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Mindfulness & Meditation: An Introduction

Finally! Here’s an explanation of mindfulness meditation and the practice of mindfulness in general. The post is long but worth sticking with. (I think so at least!)

Mindfulness = Paying Attention
Mindfulness is captured by simple terms:

  • Paying attention
  • Being, not doing
  • Present moment awareness
  • Being “here”

Easy ideas, complicated concepts. The ubiquity of multitasking is an excellent example of the challenges. Home, work, play, school, friends, family… There’s so much to think about and it all fights for attention. With our minds everywhere at once, they are often far from our actual lives.

The UCSD Center for Mindfulness, part of the medical school’s psychiatry department, gives this definition:

[Mindfulness] is a quality, which human beings already have, but they have usually not been advised that they have it, that it is valuable, or that it can be cultivated. Mindfulness is the awareness that is not thinking (but that which is aware of thinking, as well as aware of each of the other ways we experience the sensory world, i.e., seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling through the body).

Mindfulness is non-judgmental and open-hearted (friendly and inviting of whatever arises in awareness). It is cultivated by paying attention on purpose, deeply, and without judgment to whatever arises in the present moment, either inside or outside of us. By intentionally practicing mindfulness, deliberately paying more careful moment-to-moment attention, individuals can live more fully and less on “automatic pilot,” thus, being more present for their own lives.

How is mindfulness part of meditation?
Meditation can be broken into two basic categories: Concentration and mindfulness. Until my recent introduction to mindfulness, I’d always thought of meditation as concentrating on clearing one’s mind or focusing on a narrow idea. To me, mindfulness seems the opposite.

What I love about Western medicine’s approach to mindfulness meditation is the focus on becoming aware of your body, to be rooted in what you are experiencing. Having felt that my body has “betrayed” by giving me migraine and chronic daily headache, I am amazed by all the good it does.

That said, mindfulness meditation also involves paying attention to negative sensations (i.e. pain). I’ve long been a fan of burying my nose in a book to distract myself. Paying attention to the pain, nausea and vertigo is indescribably difficult. I get frustrated nearly every time. Tears and yelling are not uncommon. But I keep practicing and, like with any knew skill, it becomes a little easier each time.

This approach fully acknowledges that the mind wanders. In fact, one of the CDs I use says that the nature of the mind is to wander. Thinking of it this way makes it easier to let the thoughts go and return to the practice. There’s a non-judgmental quality to it and one that I, with practice, am learning to accept.

Think it’s not for you? Think again.
If I can do it, anyone can. Seriously. I have only be involved with it for two months, but my health has already benefited. The definition I provide from the UCSD Center for Mindfulness is rather academic, but my experience hasn’t been. You’ve probably caught on by now that practice is key. I started with, and still use, a 20-minute CD segment. I feel my body relax as I progress and am always surprised when it ends.

The point of all this is not “enlightenment,” but better health. I now notice when I start to feel flushed, which is usually the beginning of a crash. Sometimes I push, but sometimes I stop. In the airport recently, the rigmarole, crowds and general feeling of being rushed got to me. All I did was sit down and breathe and felt better within 10 minutes. I also thought of a small step I could take to ensure I stayed calm: I could pre-board. Boy, did that help.

Want to join me?
I already know that mindfulness will become an integral part of my treatment. As such, it will likely become a main topic on The Daily Headache. You can follow along with my experience and may even want to join me. I’d love to get a dialog going where we can learn from each other.

Resources
I’ve found some websites with good introductions to mindfulness and mindfulness meditation. Some get kind of abstract and spiritual sounding, but try to think of how it can apply to your health and self-care. Following links about mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) may be helpful.

For books, I recommend starting with Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness. Basically a book version of UMass’s Stress Reduction Clinic’s program, it takes a strong Western approach. It reads like the self-help book it is, yet has great information. You’ll help support The Daily Headache if you buy it through the link above or you can probably get it at your library.

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Stress, Complaining & Coping (or Trying to Keep My Life Together)

I got home a week ago and have been doing poorly since Saturday. I felt great (compared to usual) when I was in Phoenix but, true to my away-from-home pattern, crashed when I returned home.

Meditating was a fantastic tool when I was in Phoenix. When I felt nausea or a meltdown coming on, I’d meditate with my trusty eye pillow on and be good to go in 30 minutes (90 minutes when I nodded off). Now the nausea simply won’t go away and relaxation is a joke. I can tell my baseline stress level is higher than it was in Phoenix. I fight to meditate, which only makes me more tense.

What’s that you say? Isn’t being at my parents’ house while my dad is sick and my mom is completely overwhelmed more stressful than being at home? I do love to be contradictory. I was actually helping and could see how everyone was really doing, not far away wondering what is really going on. Besides, the four of us had fun and laughed a lot. In my complicated way, it was less anxiety-provoking than living my normal normal life that I can’t keep up with.

I feel like I could mimic a vacation state if I got clutter and meals under some semblance of control. This amounts to thinking of what I should do — or could do if I were able. Hardly a good way to relax.

I have felt too bad and too drugged to blog. As I write I remember yet again that letting the words flow from my fingers is the best way for me to think. I finally believe myself when I say I’m very sick and my life is hard right now. That’s a big step.

