Learning How to Exhale – An Article by Catherine Price (Jan 2011)

Learning How to Exhale – An Article by Catherine Price (Jan 2011)

Jan 2011

She’d been tearing through her days at breakneck speed. So how did Catherine Price learn to slow down and savour life’s breezes? One majestic mountain meditation at a time.

When I decided to take up meditation, it seemed so easy – slip on a pair of yoga pants, force your legs into a half lotus, and “On” your way to serenity and bliss. Forget that my hips are too tight for even a quarter of a lotus or that the last time I felt truly serene, prescription drugs were involved. I had to try it – I needed to find a way to slow down.

Lately it felt like my life was on high speed. Weekends blur into months: months into seasons. I eat, talk and walk fast – I swear I even sleep quickly. I may get a lot done, but smell the roses? I’m not even getting a passing whiff.

We have all had the experience of sensing time decelerate naturally when we are not so thrilled about what we’re doing (think torturous spinning class or hour-long “synergy workshop” at the office). But what about the more enjoyable times in life? I hoped that practicing the popular and proven type of meditation called mindfulness – which focuses on bringing awareness to the present moment – might help me slow those times down as well.

Ready to begin, I went straight to the source: Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, US. Kabat-Zinn is the creator of an eight-week course called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which he began teaching in 1979 and which is now the largest and oldest meditation-based clinical programme in the world.

There are many types of meditation, so why did I opt for MBSR? Two reasons. First, I liked its taught in a secular context; even though it’s based on some core principles of Buddhism, I didn’t need any background knowledge to begin. Second, as someone who wants to understand why I’m doing something – especially when that is challenging – I liked the idea that there was scientific proof of its effectiveness. (Because its curriculum is so consistent, it’s one of the most studied forms of meditation.)

Kabat-Zinn suggested I start at home by practising one or two guided 20 to 45 minute exercises six days a week. He recommended that I kick off with what he thought would be an easy starting point: the mountain meditation visualization. It requires you to sit erect on the floor or a chair, close your eyes and observe your breathing as you imagine a mountain. First, you notice the small details – the trees that cover its slopes – and eventually you try to imagine becoming the mountain itself, feeling its solidity, and noticing that even when it’s battered by the wind, its rock-hard interior remains stable and calm. (Meditation teachers love metaphors.)

The goal of the mountain meditation is the same as with every other mindfulness technique – you’re trying to coax your mind into what Kabat-Zinn calls a state of nondoing. That’s not the same as doing nothing. Rather, it means you’re not thinking about your to-do list or the conversation you had with a friend. Nor are you trying to force your mind to go blank or conjure up any special feelings. You’re concentrating on just one thing, experiencing each moment as it happens, and trying to be right here, right now.

What does experiencing the moment have to do with imagining yourself as a mountain? By learning to quiet your mind’s chatter, you’re gaining the focus necessary to stay present when you’re not actively meditating. The point is to avoid cruising through life on autopilot, so wrapped up in your daily routine that you don’t notice the world. “Mindfulness is about living your life as if it really mattered,” says Kabat-Zinn. “If you’re not mentally present in small moments, you could be missing half your life.”

If this nondoing sounds easy, take 20 minutes and try the mountain exercise. It won’t be long before your mountain drifts away and is replaced by a game of free association: A mountain reminds you of hiking, which reminds you of a holiday, which makes you think of the weekend, which reminds you that a friend invited you to dinner on Saturday, which reminds you that maybe you should be writing her an e-mail instead of pretending you’re a mountain – which reminds you that you are supposed to be pretending you’re a mountain, which makes you cross for letting your mind wander. And then – bam. Not only are you no longer in the present, you’re committing one of mindfulness’s biggest faux pas: beating yourself up for getting distracted.

After a few days, it was clear I’m not a visual person. So with Kabat-Zinn’s blessing, I started a meditation that I hoped might come more naturally to me: the body scan. One of the key exercises in the MBSR course, its 45 minutes of carefully guiding your attention up and down your body, trying to home in on the sensations in each isolated part. The exercise begins with your left big toe and, sadly in my case, it often ends there – as Kabat-Zinn likes to point out, while it’s hard to learn to “fall awake” (become connected to the present), it’s quite easy, when meditating, to fall asleep.

Still, I stuck with it. I liked the challenge of trying to harness my mind, and I was intrigued by studies showing that MBSR does even more than that. In 2003, scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, US, examined a group that included alumni of Kabat-Zinn’s course, and found that the meditators’ immune systems produced more antibodies than the nonmeditators’ after flu shots. One possible explanation is that this type of meditation reduces stress and also helps people develop a more positive outlook, both of which strengthen the immune system.

What’s more, according to researcher Norman Farb, who studies meditation and experimental psychology at the University of Toronto, Canada, such mindfulness-based meditation can actually change the way you use your brain. Most of the time, we respond to new stimuli automatically, based on how we think they’ll affect us. A traffic jam isn’t just cars; it’s a problem that will make us late for work – so when we see a backlog of cars in front of us, we become stressed.

Typically, this type of narrative processing takes place in the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that coordinates complex behaviours and thoughts. Farb has found that people who have completed the eight-week MBSR training are able to activate an entirely different part of the brain – the insula. It informs you of what’s happening in the present moment without connecting the experience to an emotion. When you’re thinking this way, a traffic jam isn’t a problem; it’s a bunch of cars on the road. The point of meditation is not to stop you from having an emotional response to what is happening in your life – it is to avoid responding purely out of habit.

As I continued experimenting each day with the guided exercises, I was happy to find that they did become easier. By training myself to stay focused during the exercises, I’ve got better at staying present when I’m not actively meditating. As a result, I’ve discovered that each day is dense with experiences – the breeze against my skin, the sound of my husband’s laugh – and if I want to stretch out time, all I need to do is notice them. When I find my mind racing ahead, I remember another of Kabat-Zinn’s sayings that affirms why this is an experiment I want to continue: Both figuratively and literally, we only have moments to live.

To contact the Institute for Mindfulness South Africa (IMISA), visit www.mindfulness.org.za

To contact the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Programme (MBSR), visit www.mbsr.co.za