As a guinea pig in an NIH-funded study, I’ve recently completed eight two-and-a-half-hour sessions of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training to determine if practicing mindfulness decreases the intensity and duration of migraines. I have been pummeled by all-too frequent, hormonally-induced, sometimes debilitating migraines for about nine years. Though generally skeptical about mindfulness, yoga, New Age chicanery, and much of the Goop of the wellness industry, I figured that I had little to lose. After all, I had tried, prescribed by prominent licensed neurologists, numerous medications with unpleasant side effects and only moderate success, endured one round of Botox, wore a plastic pulsating electrified band on my head for about ten minutes each evening for a month, and underwent a number of osteopathy and acupuncture sessions, all of which were unhelpful.
Against my better judgment and well-honed New Yorker skepticism, in desperation, at the recommendation of a fellow migraine sufferer and ex-New Yorker, I even visited an herbalist/”holistic medicine” practitioner named Dr. Jen. The self- appointed and misleadingly titled “doctor” never attended medical school. After listening to tales of my medical history and ailments she “diagnosed” me using the ZYTO scan, a self-proclaimed, non-FDA approved pseudo-diagnostic device. ZYTO claims to be a “biocommunication scan” that measures skin responses, which are then recorded and analyzed through ZYTO software. The special software produces a report and makes suggestions about remedies, such as diet, vitamins, and herbal supplements. After scanning my hand with the magical device, Dr. Jen informed me that I should not eat pears, (a food to which I have no sensitivities), and prescribed a number of expensive vitamins that I could purchase directly from her and ZYTO. After my experience with this con artist/fortune teller, I figured that mindfulness, yoga, and meditation seemed reasonable and positively scientific by comparison. After all, this study was being funded by the government-based, National Institutes of Health.
Founded and developed into a medically sanctioned and highly-regarded practice by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the early 1980s, MBSR combines meditative, yoga, and attitudinal practices with the goal of improving mental, physical, and emotional health. Numerous studies, as well as a great deal of anecdotal evidence, have suggested that practicing MBSR daily can lead to significant improvements in one’s well-being. So other than twenty-one hours of class time plus at least thirty minutes every day of practice, I decided to give it a try.
Besides, countless friends, whom I admire and respect, swear by the benefits of MBSR or yoga and meditation. So despite my predilection for competitive sports that involve hitting or throwing balls, my aversion to gymnastic and dance-related forms of exercise, and my mistrust of all things spiritual, I enrolled in the study.
At the orientation meeting, a pointless two-hour additional session, the instructor cheerfully walked in and asked who was skeptical about MBSR and thought that it was a “bunch of California hoo ha.” I, along with only one or two others, raised my hand. “At least she has a sense of humor and knows some of her audience,” I thought, and half-heartedly vowed to maintain an open mind and a positive attitude.
After ringing the commencement gong or singing bowl, our instructor began with the question, “What is mindfulness?” Despite having heard and even used the term countless times, I had no idea what it signified, so I was relieved to receive enlightenment. Numerous people responded, “Being in the moment,” and “breathing” to which the teacher nodded and beamed. She then read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition: “Mindfulness is: paying attention, on purpose, in a particular way, in the present moment, with non-judging awareness.” At this point, the cynic in me awakened. Really, what on earth does “being in the moment” mean and how can any thoughtful, conscientious person practice “non-judging awareness”? Doesn’t truly being in the moment entail a judging awareness of such pressing matters as the state of our country, the environment, and global affairs, among other things? While obsessing about our current government may be stressful, tuning it out by “focusing on my breath” and observing but not judging, seems downright irresponsible. Change will not be effected, and the world will not become a better place by people who are meditating, being in the moment, and refraining from judgment, or in other words, practicing extraordinary self-absorption.
After an initial stretching session, which was quite pleasant and salubrious, we were introduced to the first formal practice of MBSR: the body scan. I immediately imagined an MRI. An MBSR body scan, instead, involves lying supine, and contemplating one’s breath for twenty to forty-five minutes. Our teacher guided us, as we lay corpse-like on our mats, to breathe through our right foot, the ankle, then calf. After breathing through all of the right lower half of the body, we did the same on the left and then moved upwards to the torso. I had been contemplating numerous other matters long before we reached the head, failing to understand how one could breathe into one’s foot or any other body part but the lungs, mouth, or nose. My mind wandered incessantly. I could not focus on my breathing for more than a few seconds. I was a failure at body scanning and mindfulness and was aware that I was judging myself excessively. None of this led to stress reduction.
We next studied sitting meditation, which was much like a body scan but situated on a chair or an intensely uncomfortable floor pillow. This induced only stiffness and more nomad brain. Finally we learned the walking meditation, which we were told we could do anywhere. Walking meditation entails feeling one’s feet on the ground and walking, zombie-like, making no eye contact, and pausing periodically to be grateful for what is right or not wrong. We were also encouraged to chant a mantra to ourselves as we roamed. I recited the first twelve lines of TheCanterbury Tales, which I had memorized in tenth grade. I could intone it by rote or mindlessly without paying much attention to what the Middle English poem meant. The room of mumbling, zoned-out walkers looked like a scene from “The Walking Dead.”,
The only appealing exercise for me, was yoga, which we were encouraged to perform regularly as well. At least I could concentrate on the position and breathing and sustaining a particular pose. This served as a distraction, perhaps leading to some form of “being in the moment.”
In order to keep up our practice at home we were urged to download various apps and refer to our instructor’s website for guidance. One app, whose icon is a large bronze bowl, supplies multiple gong tones that can be scheduled at regular intervals to help guide meditation. No one called out the irony of using modern technology to assist in the ancient tradition of meditation and being in the moment.
In addition to the formal daily practices, we were also instructed to exercise attitudinal practices, which include, non-judging, mindful acceptance, gratitude, and appreciation. One particular class included an exercise in which we contemplated and appreciated a raisin. The teacher handed out one raisin to each student and requested that we slowly and thoughtfully examine it, look at, touch, smell, and listen to it. Finally, we were allowed to place it in our mouths without chewing. We could move it around our tongues and teeth and savor its taste. At last, when little remained of the shriveled, desiccated now slightly moistened and dissolved grape bit, we were permitted to chew (unnecessary by this point) and swallow. My tepid relationship with the raisin was not enhanced by this experience.
This test sample of one reports that after a couple of weeks of MBSR my migraines were more acute and frequent than ever. Furthermore, taking the class increased my stress, annoyance, and anxiety because it took time away from things I enjoy and care about and made me feel like an incompetent meditator. Nor did taking breaths when someone cut me off while driving tamp down my long-ingrained road rage or reactive personality.
Perhaps as with religion, mindfulness is most helpful to those who are inclined to believe. Clearly many people in physical or emotional pain are seeking remedies that medicine has not provided them, and they are finding comfort or betterment through MBSR. Unfortunately, my migraines are still occurring and the current president is still in office.