Twelve us of us sit in a circle at the third session of the mindfulness-based stress reduction course (MBSR) offered at the hospital, the program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn 35 years ago at his Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School to help persons with difficult and chronic illnesses better manage their symptoms, work with pain, and find peace of mind in their day. I am making slow but steady progress on learning how to “dance in the rain,” a concept I explained last week about approaching treatment-resistant depression and chronic pain with a welcoming spirit instead of a fighting heart. The daily meditation is hard. I hate it much of the time. However, I sense an inner calm that is new, something that I need to get through the more stressful hours of my life.
Today we talk about the seven attitudinal foundations of the mindful practice that, according to Kabat-Zinn, constitute the major pillars of mindfulness practice as taught in the MBSR. In his book “Full Catastrophe Living,” Kabat-Zinn describes each:
Non-judging: Not getting caught up in our ideas and opinions, like and dislikes.
Patience: An understanding and acceptance that sometimes things must unfold in their own time.
Beginner’s Mind: Seeing things with fresh eyes, with a clear and uncluttered mind.
Trust: Trusting in your intuition and your own authority.
Non-striving: Trying less and being more.
Acceptance: Coming to terms with things as they are.
Letting Go: Letting our experience be what it is.
These are our instruction guidelines—to be cultivated consciously as we sit down to do our formal meditations and in our efforts to bring mindfulness into daily living.
Among the most challenging for me are the foundations of “non-judging” and “non-striving.”
The inner critic who lives inside my head rent-free is one loud and obnoxious tenant. He has something to say about everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, I do and say, from the way I sort the dirty laundry on a tired Saturday morning to how many pieces of fruit I consume in a day, from my not-so-consistent pattern in disciplining the kids to my sloppy prose.
The judging mind can make a 10-minute meditation seem longer than a root canal. As soon as your attention strays from your breath, your left toe, or whatever you are concentrating on, you hear the indictment of yourself as a meditation moron. You try to file the indictment simply as a thought and return to the breath. But if you are like me, you start to judge the judging, and then you judge that you are judging the judging. A minute or so of this and you wish you had never read the research that said that mindfulness meditation can relieve and prevent depression and anxiety.
Kabat-Zinn writes, “When you find the mind judging, you don’t have to stop it from doing that, and it would be unwise to try. All that is required is to be aware of it happening. No need to judge the judging and make matters even more complicated for yourself.”
Non-striving doesn’t make sense if you’re immersed in a hyper-competitive, goal-obsessed culture like most of us are. A friend of mine who is training to swim the English Channel just stuck a “Swim 25.0” sticker on the back of his car. I said to him, “Good thing it says SWIM on there, because you wouldn’t want anyone thinking you only ran 25 miles and didn’t make it the rest of the 1.2 miles to the finish line of a marathon.” I am a goal-oriented person and live in a corner of the world that breeds overachievers, so the idea of setting aside a half hour to do nothing (meditation is non-doing) makes me uncomfortable. I twitch. I adjust my legs. I stretch my neck. I see the long to-do list pop up in my vision as I shut my eyes, and I do my best to let it go. Even scarier is a life of non-striving.
Trish Magyari, my MBSR instructor calls herself a “recovering striver.” Twenty years ago she was immersed in a high-pressure and successful career as a genetic counselor. Too much pushing and striving resulted in a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. She was unable to work full-time for five years. The practice of mindful meditation and mindfulness practice allowed her to reclaim her life. Now she is so passionate about it that she has dedicated her career to helping others become “recovering strivers.”
I belong in her flock. The debilitating depression that descended on me last summer has slowed down many of my biological systems. A lingering cognitive haze makes it impossible to accomplish what I used to be able to do in short periods of time. Before the crash, I was able to crank out ten blog posts a week. Now I’m happy to publish three. With meditation, there are no numbers or goals.
[Meditation] has no goal other than for you to be yourself. The irony is that you already are. This sounds paradoxical and a little crazy. Yet this paradox and craziness may be pointing you toward a new way of seeing yourself, one in which you are trying less and being more.
Each of the seven foundations relies on each other and influences how easily we cultivate the others. For example, if I can cultivate acceptance of where I am with a chronic illness, I can better let go of the goals I once set for myself and practice “non-striving.” And if I can pay attention to my thoughts without judging them, I can more easily develop a basic trust in myself and in my feelings. As I apply each of the seven to my formal meditation practices, they become a foundation on which to build each waking moment, as well.