A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled - Ruby Wax (2016)
Chapter 9. Mindfulness and Me
For the ending of the book, I thought I’d go to the University of Bangor in Wales, a centre for mindfulness research, and have my brain scanned before and after a week-long retreat, with no Wi-Fi and seven hours of meditation a day. (I don’t know which sounds worse.) I figured that, if I’m writing this book about mindfulness, I might as well see if it delivers what it says on the label … and what better way than to use me as the guinea pig? Sharon Hadley, who is the manager of the Centre of Mindfulness, Research and Practice, arranged everything, from my brain scans to fixing me up with a retreat.
I arrive at the neuroscience building at the university and am led to the room with the brain scanner in it. It’s a breath-taking moment when you look at a piece of machinery that lets you see the activity in every part of your brain by means of a piece of software that produces colour pictures of who you are in 3D. I am introduced to Paul Mullins (Director of the Bangor NeuroImaging Unit at the School of Psychology and Senior MRI Physicist), who has taken time off from his sabbatical to come and do the brain scans. (Thank you, Paul.) He takes me through a questionnaire that asks things like, ‘If we find something “unusual”, do you want to be told?’ Who else would they tell? Other questions: ‘Have you ever been in a scanner before?’ and ‘How are you in enclosed spaces?’
I tell Paul that I love being in a scanner; I lived in one in Glastonbury (no laugh from him). Then comes the disclaimer, which says that, if anything happened to me, I wouldn’t blame them. He tells me no one will ever know that this is my brain; the scan will be completely anonymous. I’m thinking, ‘Why would I care? It’s me in there. I’ve been on TV, what’s the big secret?’ Like they’re going to see my mind and report me to the thought police?
Paul asks if I have any metal anywhere in my body, because the MRI scanner has a magnet strong enough to suck a fridge across Poland. He asks if I’m wearing an underwired bra. When I inquire why this is relevant, he says I wouldn’t want to know. (Later in the day I meet someone in the building who tells me horror stories of people being crushed in the scanner by metal objects that have been sucked in; a metal chair once got dragged in and killed the person in the scanner. Imagine that. They’re in there, worrying about a brain tumour, and next thing they’re killed by a chair?)
Anyway, after the metal removal, I lie down on the track, wrapped in a blanket, have a helmet lowered over my face and, with a push of a button, I’m rolled into the open cave of a coffin-like structure. They ask if I want to use mirrors so I can see the staff through the glass looking at the monitors. Of course I do: I want to register the expression on their faces when they see the white light in my brain. (Secretly, I’ve always imagined that, beneath the mess, I’m the ‘chosen one’.) So Paul says he’s ready, and the drilling sounds starts, which he’s warned me about. It sounds like someone’s excavating a building … and I’m the building. I’m thinking, ‘This equipment costs millions and they couldn’t find a way to make it quiet?’ I’m looking at them through my mirror and I see them talking to each other and laughing like they’re discussing the football results. My brain is on that screen; they’re looking at the live action of my memories, my thoughts, hopes, dreams, happiness, despair … my everything – and they’re talking about what’s for lunch? After an hour of watching them chat without seeing any sign of amazement on their faces that I’m the next messiah, I get up, and there on the monitor is my brain in living colour … and it’s beautiful. It’s all lit up like a neon fish with trillions of fluorescent wires, and I can see it from all angles. It’s so amazing I’m thinking I could sell it at the Saatchi gallery … or at least on eBay. Then I see on the scan what looks like thousands of X-rays of all those regions in the brain that a brain’s supposed to have. Thank God, there aren’t any empty, blank spaces.
Then Paul says the words that everyone dreads: he’s spotted an ‘abnormality’. I’ve imagined these moments, as a professional hypochondriac, for most of my life so, because I am well-rehearsed, I have almost no reaction. He says there are things on some of the images and he doesn’t know what they are (I, of course, conclude that he’s lying), and do I want a neurologist to check it out? Duh. Yes!!!
