“I’m not broken”—an MBSR participant’s personal reflection
by Angela Anthony
I don’t think my circumstances were unique: I was searching the internet for a meditation course because life felt unbearable. My circumstances weren’t going to change: I needed to work out how I could change to meet them. Life wasn’t going to hand me more time, resources, energy or resilience. People weren’t going to become more patient or understanding, lower their standards, start asking less of me or do the work for me. It wasn’t exactly ‘rock bottom’ but I was in pain, distress and felt as though another panic attack was just one more email away. I wanted the words of Jiddu Krishnamurti to resonate for me: I don’t mind what happens.
The eight week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course offered by Simply Mindful ticked a lot of boxes. It was a face-to-face class (I wouldn’t have to work it out on my own), affordable, offered structure and was even close to where I live. I wanted the course “to help me with emotional regulation” was the vanilla explanation I provided to my classmates at the first lesson. It felt less personal and dramatic than trying to explain how my heart felt like it was going to explode, my chest seemed to have a three tonne truck parked on it every single day, that too much was being asked of me, my perfectionism was trying to kill me, I wasn’t coping and wouldn’t be able to stand any of it much longer.
For all my hope and alleged willingness, I quickly ran into problems. We started with a body scan. I hate body scans! It’s just a toe! It’s just an ear! Nothing’s going on here – I can’t feel a thing! And 40 minutes of practice a day? Of course I could manage that – except that I couldn’t, or, more honestly, I quickly chose not to. I ran into the usual roadblock I’ve found whenever I slip into the dark night of the soul. I want things to be different but I don’t want to change. I needed that 40 minutes to sleep, binge Netflix, scroll social media, stock up on chips and chocolate, cry on the couch about how miserable I am (and somehow manage essentials like cooking and laundry). 40 minutes a day to make my life better? Can’t my GP just give me a pill?
I kept showing up to class but progress was slow. I wouldn’t participate in the sultana meditation (it’s just a sultana!). My mind didn’t protest at mindful yoga. Loving kindness resonated for me – I started fitting that in a couple of times a week. I recorded my own loving kindness meditation – a long laundry list of everything I wanted or thought I wanted or thought I should want. I slept on my yoga mat through the retreat day – thank goodness it was silent. I had a few small wins, where I managed challenging situations. Sometimes.
The eight weeks came to an end. I wasn’t fixed. I called my sister in desperation “what now?” I cried. “What do I do now?” And my sister told me the thing I needed to hear: “You need to be patient. You need to give this a chance.”
I would persist here and there for a few days with some form of meditation, whether it was a body scan, breath meditation, loving kindness or just three mindful breaths wherever I found myself. I started borrowing Jon Kabat-Zinn’s books from the library. Things started to resonate. I didn’t need fixing: I’m not broken. Little things, like traffic and supermarket queues, became less triggering. When I read, I quickly catch my mind as it wanders off elsewhere – maybe after a paragraph or two – instead of a chapter or two.
I also left my job. I couldn’t persist in the difficult circumstances. But there was another, kinder, and equally true explanation that I could finally see: it just wasn’t the job for me. And that was okay. I gave myself permission to stop. Mindfulness didn’t turn me into a new person with endless tolerance for stress and discomfort. It is helping me become the real me, who can choose to put myself in different, less stressful circumstances. I’ve started a different job, one that involves being outside with people and animals, and I love it.
I did the self-compassion course and the positive neuroplasticity training with Simply Mindful. Perhaps because I had the basics under my belt, they were enjoyable and I loved the PNT classes. I’m still reading: books on mindfulness to break bad habits (I’m still reaching for the junk food and media), and mindful compassion. I don’t have a daily practice as such, although I play a guided meditation from time-to-time, but I find myself being mindful every single day, at least for a moment or two.
I mentioned to someone recently that I would like to improve my sleep quality and they asked if mindfulness had helped. That was food for thought – maybe I will double down with some self experimentation in the form of an intentional daily practice and see if it does help.
Anyway, I don’t mind what happens. Well, sort of.