So what do you think of when you hear the word 'Mindfulness'? If like me you only knew it from buzzy articles in newspaper weekend supplements you'd probably dismiss it as a trend of the week, like clean food blogs or adult scooters. If you bothered actually to read any of those articles you'd here phrases like "being in the now" and "awareness" written next to a picture of a young women sitting on a yoga mat, on an island looking out in to the Aegean sea. (I know because I've met them, probably in Hvar Croatia, whilst being Mindful, you can guarantee that in the evening they'll be blasted on vodka mixers dancing to Euro House). So when late last year my clinical psychologist suggested that I attend a Mindfulness group organised at Barts, I was appropriately sceptical.
In my brain addled post hi-dose chemo state I went along though. Mainly to get myself out of the house to be honest, but also to prove that I am open minded to such things. We all like to say we are "open minded" because it sounds nice. It's another thing entirely to commit to eight Thursday mornings to find out if you actually are. So even though a lot of what's been written about it pushes my buttons in the wrong way (mysticism, prominence of Eastern over Western philosophy, Tibetan Bells) I thought it would be good to experience it for myself.
So what is it then? Well the blurb we got in week one "Mindfulness is a way of being more present and aware" so far so psych 101. It's founded in Buddhist philosophy, though thankfully this was a secular approach on the course. I would describe it as using psychological techniques to examine what's happening in your mind so you can make better choices and decisions. As the autumn had well and truly scrambled my brain, anything that could give me a sense of control was worth a go. Well that's the theory at least, in practice it is somewhat different.
Each week started with a meditation. I've never done it before, some in the group had (all were there because of Cancer). Just stopping the chatter in your head for a second is a really hard thing to do. Especially when then voice in your head is a bloody critical one narrated by Ian Paisley (see previous blogs for details). So it took a few weeks to get the hang of it. Even then some meditations were easier to get than others. The temptation to scold yourself when your mind wanders to something else, like what you need from Sainsbury's, is quite intense. One of the useful things I did pick up on was that that was no big deal. It's just a thought. It happens all the time. The purpose of the meditations is to try and ground you in the present and become more aware of your actual state by observation. This can be tricky as we're all programmed to keep thinking backwards and forwards, what has happened and what's to come. To just be present in this moment is a weird sensation and it takes a lot of practice.
Another concept that was taught to us that 'Thoughts are not Facts'. This was probably the biggest thing I took away from the course. When you go through any trauma, particularly a chronic disease, your thoughts can be full of negative experiences. There is no getting away from it. I go to hospital three times a week, see my GP regularly and get reams of letters through the post. It dominates your waking life (and with the joys of Chemo induced insomnia, it can dominate your sleeping hours). This can give you the belief that all that negatively *is* your life. So to understand that thoughts are impermanent and different from facts is quite a revelation. Giving space to other thoughts apart from Cancer ones is something which is really valuable. Being a Cancery person doesn't mean that's all you are. There's lots more going on, despite all the crap.
As well as the meditation practice we were also given weekly challenges. These ranged from taking time out in Nature, recording 10 things you are grateful for that day (recommended) to the more problematic "Random Acts of Kindness" This is where I lost my way a bit with the course. It's a trite bumper sticker slogan for people who want to sound profound on Facebook. It was a task to connect yourself to the wider world through kindness. I think if you can't open a door for someone or buy them a coffee once in a while you're a bit of a dick, whether doing it Mindfully or not.
Overall I think it was worth my time to go and do the course. The two psychologists leading it were friendly, enthusiastic and helpful. The others attending were all game to give it a go and it was really interesting to see how they experienced it (and I don't think I'm a "group person" it reminds me of Fight Club, and no one wants Meat Loaf crying on their shoulder). Am I more mindful as a result? I'm not sure, but it's certainly given me more tools to use in my armour, which can never be a bad thing.
Currently I'm... Riding my bike again! I went for a spin this morning and it was great....Watching Hail Caesar! The Coen brothers romp through the Golden Age of Hollywood.. Listening to The Verb, poet Ian MacMillan's show on Radio 3.