I can usually put a positive twist on my struggles without thinking about it. I’ve had to search lately. Today I’m relying on the wisdom of mindfulness meditation teacher: “As long as you’re breathing, there’s more right than wrong with you.”

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Vipassana Meditation for Chronic Daily Headache (Migraine): Clinical Trial Recruiting Participants

Meditation is highly regarded yet little-studied for managing chronic daily headache and migraine. Intensive Meditation and Migraines: Effects on Health and Well Being is a clinical trial of Vipassana meditation and chronic daily headache (the migraine sort). The year-long study includes a 12-day retreat to learn the technique. Researchers describe the study as:

Participants completing training in intensive meditation and continuing frequent practice for one year would experience reduced frequency, duration and severity of headaches along with improved awareness of the triggers of their symptoms, improved quality of life and mental health, improved heart rate variability, and reduced inflammation.

For more information on the study, see the recruiting page on ClinicalTrials.gov. Learn more about Vipassana meditation from Wikipedia’s excellent external links list.

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Three Things Each Day, Even if That’s Only Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner

Continually setting my expectations too high and continually being let down is a common theme in my life. As much as I know there’s an overachiever inside of me, I also know that I physically can’t do everything I put on my to do list each day. I try not to feel bad about it, but a small sense of failure always lingers. Sound familiar?

My meditation teacher said to our class today something she told me a couple weeks ago: Set three priorities a day, even if they are breakfast, lunch and dinner. The idea is to have appropriate goals for what’s happening in your life. By having realistic expectations, you’ll see that you are successful and able to do what’s most important to you.

I’ve been trying her recommendation. For the most part, I can reach my goals each day and not focus on all I haven’t done. My list is limited and I don’t feel as overwhelmed. I’m also open to revising it throughout the day. A day may start out well, but by afternoon I know washing my face before bed will be the most I get done. I’m a little harder on myself in that case. . . .

Today’s list was ambitious considering how I’ve felt: Go to meditation class, buy groceries, pick Hart up at the airport. The first two were checked off by 1 p.m.; Hart’s flight isn’t in yet, but I definitely feel up for the drive. I even managed to go to the library and post office, both of which I’ve been trying to do for days.

Knowing I’d taken care of the first two items on my list and that going to the airport tonight was a priority, I let myself rest this afternoon. I still feel a little guilty for watching three episodes of 30 Rock and three episodes of Weeds in the middle of the day, but knowing it was part of my plan makes it easier.

Tomorrow’s list: Go to my massage, meet my sister and nieces in Tacoma, and be back home in time for Hart to take the car to his poker game. It is kind of ambitious, but I’m pretty sure I’ll make it. If not, I’ll remind myself that even getting myself fed was a challenge that I rose to.

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Biofeedback Session: “Mindfulness-Based Wellness” & Electromyogram Biofeedback (Sans Hand Warming & Beeping)

I went to my first biofeedback appointment yesterday expecting to learn to warm my hands. I admit I was dubious, even though research supports the efficacy of temperature biofeedback for migraine and other headache disorders. Warming my hands? Is that really all it takes to get my mind off the pain? I was happy to learn my biofeedback provider uses a different type called electromyogram (EMG) or muscle biofeedback.

The Talking Stage
My story was first, then she detailed the nature of chronic pain, including recent studies showing the brain’s involvement in pain. She also gave an overview of mindfulness-based stress release, which her approach is based on. The main tenet is to be engaged in the moment without focusing on pain.

Hooking Up to the Machine
She hooked me up to the machine with electrodes on my jaw and neck, my problem areas. The monitor showed the levels of electricity, which indicates tension, in each area. A green line indicated a good relaxation level; the red line showed what to work on.

Learning to Release Muscle Tension
At first the readings for my jaw and neck were both above the green line and most spiked beyond red. Following the provider’s continuous instruction (given in a low, calming voice), I tried to consciously relax my muscles. She advised me to look at my brain as if it were the sky and the pain was just a passing cloud — the idea was to think of the big picture of my brain and my life, not just the small portion of it that is pain.

What’s Next
The session was interesting and I’m eager to learn more. Turns out the therapist is teaching an eight-week class on tools for mindful-based wellness, including meditation, gentle yoga, recommendations for incorporating techniques into your life, and a lot more. Signing up was a no-brainer! Course concepts are so similar to individual sessions that I’m going to start with the class. I will definitely have an individual class at the end of eight weeks so I can see what I learned and what I should work on

There are far too many components of this to cover in one post. Expect more on mindfulness-based wellness and biofeedback. If there’s an aspect you’d like me to cover, leave your thoughts here or on the online support group and forum. You can also contact me at kerrie [at] thedailyheadache [dot] com.

Mindfulness-Based Wellness and Stress Reduction Classes
Jon Kabat-Zinn developed the techniques that my biofeedback therapist and many others use. Hundreds of providers offer individual sessions or classes. Check the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine‘s website to find a provider in your area. One place even offers online classes.

Interested in the class I’m taking in Seattle? The spring session starts Thursday (yes, this Thursday!); the next course will be offered in the fall. Classes are held at Swedish First Hill. Call (206) 215-6966 for details or to register. Please introduce yourself to me if you take the class — we can get lunch and chat.