Mindfulness & Meditation: An Introduction

Finally! Here’s an explanation of mindfulness meditation and the practice of mindfulness in general. The post is long but worth sticking with. (I think so at least!)

Mindfulness = Paying Attention
Mindfulness is captured by simple terms:

  • Paying attention
  • Being, not doing
  • Present moment awareness
  • Being “here”

Easy ideas, complicated concepts. The ubiquity of multitasking is an excellent example of the challenges. Home, work, play, school, friends, family… There’s so much to think about and it all fights for attention. With our minds everywhere at once, they are often far from our actual lives.

The UCSD Center for Mindfulness, part of the medical school’s psychiatry department, gives this definition:

[Mindfulness] is a quality, which human beings already have, but they have usually not been advised that they have it, that it is valuable, or that it can be cultivated. Mindfulness is the awareness that is not thinking (but that which is aware of thinking, as well as aware of each of the other ways we experience the sensory world, i.e., seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling through the body).

Mindfulness is non-judgmental and open-hearted (friendly and inviting of whatever arises in awareness). It is cultivated by paying attention on purpose, deeply, and without judgment to whatever arises in the present moment, either inside or outside of us. By intentionally practicing mindfulness, deliberately paying more careful moment-to-moment attention, individuals can live more fully and less on “automatic pilot,” thus, being more present for their own lives.

How is mindfulness part of meditation?
Meditation can be broken into two basic categories: Concentration and mindfulness. Until my recent introduction to mindfulness, I’d always thought of meditation as concentrating on clearing one’s mind or focusing on a narrow idea. To me, mindfulness seems the opposite.

What I love about Western medicine’s approach to mindfulness meditation is the focus on becoming aware of your body, to be rooted in what you are experiencing. Having felt that my body has “betrayed” by giving me migraine and chronic daily headache, I am amazed by all the good it does.

That said, mindfulness meditation also involves paying attention to negative sensations (i.e. pain). I’ve long been a fan of burying my nose in a book to distract myself. Paying attention to the pain, nausea and vertigo is indescribably difficult. I get frustrated nearly every time. Tears and yelling are not uncommon. But I keep practicing and, like with any knew skill, it becomes a little easier each time.

This approach fully acknowledges that the mind wanders. In fact, one of the CDs I use says that the nature of the mind is to wander. Thinking of it this way makes it easier to let the thoughts go and return to the practice. There’s a non-judgmental quality to it and one that I, with practice, am learning to accept.

Think it’s not for you? Think again.
If I can do it, anyone can. Seriously. I have only be involved with it for two months, but my health has already benefited. The definition I provide from the UCSD Center for Mindfulness is rather academic, but my experience hasn’t been. You’ve probably caught on by now that practice is key. I started with, and still use, a 20-minute CD segment. I feel my body relax as I progress and am always surprised when it ends.

The point of all this is not “enlightenment,” but better health. I now notice when I start to feel flushed, which is usually the beginning of a crash. Sometimes I push, but sometimes I stop. In the airport recently, the rigmarole, crowds and general feeling of being rushed got to me. All I did was sit down and breathe and felt better within 10 minutes. I also thought of a small step I could take to ensure I stayed calm: I could pre-board. Boy, did that help.

Want to join me?
I already know that mindfulness will become an integral part of my treatment. As such, it will likely become a main topic on The Daily Headache. You can follow along with my experience and may even want to join me. I’d love to get a dialog going where we can learn from each other.

Resources
I’ve found some websites with good introductions to mindfulness and mindfulness meditation. Some get kind of abstract and spiritual sounding, but try to think of how it can apply to your health and self-care. Following links about mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) may be helpful.

For books, I recommend starting with Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness. Basically a book version of UMass’s Stress Reduction Clinic’s program, it takes a strong Western approach. It reads like the self-help book it is, yet has great information. You’ll help support The Daily Headache if you buy it through the link above or you can probably get it at your library.

Looking Beyond Illness: Adding Up the Smallest Joys

A few smiles a day can make a big difference in how we perceive pain — and our lives. This occurred to me today as I bought Spike Lee water. (That’s sparkling water to anyone outside my household.)

