your nose and your breathing. Start with a goal of meditating for 5 minutes. Set an egg timer. Gradually work up to 20 minutes. Your mind is like a muscle, so it will probably be very challenging at first. Even the most seasoned meditator will have many distractions.
Mindfulness meditation has a cousin stemming from the Christian contemplative tradition called centering prayer. Emma’s husband is a potter. Before making something on the wheel, potters smooth a lumpy piece of clay into a smooth cone, and they call this process centering. Potters have a saying, “First center the potter, then center the clay.”
Many books describe centering prayer practice. Cynthia Borgeault, a prolific Episcopal minister, has written a very accessible book on this subject Brogeault says, “It’s very, very simple. You sit, either in a chair or on a prayer stool or mat, and allow your heart to open toward that invisible but always present Origin of all that exists. When a thought comes into your mind, you simply let the thought go and return to that open, silent attending upon the depths. Not because thinking is bad, but because it pulls you to the surface or yourself. You use a short word or phrase, known as a ‘sacred word’ …. To help you let go of the thought promptly or cleanly.” Your sacred word could be something that relates to your fertility or motherhood journey, or Borgeault gives examples like, “peace”, “be still”, etc.
Although mindfulness and centering prayer are easy to describe, changing thought patterns feels unnatural and even futile at first. It can also be hard to change your daily routine to allow time for quiet reflection.This may be even harder if you have young children in your home, although children are also wonderful at reminding us to return to the present moment, as our guest blogger and friend Hannah recently wrote about so eloquently.
Taking a class can make this behavior change easier. If you live in the Baltimore area, you can learn meditation from Sharon or one of her fellow Buddhist teachers at the Temple for World Peace. Sharon is teaching a specific class for parents on Thursday mornings starting May 22. If you live elsewhere, you can still find a mindfulness or centering prayer class. If not, online classes are also an option. Sounds True has lots of offerings, our fellow Psychology Today contributor Tara Brach has a wonderful podcast series , and Rev. Borgeault has a centering prayer ecourse that Emma is totally meaning to get around to taking.
Does this sound like just what you need, or does the thought of cramming one more thing into your day make you want to laugh hysterically? Or both? The key is to start small – like five minutes per day maximum. And those five minutes will pass really slowly at first! But little by little they will help made the roller coaster ride more pleasant.
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