I am lying on my back on a rather prickly carpet in a large, light meeting room with tall windows overlooking a garden, chairs shuffled back against the walls and a haphazard floor-covering of recumbent bodies laid out like the crazy spokes of a wheel. It is 7.30 on a week-day evening after a long and tiring day at work. Lying here, my body HURTS. As the group leader talks us through a forty-minute Body Scan exercise, I become more and more aware of the pain and discomfort in my belly, in my head. As tension and resistance ebb away, I realise I feel just... WRECKED, vibrating with tender, aching pain. I've probably felt like this all day, I think, and been pushing it down with a mixture of rigidity, will-power and pain-killers. Self-pity washes over me, emotions aching fiercely along with the body. Forty minutes is a long time to lie still and feel like this, and retain the intention to listen and move my attention around my body. I scream inwardly with the need to sit up, rock and hug myself, but I don't do it. Amazingly, by the time we finish the Body Scan, get up and return to our chairs, I feel much better. The soaring, shrieking ache has largely abated. This is Session One of an eight-week course in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.
My very first memories, of when I was about three years old, are of pretending: I’m not here. Surrounded by toys I didn’t want to put away and faced by a raging parent, screaming in painful, impotent frustration and unable to calm myself, never learning how to tackle the task, but instead shutting down, going inside myself. Refusing reality: not here, not this, in my head, someone else entirely. Always in my head, my favourite pastime curling up with a book to read and a sweet to suck, soothing the senses, allowing the mind to escape, leaving this place, this body. The furious teacher who bawled me out in front of the whole class of eight-year-olds for ignoring her in the street – but I wasn’t there, I was miles away!
To possess imagination, to love to read, to be able to visit other worlds is a rich gift. But if early life feels difficult and no one guides you to ‘hold’ and calm yourself, to feel that it’s okay, escaping can take over and you grow up – as I did - unable really to be here much at all. Result: a life spent refusing to engage, unfulfilled and often isolated. This was the phenomenon that psychotherapy never touched. In several years of therapy I learned a lot about what made me who I am, why I was so fucked up, this particular kind of fucked up. I was glad to know. Understanding why was helpful. But it didn’t change anything, didn’t change the way I felt. The only thing that slowly began to change that, a long time later, long after I stopped hoping or looking for change, was meditation. So I am as huge a fan as it is possible to be. I have a hard time not nagging everyone I care for that they should, they must, they’d benefit so enormously...
I loved meditation first because I was very nervous, often very stressed out, and it made me calmer. I met those occasional states of sunny bliss that the 'beginner’s mind' may access. I remember one day on my first meditation course, a hot day and I had a dreadful cold, fever, stuffed up; I remember the clear feeling of my consciousness rising above it, breathing freely on another plane. But, though interesting, that’s not IT. IT is that meditation changed the way I felt from day to day – not who or what I was, but how I experienced that. All those patient - and sometimes impatient - breaths, one breath at a time, in daily sessions of sitting meditation were breaths on the glass that separated me from everything around. Glass – it can’t be glass, because it began, slowly, slowly, to bend and then sometimes, and more and more often, to seem thinner, more porous; sometimes even, almost, almost, it was not there at all.
I approached it completely without this expectation, but meditation changed me and continues to do so. It has changed me a tiny, tiny bit, eroded just a tiny bit the thin, invisible but inexorable barrier that was always there. Things look almost the same. But the difference between looking through a window and being outside is total.
It’s the scariest thing of all, when you’ve spent your whole life building this invisible barrier. And it’s the greatest blessing and relief. Suddenly there’s space. A whole world of space, replacing the tiny world of a three-year-old where I’d got stuck. Space changes everything. Instead of panicking, stuck in a lift, ultra-stressed by overwork and difficult relationships and pain and illness and my own inadequacies… there is space. It’s the difference, as an ancient Buddhist scripture tells, between a choking handful of salt in a cup of water and the same handful of salt in a fresh-water lake. The salt, the fear and pain and tension, is no less, but its impact is much less. It feels, I feel, every now and then, so different. Even, sometimes, when things are really shit.
So, yes, I’m a very big fan of what my Buddhist meditation teachers have taught me. It’s by far the most important stuff I’ve met in life. Not surprising, then, that when I began to hear and read about the movement to teach mindfulness meditation, on a secularised form of the Buddhist model, in the mainstream health services, to people suffering from chronic stress, depression or pain, I was very interested.
It’s thirty years now since Jon Kabat-Zinn. of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, himself then a long-time Zen practitioner, began to teach Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. It took a long time for the good results to be known and believed and the practice to spread. It’s more like fifteen years since British neuroscientists took up the work and it has really only reached the mainstream media and health service practice since the publication here of studies by Mark Williams, Zindel Segal and John Teasdale which focused on chronic depression and what they dubbed Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, and their most recent, exciting, lucid book, The Mindful Way Through Depression. I read this about a year ago and simultaneously began to take an interest in the work of the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice at the University of Bangor and the Oxford University Department of Psychiatry, and to note the increasing media coverage and reports of adoption by National Health Service Trusts around the UK.
What amazing, hopeful news! But no sooner it’s here, of course, than, even as we rejoice, those of us who’ve been learning the benefits of meditation slowly, deeply, over years, in a dedicated and sometimes austere Buddhist setting, begin to wonder whether these short intensive courses on the model developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn can really, even with the most stringent practice, be enough. This might be a wonderful and decisive development in mainstream healthcare. Or it might – especially if adopted mostly on grounds of lower cost than medication or long-term psychotherapy - be too little, too late, too unsupported by the medical profession as a whole and by the rest of society.
I wonder about that. I also wonder whether I would have benefited as much from meditation if I hadn’t already done the intellectual work of self-exploration in psychotherapy. But if MBSR and MBCT are the real deal, not to be fatally diluted, then surely, in light of my own experience, I must get involved? Surely there is nothing I find more important? Cynical now about so much I once believed in, about meditation as a force for change I am not cynical at all. Here I could put my heart – and perhaps the greater part of my efforts for the rest of my life.
Momentous thoughts, but let's be concrete and modest about this. So I've started this MBSR course as a first step, motivated by all of the above, but mostly by my own undoubted ongoing need for stress reduction, of which - having begun - I am all the more aware.