I was taken aback when my then six-year-old niece asked me for her Spike Lee shirt a few years ago. My sister translated: spikelee means sparkly. I was so amused that the phrase became a fixture of my vocabulary. “Give me sharp knife,” said in a serious and clipped tone, is another favorite from when my nephew was three.

I drink sparkling water and use sharp knives every day. And I remember these funny stories. I also think of the kids I love so much and who make me laugh, intentionally or not. These inside jokes aren’t that funny to anyone else, but they mean the world to me.

Remembrances are only part of the picture. Consciously thinking about the happiness in every day may be the best way to revive joy. I know a woman with bipolar disorder and migraine who writes down the good parts of each day before she goes to bed at night. This reminds her regularly how rich her life is despite illness.

As the migraine that’s been coming and going since Thursday threatened to consume me, I struggled to see the positive aspects of today. Let’s see, I was only 10 minutes late to my appointment this morning, biofeedback kept my migraine at bay long enough to go grocery shopping, I made myself laugh by deciding our house really needs a periscope.

So many cliches say to enjoy the little things in life. A good sentiment — one that can seem impossible to put into practice. The items on my list of what’s good today border on minutia. Had I not seriously thought about and recorded them, any happiness would be lost in a day dominated by pain and exhaustion.

Now, as the pain grows more assertive, I’m grateful knowing I did something more than have a migraine today. I was productive and laughed aloud. These nearly forgotten pieces of each day come together, creating a quilt to wrap around myself when I most need reassurance that my life is beautiful and fulfilling.

The Guilt of Letting Myself Down Over and Over

Guilt and I spend a lot of time together. It is my closest friend, a friend I happen to despise. This is one bad relationship I don’t think will ever end. I feel guilty when I let anyone down, especially when that person is me. Multiple times a day I make promises to myself and multiple times a day I break those promises.

Lists are essentially promises to oneself. You plan to do each item on the list: make a phone call, clean the kitchen, have dinner with friends, pick up the house, etc. Organized folks will assign realistic dates to tasks. I give deadlines too; usually leaving 48 hours to accomplish all 12 items. Then berate myself for not taking care of them.

I’ve always had high expectations for myself. Even after all these years of migraine and chronic daily headache impeding my success, I think I can do more than I’m physically capable of. I believe I should be able to do everything I want or need to do, even without realistic parameters. Thus starts the cycle of self-blame and guilt.

Letting myself down — and feeling horrible about it — day after day haunts me. Being self-critical is my way of life. I don’t think being hard on myself is the only problem here, but don’t know what else is at work.

Triage is more important than source-sleuthing for now. Not calling myself a flake is probably a good start! After that I’m stuck. I can’t stop setting goals; that would be giving up on my life and giving in to migraine and chronic daily headache. Where is the line between labeling something as unrealistic or as a goal to strive for?

Prioritizing is the most obvious solution. Even that is confusing. How to prioritize when I might not get to the priorities? How do I choose what I really need to do? When do I choose what I want to do over what I need to do?

Learning to let go when I can’t follow through with myself seems helpful — and impossible. Cognitive behavioral therapy, perhaps the ideal solution, isn’t going to make it into my schedule anytime soon. Any suggestions?

photo credit: Raul_d50

Guilt Comorbid With Headaches

“Comorbidity refers to the greater than coincidental association of separate conditions in the same individuals. Historically, a number of conditions have been noted to be comorbid with migraine, notably psychiatric disorders (anxiety, depression, panic disorder), epilepsy, asthma, and some congenital heart defects.”

This quote is from an abstract of an article from the June 2005 issue of Current Opinions in Neurology. A comorbidity never included on the list is guilt. OK, so guilt isn’t exactly a illness, but you have to admit there is a “greater than conicidental association” of guilt in people with headache.

We feel guilty because we think we’ve done something to contribute to the pain. Maybe it was getting too worked up over that deadline, eating a trigger food, staying up too late with friends, not drinking enough water, oversleeping. We lie in pain, berating ourselves for whatever we did that caused this headache.

We feel guilty because our partners, parents, kids or friends take care of us when we’re sick. Not only that, they have to pick up the slack of the of chores, errands and responsibilities that we couldn’t take care of.

