“Don’t believe everything you think. Thoughts are just that -– thoughts.” – Allan Lokos
(Note: Some of the suggested books linked below lead to Amazon Affiliates links that benefit me. If you do end up buying the book from that link, I’ll get some revenue from it. Thank you so much!)
I’ve recently been practicing mindfulness meditation, a form of Buddhist meditation that has branched out into secular practice. There seems to be no end in scientific research and articles done on the benefits of mindfulness, and it — along with other forms of meditation — has been used extensively to treat mental illnesses like PTSD and depression. As someone who shies away from religion, ceremony, and spirituality, the emerging secular language used to describe meditation comforts me.
In this blog post, I’d like to expound on my experience with mindfulness and how the routine has given me valuable skills in combating depressive thoughts.
I’ve divided the post into three sections:
- why I started mindfulness and a brief history on my illness
- the basics of mindfulness and how I interpret it
- the difficulties of starting and maintaining the practice.
Finally, I’ve listed all the books, websites, and apps that I reference.
The article is approximately 1100 words. Click through to read the rest!
Why did I start?
I’m currently on Prozac, and for me, the main side effect is lethargy. There are days when I have to push through a thick, mental fog to accomplish anything. Paired with the lethargy, it’s easy to let the fog overtake me.
When I first quit my job to pursue self-employment (a fate of dire proportions), the mental fog and lack of routine created days where I would bounce between Reddit, research articles, forums, emails, and more forums while watching Bones on Netflix. My website? Unfinished. Photos to edit and post in my store? Sitting in a folder. Earrings for the store? A coiled mess of wires, beads, and stones.
In anxiety-prone days, I fixate on dangerous thoughts, like “nobody loves me” or “nothing I make is good.” Those thoughts dig hooks into my brain. I forget about them, usually, but every once in awhile, something tugs on those hooks, and the cycle of self-hatred starts again.
So stumbling onto mindfulness was a boon. I was specifically drawn to mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR) programs which led to mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). If you’re interested in reading some of the research done on mindfulness, you can get started at the MBCT website.
You may also want to read books that specifically cater to mindfulness’ effects on mental illness and mood disorders. For more professional use, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression seems like the most-used resource, while for us laypeople, we may find The Mindful Way Through Anxiety and Mindful Way Through Depression to be more our speed.
What is mindfulness meditation? How do I practice it?
During meditation, I try to be “mindful” of the present moment, paying attention to my bodily sensations. This includes how my butt feels on the chair, how shallow or deep my breath is, or the sound of cars driving too fast down the street. The goal is to be aware of what’s going on inside and outside of me during the present.
Frequently, my mind will wander. I mean, come on, breathing is pretty boring, right? I’ll start thinking about what I want to eat later, whether I have time to watch Netflix today, or other bullshit. This is normal.
I fidget a lot too. Sitting still is difficult. I clench my hands into fists, scratch that itch on my chin, or wiggle my toes — they always turn into icicles during meditation. Again, this is normal.
There isn’t any judgment in meditation. As one practices mindfulness, it should become easier to recognize the mind wandering and draw it back into focus.
The important part to remember is to acknowledge all my movement, physical or mental. A wandering mind or an itch is not a failure in meditation, but rather a part of it. When I fidget, I try to focus on that feeling. How does it feel when I wiggle my toes? Now that I’ve satisfied that itch, do I have any more?
I do a similar thing with wandering thoughts. I try to acknowledge them before returning myself to the present. “What do I want to eat later?” turns into “Am I hungry? What does my stomach feel like?” I change the thought to focus on how I feel now instead of focusing on future possibilities.
I am still entirely new to this and have a lot to learn. I’m currently working through Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon-Kabat Zinn, who is an oft-mentioned author and instructor. He’s written several titles on mindfulness, including another well-reviewed one called Full Catastrophe Living.
University of California, San Diego has a Center for Mindfulness with information, resources, and exercises. If you’re not in San Diego, you might have luck finding other “centers” or groups at your university or medical center.
If you’re looking for an online community, I’ve found some help through /r/mindfulness and /r/meditation, though I find the latter’s spiritual and religious overtones too overt for my tastes. And please, feel free to share your experiences and resources in the comments as well.
The difficulties of keeping a routine
Using the Relax & Rest app (links below) as guidance, recommended by a friend, I started my meditation practice. Since the soothing voice told me I could meditate either sitting or lying down, I chose lying down.
I kept falling asleep.
Perhaps meditating before bed, while in bed, was a bad idea. Especially with the Prozac making me even more tired.
Finally, I found sites like the UCSD Health site, freemindfulness.org, calm.com, which have guided (and unguided) meditations in audio format. I moved from my bed to the chair. I meditated in the morning, after waking up. Then, as I started doing yoga more frequently, I added meditation to the end of my yoga routine.
Sometimes I would meditate 3-4 times a week. Sometimes only once. Maybe not at all. It was hard for me to get into a routine of daily meditation. Hell, it was hard for me to get into ANY routine. Something had to change to get my ass into gear.
I’d never been one for structure. My parents can attest to that. But a month into my un- self-employment, I realized that I couldn’t expect to get work done while watching Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz quip at each other. Telling myself, “Just one more episode, and then I’ll do yoga/write this story/eat/insert-difficult-and-insurmountable-task-here” wasn’t cutting it.
I had to find a basic reward system. I needed a visual checklist that would remind me of daily tasks. That’s where Lift.do came in. Lift is a habit-building website and mobile app. It’s a glorified to-do list. You can set reminders, or if you’re like me, visit the website every hour or so. The site asks discussion questions and you can share your tips and strategies with others. (You can even friend me, if you’d like!) Lift’s reward system is simple. It displays graphs on how often a week you’ve done a habit. It puts a little fire icon next to your habit if you’ve hit a streak.
I started using Lift with a few habits I wanted to build: write for 15 minutes, yoga, read the news. After a week or two, I expanded my list: read, meditate, and practice the ukulele.
It’s the chicken-or-the-egg dilemma. With the help of Lift, I created a routine that helped me keep up with meditation, but perhaps it was the mindfulness skills that helped me focus enough to get those daily habits finished.
Regardless, pairing a routine and mindfulness has improved my productivity and ability to stay on task. Mindfulness also taught me a valuable skill in combating my depressive and anxious episodes. It’s a work-in-progress. Even now, it’s difficult for me to rid my thoughts of self-hatred and uselessness.
But I’m getting there.
Mindfulness resources mentioned in the article
- Full Catastrophe Living and Wherever You Go, There You Are
- Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression
- The Mindful Way Through Anxiety
- Mindful Way Through Depression
- MBCT Research
- UCSD Health Center for Mindfulness and guided meditations
- freemindfulness.org and guided meditations
- Relax & Rest from Cigna (iTunes | Google Play)
- /r/mindfulness and /r/meditation