What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters
Compared to what lies within us. ~ Oliver Wendall Holmes
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program
University of Massachusetts Medical School
Class 3 Practice Handout
“If you woke tomorrow to a miracle, what would be different? What would tell you that the miracle had happened?”
This is the assignment from my therapist for the first week of the New Year. In our session, I say that the miracle would be to wake up not depressed.
“And how would you know you’re not depressed?” she asks.
I admit that I’m not sure. I would just know. That cloud would be gone. I’d simply feel happy, not frustrated and disgruntled and cynical about everything.
“Is there something that would tell you, though? Is there something you would notice?”
I think some more and then I remember something that Lynn told me recently.
“I would sing.”
“Yes, I would sing. I normally sing ALL of the time. I wake up in the morning singing. I fancy myself living in a musical. I sing to say good morning, sing when I’m walking my dog, sing on my drive into work. I sing about the shows on television and I put music to the newscasts or the dialogue of shows I’m watching. I sing to my animals. I sing in the shower. Music is the running background to my life. My dad did the same thing. He’d just make up songs to the oddest things. We’re alike that way. The last time I woke up singing was months ago. If I woke up and the first words out of my mouth were a lilting, ‘Good morning to my family,’ I would know that I was better. Now, I just get up.”
“Well this week, I want you to imagine waking up and things are different. You don’t have to make yourself sing, just imagine they are different. What would it be like?”
I take my assignment and try it on Tuesday without much luck. I can’t imagine something different while at the same time nothing different. That’s part of the assignment, too; I’m not to have done anything that makes anything different, it simply IS different. So I can’t sing a song and make believe it’s all better, I’m to simply believe that it is. And take notes. I’ll try again later. What would be different?
I think about it more the next day. I write down some thoughts of what would be different without really knowing what the miracle would be and I start to see a pattern. I start to realize that the difference would be in the reward, and herein my dilemma.
I feel a vocational calling, if not a general philosophy of life, to help people, to do things for others that don’t naturally generate a whole lot of tangible gratification. Being a member of the clergy or being a librarian, most of what I’ve done with most of my life has had to bring about intrinsic satisfaction. The extrinsic rewards are few and far between. Yes, people shaking your hand at the end of the aisle as they exit church for the week is gratifying. They say, “Thank you for that message,” but I never knew if they really meant it. At least I always wondered. Mostly I figured they were being polite. And there was satisfaction in leading small group discussions that led to places of deep thought and sharing. It felt good to sit in silence with others. But the world continued to be at unrest, no matter how often I preached of peace. The world remained filled with unfairness, no matter how many lessons I taught on justice. The congregation still argued over budgets, no matter how much I reminded people that the message of the Gospel was of immaterial things. And I forever heard the underlying tone of patriarchy and heterosexism, regardless of how inclusive and welcoming any gathering claimed to be. In other words, to do the work of ministry, for me, was to do work that I had to continually believe, continually tell myself, was important, because I rarely saw the message come true.
In different ways, it’s been the same as a librarian. I’ve enjoyed the wonderful, occasional surprise of a patron bringing me a candy bar to thank me for helping them find that dated, obscure citation last minute. I even got flowers from a bioinformaticist once for proofing a grant proposal. I get an occasional email expressing appreciation for a class I taught or an article I found for them. Still, such real “thank you” moments are rare. It’s simply another profession where the underlying assumption, rightly so, is that you’re there to help. It’s what’s expected of you, and so it’s what you do. And you mostly hope, inside, that you’re making some kind of positive difference.
But if the miracle happened, I realize, I would know it by an audience. I would know I made a difference because someone told me so, be it through applause or laughter, through a noticeable smile or a note of thanks. I would not be left to guess what others might think of me – what they think of me as I relate to them. I start to admit that I need and crave feedback; immediate and tangible feedback. This is why I told jokes from the pulpit and why I lead camp songs for science librarians. I need the laughter and I need the applause. Maybe, I think, I should have been a clown.
But the problem with being a member of the clergy or a librarian or a social worker or a teacher or any type of supporting role is that the true nature of them is humility – at least somewhere in my background I have made this connection. Somewhere along the way, I learned that it is important to not be the center of attention, to not be the focus. It leads to a sense of self-importance and self-righteousness. It leads one to become self-centered, self-serving, greedy and, in general, an ass. You do for others before you do for yourself. You treat others as you want to be treated. I have no doubt that the seeds of this message were planted by Mrs. German as she sat in the small chair of the round, kid-sized table, working the Play-Dough until it was soft enough for her charges in Sunday School. We were a church-going family, and the lessons I learned in the Sunday School classes of Walnut Hill Baptist Church were reinforced at home. My parents taught Sunday School, so of course they taught the same lessons at home.