After retrieving all my metal, and in a glaze of shock, off I go to another room, to have an EEG. This is the one where they put wires all over your head. This procedure electronically shows your neural activity as it happens. Dr Dusana Dorjee, who has a PhD in cognitive neuroscience and is a leading researcher at the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice, is doing the procedures. After a shower cap with holes has been placed snugly on my head, she sets me three exercises. She asks me to meditate for two minutes, focusing on my breath. Then, for another two minutes, I should let my mind wander and allow myself to ruminate, getting hooked on the thoughts as they come in. In the third exercise she asks me to mind-wander but not to get caught up in the stories, to let my thoughts come and go without me trying to analyse them. (This is called open attention.)
After this, she asks me to do all three exercises again but, this time, two photos will come up on a monitor and I have to hit the left button if the photos are similar and the right one if they’re different. She wants to see whether, when someone is in a meditative state, they react less strongly to disturbing images. The first pair is a plane flying and a plane crashed on the ground, so I hit the left button for similar. The next couple are a shark and an ironing board. (I know those are different.) Then a tarantula and a golf club. I don’t think any of the photos disturbed me; I only get riled when I get it wrong and I push the similar button when I mean to push the one for different. I’m imagining I’m on some TV game show and I have to win at all costs; I am in full competitive mode … with myself. (This is so typical.)
Later that day, I’m driven to the hotel I’ll be staying at, where, in the lobby, a group of locals are teaching Welsh dancing. The women are wearing top hats like Abraham Lincoln’s and old Puritan dresses with aprons, and playing violins and accordions. I’m grabbed by a man wearing something even weirder who twirls me in circles; just circles. How can this be Welsh dancing when it’s just circles? I go along with it. I’m thinking this must be the effect of whatever the abnormality is on my brain.
The following day, I’m taken off to the Trigonos Retreat Centre, which is on a lake somewhere in the back hills of Wales; it’s the beginning of August, and it’s winter. As soon as I get there, I realize I’m sick to my stomach and have to lie down. This could be because I’ve found out about the daily schedule, which is getting up at 7 a.m. and meditating, breakfast between eight and nine, then nine to twelve is meditating (half an hour sitting meditation, half an hour walking meditation, then sitting again, then a tea break; then sitting meditation for a half an hour, then walking half an hour). Then it’s lunch. Between three and six it’s the same thing: sitting and walking while meditating for three hours. Then dinner and then sitting, and at 9 p.m. sleeping … and all of this in silence.
This is mental boot-camp; if anyone thinks it’s just new-agey fluff, go try it yourself. So, for the first day, I am nauseous. I sit in silence (in sickness) and hope I don’t throw up. Afterwards – and I don’t know how I got there – I hit that bed and am unconscious until the next morning. That first night I dream that Obama is cleaning a glass coffee table while making a wonderful speech about world peace.
I get up when my phone alarm goes at 6.57 a.m. for my seven o’clock meditation (I like to cut it close for adrenaline-rush reasons, even in a retreat). So I scramble into the large meditation room, where people are already sitting, some wrapped in shawls in Buddha positions, some on cushions and some on the latest in meditation accoutrements for your bum: a zafu (Google it; it’s a cushion). I took to a chair, just to rebel.
Our retreat is led by two women who I would categorize under the heading ‘Earth Mothers’; hair awry, and I think one of them is wearing those rubber clogs with holes like shower mats (which I imagine are useful if you’re in a flood). And I’m thinking they’re going to start with those soft, feathery voices you get in healing centres where they gently rub warmed-up ylang-ylang oil on to your central-line meridian. When I speak to one of the women, Jody Mardula, the ex-director of the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice, I realize I am wrong. I tell her about the ‘abnormality’ on my brain and that I might be a little preoccupied during the retreat. I expect her to give me a mug of bark juice but nope, she proceeds to tell me in a light-hearted manner how she had to retire as director about five years ago due to a brain haemorrhage.
