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Mindfulness

Why I Learned to Meditate: An Excerpt

I was a reluctant student in my mindfulness class. I went anyway.

In my mind, meditation was for hippies who didn’t have their shit together and mindfulness was just a fancy word for reformed hippies who barely had their shit together. I was happy to spend an hour each week in the confines of a therapy office, but meditation was an entirely different proposition. In my mind, it was just one step away from shaving my head and handing out flowers at the airport. I was a Type A, take control, get-things-done kind of girl. There was no way I was going to spend my precious parenting time lighting incense sticks and chanting my way through the day.

The problem was, nothing else was working. I was still yelling. Apparently, I didn’t have my shit together as much as I liked to think I did. The weeks went by, the yelling continued, and mindfulness and meditation kept popping up in my life: my mother-in-law (also a Type A person) took a meditation course and liked it. I found an old book about mindfulness sitting dusty and untouched in a pile on my bedside table; I didn’t even remember buying it. A friend invited me to a writer’s weekend at Kripalu, a noted yoga and meditation retreat center in Western Massachusetts. And then one day, I was reminded of the old joke about the man who is caught in a flood and refuses to accept the help of neighbors with boats and police with helicopters, because he believes that God will save him. The man ultimately drowns, and when he gets to Heaven, he asks God why He didn’t save him. “But I sent you warnings, a canoe, a speedboat, and even a helicopter. Why didn’t you take them?”

In that moment, I was able to see that I was drowning, and I had been unwilling to grab a lifeline that I knew was out there because I was so hung up on my judgmental ideas about meditation. I knew what I had to do, as much as I didn’t want to. I begrudgingly signed up for a Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class. I had done some research and knew that this particular model of teaching mindfulness and meditation was developed in the late 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist by training. In the decades since, the MBSR curriculum has been taught to hundreds of thousands of individuals and used in hundreds of research studies exploring (and often confirming) the effects of mindfulness and meditation. Because it was a secular program backed up by solid scientific literature, I figured I had a decent shot at not wandering into a drum circle full of patchouli-scented space cadets.

A few weeks later I was sitting on a folding metal chair in a large conference room. There were about thirty people sitting in a circle, each with a purple yoga mat and a maroon meditation cushion under his or her chair. We were going around the room, sharing our stories of why we were taking this mindfulness course. As I listened to each person talk, I felt wildly uncomfortable and totally out of place. Men and women, mostly older than me, were disclosing mental health diagnoses, chronic health issues, and relationship problems. As a clinical social worker, I was used to being the person in the front of the room or the other side of the desk, listening to these sorts of concerns and offering guidance. I was used to being the one who was in control of her life, on top of things, suggesting that other people consider mindfulness. This was different from the confidential conversations of my therapist’s office. It was incredibly uncomfortable for me to admit to roomful of complete strangers that I was struggling with parenting, that my emotions were beyond my control.

So there I was, squirming in my chair as my attention jumped between the thoughts in my head, the voice of our instructor, and the faces of the people with whom I would be meditating for the next eight weeks. A few of them had the disheveled look of patients I remembered from my time working on an inpatient psychiatric unit, and two women seated near me were most likely wearing wigs as a result of cancer treatment. I was so busy diagnosing my classmates in my own mind that I was surprised to realize it was my turn. I cleared my throat and shifted uncomfortably. “Um, well, my name is Carla. I’m a social worker and I have two little girls. Parenting is really hard … it’s like my own little Peace Corps, but poopier."

I paused, expecting the laugh I usually get from the poop jokes I had been making since I changed that first dirty diaper over four years earlier. But no one laughed at the joke. Humor is my favorite defense mechanism, and when it doesn’t work I feel bare and exposed. I looked up and was greeted by a circle of earnest faces. I knew I was expected to continue. I briefly fantasized about pretending that my cell phone was buzzing in my pocket and that I had to take an urgent call from my daycare provider.

Daycare. My daughters. My sweet girls who bore the brunt of my temper far more often than they deserved. They were the reason I was there. I took a deep breath and continued.

“Anyway, parenting is really hard for me,” I continued. “It’s the most important thing I’ve ever done, and I love my daughters so much. I get frustrated with them a lot more than I’d like to, and I need to learn to stay calmer with them. I think mindfulness could help.”

From Parenting in the Present Moment by Carla Naumburg, PhD © 2014 Parallax Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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