And these are really good lessons. I’m glad I got them. Whether or not a person gets them in a religious community or a civic community or from a lightning bolt to the head, it really doesn’t matter. It does matter, though, I believe, that we get them. It makes the world a nicer place.
Perhaps I got them a little too well, though, or perhaps I missed something in the context. But somewhere along the way, I took these lessons to mean that receiving attention was bad. Unfortunately, attention is what I crave and in many ways, one of the things I am most naturally comfortable getting and receiving. It is easy for me to stand up in front of people and talk, easy to make jokes, easy to lead a discussion or a group. As a kid, I dreamed of being an actor. I wanted to be one of those Von Trapp children, dancing and singing in the Alps with Julie Andrews. One of my mother’s colleagues was heavily involved in community theater and I used to love to go to the dress rehearsals when she gave us tickets. I dreamt of being on the stage. I didn’t need to be the star, but I wanted to be in the lights. I wanted people to applaud at the end and I wanted to bow and say, “Thank you”.
I never followed these dreams, though. I don’t even think that I ever shared them with my parents because I imagine if I did, my mom would have found a way to get me involved. She signed me up for art classes because I loved making art. She was in the stands of practically every single basketball and softball game I ever played, because she knew I enjoyed it so. She supported the things my brother and I liked. Not like today where parents tote their children to every single kind of activity offered, but the few things that we showed genuine interest in, she encouraged. So I think if I had said that I wanted to do more than sing in the church choir, she would have let me. But I never did.
Instead, I found other ways to lead. I was a pitcher in softball, a point guard in basketball (though not very good, I admit), and the president of several clubs. I was a good student, a bit of a teacher’s pet, and throughout high school, left the teenage rebellion to my brother. I balanced the “fame” of involvement and achievement, with enough good behavior to feel somewhat okay about myself. I wasn’t the valedictorian of my class or the MVP of any team. In fact, one of the lengthiest mentions I ever received in our hometown paper described my unblemished win-loss record as a pitcher for our very successful softball team due not at all to any dominating power I had as a pitcher, but to my ability to simply let the other team hit and trust my teammates to get the outs. My interpretation: You’re good enough to get mentioned, but the mention tells you what you really are, i.e. not good enough.
I wonder why it is that these are the messages that stick with me. Why did I hear “You’re good enough” instead of, “You’re a great teammate who knows how to rely upon others to win” or “You’re the good, solid leader that trusts others to reach the goal”? Instead, I see my name in the paper and the first flush of attention makes me ashamed. I like it, but I’m not supposed to.
Somewhere along the way, lines got crossed. Not lines you cross with your feet or your faith, but lines as in wires. Wires in my head. The wires between my hearing, interpretation and feeling centers of my brain; they got crossed. My therapist says this just happens to some people. It’s part of how we’re put together. For me, this meant I was a good kid who did well in school, had a bunch of friends, had loving and supportive parents, was involved in lots of different things… and something was wrong with that. If I woke up tomorrow to a miracle, these wires would be untangled.
January 10th arrives as it has every year for the past 25. This particular January 10th marks a milestone, for it is literally the 25th anniversary of Mom’s death. A quarter of a century has past since I saw her face or heard her voice, since I heard her say “Get back inside before you catch cold”, the last words she said to me when I was standing on the snowy porch in my slippers and she was heading off to get Dad. Whether or not I had a therapy appointment the next morning, I’d spend this morning thinking of my mom. I make a list of things she has missed in the past 25 years:
- 25 birthdays
- 25 wedding anniversaries
- 3 grandchildren
- 5 great nieces and nephews
- 2 weddings of her children
- 4 weddings of nieces and nephews
- 4 graduations
- 3 funerals – her mother’s and both of her in-law’s
- my ordination
- a career of teaching
- a retirement
- friends, family, a kindred spirit in a daughter-in-law, Lynn
- holidays and parties
- thousands of pieces of needlework to be done
- thousands of flowers grown and arranged
- hundreds of students
- countless conversations and phone calls
- hugs and laughter and tears
- visits with her daughter
- giving her daughter advice
- dogs, cats, chickens and cows
I wonder other questions about “what might have been?” I wonder if my brother would have finished the house he’s been building for the past 20 years. I wonder if my dad would have retired so soon and spent so much time in a routine of mall walking and morning gatherings at McDonald’s drinking “senior coffee” with all of the other retired men. I wonder if I would have wandered from career to career, from degree to degree. I wonder if my immediate family would be so estranged from one another. I wonder if we would share holidays together. I wonder if Mom would accept my life with Lynn, if she’d be happy for us. Again, I ask questions and think thoughts for which no answers exist. Nothing beyond what I simply have to believe to be true, whether it is or not. I will never know. I decide that I’ll write something about my mom for others to read. I think this will be a good exercise to commemorate the day. I write a post for my blog, something that wasn’t even conjured up in anyone’s mind 25 years ago, and I write about how my mom lives on today.