She tells me, only because I push her, that she had suddenly felt a cold waterfall going down the back of her head and had then passed out with the pain. She says it was like a tsunami of blood flowing under her scalp down to her neck. When she woke up, she says she felt like her memories had been washed away in the devastation; some were buried under collapsed buildings and some were sticking out of the mud. She had no memory of who she was or what she was doing in the hospital (and I had started this conversation feeling sorry for myself). After a few weeks she was so constrained by all the wires keeping her alive she could only move her right hand, so she’d do body scans and concentrate, in a kind of mindfulness exercise, on the feeling of where her hand contacted the bed sheet, grounding herself to a physical sensation. Later, once she could move the other hand, she would focus on the feeling of both hands where they contacted each other. This, she said, sharpened her ability to pay attention and bring her mind back into focus when it got lost in the pain.
Months later, she got better, but she never regained her old self so she had to create a new one. Later, others tell me that Jody (when she was younger) used to hitch-hike alone across countries and once lived on a rooftop in Paris, where she was known for wild parties. They said that, even when she was on walking sticks during her recovery, she asked some kids who were sliding down a snow-covered mountain on bits of cardboard if she could try it. She put her sticks on her lap and, to their amazement, took off down the slope.
She tells me that her experience wasn’t all bad (can you believe someone can say that?), that when she created this new self, she no longer had any critical voices in her head telling her she wasn’t good enough, that she wasn’t qualified to hold her job. Nowadays, she just accepts what she is and seems at peace with it all, like it’s the most natural thing on earth to lose your memory. She remembers her daughter, and that’s enough for her. So there’s a lesson: I thought she was a lightweight, and she turns out to be more evolved than almost anyone I’ve ever met.
I’m not having the greatest time. When you sit and meditate for a long time, your internal voice is screaming for it to end and begging for the ting ting that signifies the sitting is over.
And then it’s over and you have to go straight into the walking meditation, where you walk one way for about ten feet and then back the other way. The idea is that you try to focus on where your feet touch the ground so that when your mind wanders you take your attention back to one of your feet and feel the next step … then your mind goes to some phone call you forgot to return two years ago … then you send your focus back to your foot and move to the other one. Gradually, as agonizing as it is to watch your mind play every trick in the book to get you back to thinking what it wants to think about, you start to see the point of all this. You’re taking your focus by the horns and using the sense of your feet as an anchor to come back to when your mind snares you. While some of us are doing the slow walking outside, a helicopter flies over and I imagine the pilot looking down and thinking he is watching The Night of the Living Dead.
After sitting, walking, sitting, finally there’s a ting to have lunch. Everyone waits in the queue, no one pushes, everyone’s considerate – opening doors for you, handing you a cup. I like all these people, mostly because I don’t have to talk to any of them. Your eyes never meet because, as you don’t have anything to say, there’s no reason to look at each other. You save so much energy when you don’t have to say, ‘Thank you’ or ‘Sorry’ all the time; it’s such a relief. All I have to do is focus in on what I’m eating.
Today I fall in love with a digestive biscuit. I’ve had them before … but not like this. I have one bite and I almost tip off my chair with the burst of salt and sugar and crunchiness; it’s perfect. I never want it to end. You start to slow down your chewing and stop thinking about taking another bite before you’ve even swallowed what’s in your mouth (my usual mode of eating). You savour the moment because the experience is so poignant: you let the taste, better than anything a five-star restaurant could offer, become your only focus of attention; all thoughts subside. I end up wrapping up the other half of the biscuit in a napkin, and save it, in my shoe, for a special occasion. And then the ting happens to indicate that lunch is over and, like in a zombie film, we all go back into the room to our zafu – or chair, in my case.
I start nodding off while I’m sitting on my chair, thinking that time is going so slowly but even here it still moves on. (I think I am being very profound.)
