This past week’s Mindfulness meditation introduced a new way of dealing with difficult thoughts that was radically different and initially quite disconcerting for me.
I should initially mention that this past long-weekend, my family and I went on our first 3-day backpacking trip together in Skagit Valley Provincial Park, a spectacular mountain wilderness area about 200 kilometers east of Vancouver. It’s a beautiful place to spend time in nature. As it turned out, it’s also an exquisite place to meditate.
I was excited to start another new week of my eight-week Mindfulness course. So at the end of our first evening in our wilderness campsite, I found a quiet spot up river where I could focus on my first meditation practice for the week.
As I sat there on a rock by the babbling Skagit River with the darkness of the night slowly closing in around me, I listened attentively to the soft, soothing voice of my trusted meditation guide.
This week’s practice commenced with the calming “Breath and Body” meditation followed by the thought-provoking “Sounds and Thoughts” meditation.
I am sure that these meditations are scheduled first in preparation for the “Exploring Difficulty” meditation that followed. However, I am not sure that anything could have adequately prepared me for what I was about to experience that night while sitting alone in the wilderness.
Starting the ten-minute “Exploring Difficulty” meditation was similar to most other meditations. Initially, I spent a few moments paying close attention to my posture and my body sensations. Then I brought my attention to the breath and body, and was soon feeling settled and grounded in the present moment.
It was at this point that the similarities ended. In previous meditations, when my mind would wander to thinking about past events, future plans, problems, anxieties, worries or daydreams, I first reassured myself that nothing had gone wrong and I had not made a mistake. As my guide put it, “this is what minds do”.
Then, I would shift my awareness from being immersed in my thoughts to being an observer of my thoughts. After mindfully watching my thoughts for a while, I would let them dissolved into awareness as I focused on the breath and returned to the peace and stillness of present moment. It was a wonderful experience.
In this “Exploring Difficulty” meditation, to my surprise, my guide was suggesting that I could try something different. “There’s a new possibility” were his words.
This time, rather than letting go of thoughts about problems, worries and concerns, I was invited to do something quite different. This time, I would dwell on these thoughts for a moment, and while doing so, be aware of any sensations that I felt in or around specific areas of my physical body.
“That’s different”, I thought, a little taken back. Given the numerous worries, fears and concerns that I have dealt with over the past two years since my accident and head injury, the idea of dwelling on these thoughts was daunting.
However, I trusted my guide and carried on. True to my Mother’s poem, I had decided to “look through another window, and take another view”.
As I proceeded with the meditation, many of the worries, problems, troubles and stresses from the past two years flashed through my mind in an instant, but there were three that I thought about for some time.
Initially, I gave thought to all the worries, fears and some anger associated with the accident and head injury itself. But soon I realized that I had let go of any perceived negligence and I had also forgiven myself for going down that dark, wet, unkempt slope to the school gym that night.
Then I thought about all of my worries and concerns about my concussion headaches, tinnitus and pain symptoms and how thankful I am to be at peace with what is and what will be, since I now have the knowledge, tools and support needed to self-manage any ongoing symptoms, as necessary.
Just as quickly as these two thoughts drifted away like clouds across the sky, I observed another darker cloud drifting towards me.
My thoughts were now about the future and the challenges ahead of me. I have a young family that needs my support for many years to come. I will need to find paid work and become financially self-sufficient again quite soon.
My accident and injury and now my ongoing volunteer work facilitating chronic pain self-management workshops with the University of Victoria has generated a strong calling in me to be of service to others in need, but what will I do?
By this time, these thoughts had become a difficult undertaking, and I could feel various body sensations. My headache and tinnitus symptoms had increased along with my heart rate and I felt pain and tightness in my chest and neck.
Sensing an immediate need for peace and calm, I returned to the breath and imagined that I was breathing from the head, neck and chest areas that were feeling pain and stress sensations.
I was not consciously trying to change my body sensations, but I noticed that they were decreasing with every breath.
As my meditation came to a close, I was now feeling quite excited. As I sat there in the dark alone by the Skagit River, I dared to wonder if this new “Exploring Difficulty” meditation would help me reduce or eliminate my headache and tinnitus symptoms permanently.
The thought was intoxicating. However, I quickly decided that is was wise not to dwell on this future thought, and took my attention gently back to the breath and the stillness and peace of the present moment.
As I walked back to our campsite, I looked forward to continuing this week’s meditation practice and to moving forward with renewed optimism and hope.
As it happened, my “Exploring Difficulty” meditation had a positive effect on my symptoms throughout this past week.
I continued to avoid speculating about how this meditation will affect my symptoms over time. However, I remain optimistic that it will help.
As this blog comes to a close, I want to tell you about an intriguing and perhaps fortuitous book that I came to read about 6 months ago.
Written by Molly Peacock, the book is entitled “The Paper Garden”. It’s a true account of the life of Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700-1788) intertwined with some intriguing stories from the author’s own life.
The Chicago Tribune describes the book most eloquently. Here’s what it says:
“Physically beautiful and emotionally transporting, Peacock makes her own mosaic by weaving pieces of her life into Delany’s story, and ties it all together with lovely meditations on art, love, history and botany. The result is a sumptuous bounty of gorgeous words, striking mosaics and a spirit of joy; the joy of finding one’s true calling”.
So if you are looking for an opportunity to fulfill your life calling, you may be inspired and reassured in knowing that Mrs. Delany discovered her true calling and began her life’s work at the age of 72!
Thank you again to Professor Mark Williams and Dr. Danny Penman for writing the book that inspired me to take this amazing eight-week Mindfulness journey.
You can find out more about their book “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World” at http://www.franticworld.com.
Finally, I look forward to starting “Week 6 – Befriending” this Sunday and sharing my experiences with you in next week’s blog.
John Murphy is a volunteer Program Leader with the University of Victoria’s Centre on Aging, based in Ladner, BC. He currently facilitates their 6 week Chronic Pain Self-Management workshops (2½ hour per week) available free of charge across BC, to adults and caregivers who are dealing with chronic pain.
For more information on our Chronic Pain Self-Management workshop and other free of charge workshops, follow this link to our website:
Other Self-Management workshop and programs include:
– Arthritis and Fibromyalgia
– Chronic Disease