Lynn and I rent an artist studio in a renovated mill in Rollinsford, NH. It’s about an hour and a half drive from Worcester and so for the most part we spend only weekends there. Lynn had been on a waiting list for a space in it for over a year when she got a call that one had opened up. Coincidentally, that call came the same week I got a call from the Medical School offering me my job in Worcester. We decided to say, “yes” to both offers and for the five years we’ve been in the city, our studio has offered us a quiet sanctuary away from the people and the noise the busy life of urban living.
We head to the studio on Friday night, in time for me to make it to the monthly bluegrass jam at the grange hall. I try to make this time as often as possible. There is something cathartic about sitting in a circle of people and playing music. Every time I take part, I think about the people of another time period; I think about the people in my own family tree that did just this kind of thing. They sat in circles and played music. They sat in circles and played Pinochle. They sat in circles and told stories. These were my mom’s people. My maternal grandfather, who died when I was less than a year old, played the guitar and the fiddle and the mandolin. He played Hank Williams and Cole Porter. He played the same songs I play in the circle and I imagine he’d like the same kind of songs that I like today; songs with a story, songs where the words are poetry. I know very little about my grandfather, but the little I know always assures me that we come from the same place.
As much as I enjoy it, I get nervous playing in the circle. I get even more nervous to pick and lead a tune. To actually sing is scariest of all. But this year I made a vow – a resolution – to step up and take my turn at this. I’ve been coming to the jam for a couple of years at least. It’s time for me to take the challenge. On this night, I decide ahead of time that I will lead and/or sing three songs; “Honky Tonk Girl” by Loretta Lynn, John Prine’s “That’s the Way that the World Goes ‘Round”, and “Orphan Girl” in the key of A, like Emmylou Harris sings it, rather than G# that Gillian Welch wrote and sings it in. I’ve practiced each of these over and over enough to be able to fumble through them when my turn comes around.
The first time the picking gets to me in the circle, I pass. I can’t quite bring myself to lead. As soon as I do this, I feel angry at myself. By the second time, though, I pick the easiest of the three for me, and make it through. At the end of the evening, I have done as I promised myself and sung all three songs. I get complements and I feel really great. There it is, my audience for the evening. My need for affirmation and applause is met. It’s a good night.
I realize on Saturday morning that I forgot to pack my prescription. This is a first. I’ve been told that this new drug I’m taking (a change my doctor thought might help), can have some harsh side effects. I’ve done fine with the switch and fine with the titration up to the current level. I figure a missed day can’t be all that bad. For the most part, I’m correct. The day goes by like any day. I take advantage of the creative space and spend my time reading, writing, practicing my mandolin. I take a walk by the river. I walk to town to get a pizza. It’s a nice Saturday.
The nighttime proves different, though. I have one really long, vivid dream, the kind of dream that goes on and on, even when you wake up in the middle of it. You fall back asleep and the play button is hit again. Rarely do I remember my dreams, and the same holds true here, though I do remember the general feelings and when I finally wake up for the next day, I write them down. It’s one long dream of running away, trying to escape, moving from conformity, moving back, leaving work, returning to work, escaping again, getting separated from the things I love, feeling threatened.
I get a strange feeling that I’m treating myself as if I’m the subject of some experiment. All of this documenting thoughts and feelings and physical reactions, it’s different in it’s level of detail than my usual journaling. Of course I’m always self-absorbed in my journal, but this is something else. It’s kind of weird. I figure that it must be helpful – or at least it will be one day. Every year, as my sobriety date rolls around, I read my journal from that time. I read the sentences from the last few weeks before I found myself in the therapist’s office, before I found myself in an AA meeting in that church basement. To see those words on the page, written in familiar handwriting, helps me remember that person that most times I forget. I imagine the words I’m writing now will do the same later on. And I wish that thought wasn’t so depressing.
Driving back home on Sunday I start to feel sick. Physically sick. I feel like I have the flu. My head is pounding, I ache all over, and I’m sweating. I put the seat back as far as it will go, close my eyes, and wait for Lynn to get us home. Once there, I take my meds and lie on the couch for a few hours. Slowly, I start to feel better. The entire experience leaves me disturbed, though. I start thinking about Lynn’s concerns of dependence upon a medication. Is that what this is? If so, what’s the difference between this and being dependent on any other drug?