We feel guilty because we call in sick to work, cancel plans with friends, sleep too much, tell everyone around us to be quiet, have dust bunnies under our beds and in the corners and even in the middle of the dining room table.

We feel guilty because we don’t go to our kids’ soccer games, return phone calls, stop to chat with neighbors, enjoy the sunshine/snow/rain, take the dog for a walk, cook dinner.

While our heads pound, we rage against ourselves for demanding to be the center of attention, not doing our duties, spoiling plans, being unsociable. Our guilt entraps us not just because we let other people down, but because we let ourselves down. Every day. We know we could do more or be better or care for others if we weren’t so weak or lazy or crazy.

We tell ourselves this isn’t true. We may even know it academically. But it’s hard to believe when we’re laid up, cooped up, fed up.

Paul of A ClusterHead’s Life is intimate with guilt these days.

How to Find a Doctor Who Knows About Headache

Would you trust an editorial about foreign aid policy that was written by the author of bodice-ripper romance novels? How about trusting doctors who calls themselves headache specialists even though they are trained in totally different fields, aren’t certified in headache management, and/or don’t participate in either of the national headache societies?

Some people who appear to be unqualified for a job do have training or experience that you can’t see at first glance. Usually, though, your initial skepticism is proven to be well-founded. The only way to find out is to research the doctor beforehand and devote part of your first visit to interviewing your new doctor. The best credentials in the world mean nothing if the doctor isn’t a good match for you.

To find a headache specialist, start with the American Headache Society or National Headache Foundation. Both have comprehensive lists of specialists who are members of their organizations. Being a member doesn’t guarantee that the doctor is good, but I’d only see someone who was involved in a professional headache organization.

ACHE (part of AHS) has a physician finder on its website. You can call NHF for a list of members in your state (888-643-5552) or check the online database, which includes all headache management certified doctors, whether members or not.

Related posts:

Baby Steps to Minimize the Impact of Migraines & Headaches

Not_happy_2“I’m not happy” is what my friend’s three-year-old says when another kid has something he wants. Whether he’s eying a root beer or the rocking chair, this simple statement expresses so much. Obviously something has to change to make him happy, or at the very least, not unhappy.

Since hearing him say this, I’ve replaced specific complaints with “I’m not happy.” Instead of feeling helpless in the face of pain, sensitivity to touch or any other symptom I have, another goal occupies me — to not have whatever is going on in my body or mind make me unhappy.

I can’t make any of my symptoms go away, but I can minimize their impact. I distract myself from pain by reading, listening to music (quietly) or focusing on how I’m breathing. When sensitive to touch, I sit up so nothing touches my head.

Doing what it takes to make myself not unhappy is so much easier than wrestling with Big Issues. Yes, having migraine is horrible. Worrying about it is useless. Making myself suffer even a little less is more than worthwhile.

I can’t make my migraine and chronic daily headache go away, but I can make living with them not so hard.

Baseball & Headaches, More Alike Than it Seems

BaseballsWhat a glorious day! It’s opening day of the baseball season. I’m excited not only because I love the game (I became a huge fan after a spinal tap left me with a three-week headache that glued me to the couch), but it’s a daily reminder of hope, glory and being in the moment.

Each season start anew. No matter how bad the previous year, this year could be different. Players change workouts, work through their last season troubles, and refocus their energies in the off-season.

No worries if your team loses today or your favorite player falls into a nasty slump next month. Tomorrow or the next inning or even the next batter can make the difference.

I’ve had a migraine every day for more than a week, but it was fairly mild this morning. Instead of heading straight to the computer, I saw my chiropractor, walked the 2.8 miles around Green Lake, and went to Lighthouse Roasters, my favorite coffee shop, and drank my latte on the bench outside.

If my current headache pattern holds, I’ll have a migraine within an hour. But that may be a few more innings away. Might as well play my heart out until I have that game-ending injury. Perhaps I’ll even avoid the injury.

History has been written, but the future’s up for grabs. Day to day, moment to moment.

Go Diamondbacks!

Photo by Leslie Miller