The increasing popularity and awareness of the Practice of Mindfulness in the Western World during the past decade, has been so phenomenal, that some sceptical observers have been calling it somewhat sardonically MacMindfulness!
My first memory of being impressed by the potential of the Practice of Mindfulness was when I read about research that was being conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, some 25 years ago. It was when the first efforts were made to derive scientific evidence for this phenomenon using long term meditators as the subjects. Matthieu Ricard was chosen as the perfect candidate to Meditate on Compassion in an MRI machine. Practising Compassion or Metta is a pivotal mindfulness practice derived from the Buddhist tradition. He was the ideal subject for this early attempt at obtaining scientific evidence on Mindfulness, as he was well on his way to receiving a Nobel Prize for his research in microbiology when he decided to leave his career at a Parisian research centre and immerse himself in Buddhist Philosophy and Meditation in the East.
With many thousands of hours of meditation under his belt, Matthieu subjected himself to the rigours of Meditating on Compassion in the MRI machine. When reading the report of this trial, I learned that the graph paper was not big enough to record the information being received from its experimental subject. The graph actually went off the top of the page because of the intensity of the brain waves which were being recorded during the experimental sessions. This information motivated me to find out more about the practice of Mindfulness and meditation.
At that time I was involved in the study and practice of Eric Berne’s “I’m OK – You’re OK.” This theory investigated how the early relationships set up in the family home influences our thought patterns, behaviour as well as our responses to social situations and cultural pressures during our lifetime. It was my teacher of Berne’s theory who emailed me information about an eight week course on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Having reassured myself that the presenters of this course were well qualified I decided to take a leap of courage and immerse myself into this training.
The idea of needing to meditate for 45 minutes a day, every day for the next eight weeks was daunting, and I had to be constantly reminding myself of my impressions of the performance of Ricard in the MRI machine, to keep me motivated. There was a significant dropout rate from the class, but I did manage to fulfil all the requirements of the course which included a 6 hour day of mindful silence.
I was satisfied with my handling of this early immersion into Mindfulness. I had done the homework meditation practices, attended all the two hour sessions, learned about mindful eating and incorporating mindful moments in my daily routine. However, I was not successful in motivating myself to perform the daily meditation practice on the cushion. This was a cause of personal dissatisfaction.
However, it was about 6 months later that I received an announcement about a new two year diploma course that was being offered at Stellenbosch University Medical School on the Theory and Practice of Mindfulness. The entrance qualification was a degree in Psychology or experience in an allied field. I had the necessary qualifications but, “What chance has a woman in her mid-70s of being selected for this course” I pondered.
Very soon I had a phone call from Dr Simon Whitesman, the initiator of this program. He interviewed me telephonically and I learned I had been successful in my application. The course involved on-line study, the writing of essays, and 4 separate weeks of immersion into the experience of Mindful Meditation at local retreat centres. Two years later I was the proud owner of a certificate stating my success in pursuing this Diploma Course.
It is a full six years ago that I completed this training, and I now have an established mindfulness practice. The first thing I do after my early morning ablutions and getting dressed is 20 minutes ‘on the cushion.’ If I miss out for any reason, like having to be on the tennis court at 7am, then the whole day has a feeling of something missing or ‘ennui’. I have mastered the art of meditation in many varying situations including the park, the queue at the bank or just taking a break in my writing schedule! Additionally, I sometimes remember to take a pause for a few mindful breaths a couple of times a day just to bring me back into the present moment, and away from the tendency to think compulsively.
Positive Lifestyle Augmentation
It was indeed challenging when my somewhat sceptical daughter questioned me a couple of days ago, “Ma,” she said, “Do you feel that your daily practice of meditation has helped you?”
I took a deep breath and expressed myself as follows. “Tanya, I feel that I can with good conscience tell you that this practice has been of value to me. As you know, I moved into a Retirement Village two years ago. This move took place just 6 weeks after I had major back surgery. I needed to pack up my home, recover from the post-operative pain, and cope with all the practical details involved. I managed to do that with some degree of equilibrium, and indeed hosted a meeting at my new home, just two days after taking occupation. I feel that my training in Mindfulness helped me to cope with the stresses involved in making this change in my lifestyle.”
I continued, “You know about the negotiations I went through to have my two dogs living here with me. You recall that management only wanted me to bring one dog, so I went through many painful negotiations with the committee to ensure that I was not separated from both Blanco and Freddy.”
And besides, I said to her, “You know about the various family pressures with which I have been involved so soon after moving. I have managed to cope with these events while continuing to pursue my hobbies and my commitments to my groups who come for their monthly sessions of Conscious Ageing.”
“So in conclusion,” I announced, “yes, my daily practice of mindful meditation has assisted me in establishing an equilibrium which I do not believe I would have enjoyed without this training. I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to add this area of knowledge and skill set, to my repertoire of acquired skills. I can sincerely recommend the practices I have learned around Mindfulness and the knowledge I have acquired on the journey towards developing a regular daily practice.”