I’ve never been really physically sick in my life. I’ve never broken a bone, never spent the night in a hospital, never spent more than a few days sick in bed. Until the past year, I’ve also never been one who has to visit the drug store monthly to get a prescription filled. I’ve never been one who owned, let alone carried around, a little pill holder. I did well to remember to take a daily vitamin. Now I take a daily prescription and now, when I forget to take it, my body reacts in very unpleasant ways. This I don’t like. This doesn’t sit well. Just what is it that I’m putting into my system?
Each year for Christmas, my dad sends us a check to get something we want or need. Too often I spend it on bills, but this year decided to take part of it and put it towards the 8-week stress reduction program that the world-renowned Center for Mindfulness on my campus runs. Founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the program has a long history of success in helping people learn practical tools such as mindfulness meditation, relaxation techniques, and increased awareness in the interconnectedness of thoughts, emotions and physical sensations to bring about healthy management of stress. I’ve wanted to take the course for some time and now with the work underway in therapy, I figure there’s no better time. I sign up and on the last Thursday night of the month, join about 40 other people in a large circle of chairs and pillows, ready for class to begin.
One of the first things we practice is sitting still, in silence, for a period of time. I am surprised at how much I enjoy this exercise. I don’t have the most successful history at it. I remember Dr. Thornton’s pastoral counseling course where he started every class meeting with a time of guided meditation. I cannot do guided meditation. I cannot meditate when someone else is talking. When someone instructs me to imagine being like a ball balanced on top of a pole, or to see my troubles as leaves floating down a river, away from me, I only find myself distracted by their voice telling me what to do. I cannot meditate by being told to meditate. Plus, it makes me laugh. I took Dr. Thornton’s class with good friends who to this day still joke about our heads balanced on poles. I still can’t help but laugh at the thought.
The instructor of the stress management class does do some vocal coaching during the silence, but it’s limited and I soak up the silence. It is so peaceful. I realize how little of it I have in my days, in my head. Just silence. Quiet. Stillness. It feels a lot like the sensation of holding my breath and jumping into a swimming pool on a very hot day, sinking to the silent bottom. It is comfort.
We follow the silence with some sharing and then we find a space in the room to learn a few stretches to help us relax. We’re not really at any kind of formal yoga here, just some basic stretching to release all of the tension that settles in our muscles and joints. This is a good thing, I know. Intellectually and experientially, I know the benefits. However, despite a lifetime of regular physical activity, I have NEVER been flexible. In a word, I am stiff as a board.
I find a mat and a space and lie on my back. The lights are dimmed and our instructor begins to describe for us the movements. Slowly. Slowly. Pull your leg to your chest and then back down. One and then the other. And then both together. Ugh. Groan. Crack. But fortunately, I am not alone. A room filled with middle-aged people moving muscles we’ve not moved in some time, we are bonded in the shared experience of humility and pain.
Class marks the start of a complement to my therapy sessions, sessions that are, in themselves, complementary to medication I’ve been prescribed. I suppose this makes it the complementary complement. I can’t help but think how ironic it is, the fact that I’ve realized through these complementary therapies is that I’m longing for tangible compliments. I think it’s kind of funny, but then remember they’re spelled differently.
“Welcome to this moment” is the mantra for mindfulness. It will take a lot of practice for me to get to this moment. It’s always very hard for me to be here, now. As I practice my first body scan exercise at home, I notice that my mind drifts off. I think of people and places far away from this place and this moment. I think of how my therapist and I talked about this last week. I am here, yet those I long to be with most are there. “There” is not “here” and thus I spend a lot of time longing to be somewhere else.
I think back to the movie, “Revolutionary Road” that we watched last night. Wasn’t this the theme of that movie? Giving up, resigning one’s self to the life that they have before them rather than the one that they once dreamed of? I loathe the term “acceptance”. I hate it when anyone in an AA meeting mentions “page 449 of the Big Book”. I want to scream. Acceptance, for me, is resignation. It is giving up. It is giving in to the circumstances in which you find yourself, even when those circumstances are deplorable. “For Christ’s sake, do something!” is what I always want to scream when the topic comes up. How do you accept the moment and change the moment at the same time? How do you find that wisdom “to know the difference” between the things you can change and the things you cannot? And how do I accept any of this without feeling like I’ve simply given up?
My 45-minutes of meditation are over. I admit that the quiet of the room was nice. It was relaxing. Now if only I can quiet the inside of my head.