By now I am wearing my pyjama bottoms and an old moth-eaten felt jacket (it was freezing, so I had to borrow it – and wellies to match), because when no one looks at you, you don’t look at you either. (I didn’t see a mirror the whole time – another relief.) I notice that I’m starting to slow down, and that frightens me, like I’m going to grind to a halt and end up a statue. When we do the walking meditation, I can barely lift my feet; my whole body is like a dead weight and I haul it like I’m carrying a dead elephant. I feel like my grandmother in her last days, dragging herself around the house like a pool cleaner.
During the time we’re there, we’re allowed a fifteen-minute meeting with one of the teachers to tell them what’s on our silent minds. So I go to see Jody to tell her that I feel really old and am terrified I’m going to end up eating scones with other old people and pottering around the garden for fun. I feel my life will end shortly.
Then she tells me she’s seventy (so much for my problems) and asks what I’ve learnt so far. I tell her that I feel like I’ve freed myself from the idea I held when I was younger that I was carrying poison and it was just a matter of time before people would cotton on that something was deeply bad about me and fire me, throw me out or just dump me. I tell her I don’t feel that way any more – that slate is wiped clean – but that I’m still narcissistic; and she says, ‘Who isn’t?’ I mention again how frightened I am that I might lose my memory. (I say this to a woman who has. Sensitive or what?) She said I should stop catastrophizing … no one ever said I was going to lose my memory. She has a point. I tell her, even though we’re supposed to be focused on ourselves, that I’m starting to go back to my old ways: I’m starting to zero in on people in the group who I don’t like. Remember: they’re silent – so where am I getting my information? I can’t stand one person because he breathes too loudly, or another one who sits with his eyes shut even after the ting goes indicating the session is finished … like he’s in nirvana, wearing Tibetan socks and a dot on his head, and I’m furious at one woman who eats with her mouth open.
Jody says that, when she’s on a silent retreat, in her mind she kills a few people, marries a few and then divorces some. She tells me she likes me and that she doesn’t feel that way about everyone, and I tell her the same. New best friend.
I go back to … what else? Sitting … it never ends. I start counting how many more hours are left until I can go home. I feel my mind’s like a spoiled brat: it wants to eat, to sleep, to go to France, it wants the sleeting rain to stop (it’s August – what’s wrong with this country?) – but I’m getting more than a slight inkling about the effect this mindfulness lark might be having. From this endless exercise, I can actually feel the muscle of my attention growing from a puny little bump to something quite powerful; I’m able to keep my attention on a particular thing for a longer period than I normally could. The voices don’t stop, but because I have stopped trying to stop them (or wishing that they were more profound) they’re getting less vitriolic. I’m becoming less frightened that I might not be as special as I think I am. My ego is starting to do a striptease.
(Only days ago, in the brain scanner, I thought my brain was a golden orb of enlightenment.) None of us wants to look into our mind and discover that we’re just simple folk and that we’re no different from each other under our armour. We are all delusional if we think we’re above the herd; we’re all just people trying to scratch out some kind of a life. If we demand too much of ourselves, life isn’t fun and we make ourselves ill, so why do that? I’ve always wondered why I am such a slave driver to myself? I usually can’t think without pushing my mind to heights it can’t reach – like a mother who pushes her child until he goes over the edge. Why can’t I just leave me alone? I realize I might be so stressed in life because I’m always trying to improve myself, when it’s okay just to be me, with these plain, vanilla thoughts. And as I sit there and the thoughts arise, it’s as if they’re rising like sediment from the bottom of a pail of clear water. Each time one disengages from the bottom, the water below gets clearer.
As I start to get off my own back, I notice that all this self-punishment for not doing enough is starting to go; I can even feel the muscles in my face moving towards a smile. I’m beginning to be able to stand back and observe my thoughts and, when I get even a trace of a negative thought or the first scent of rumination, I can re-route my focus from my head into my body, where I can sensually investigate it rather than agonize about it. I’ve always said that, with depression, it’s impossible to know when it’s coming, because you don’t have a spare brain to assess whether there’s something wrong, like you could with a lost finger or a lump. So I know I can’t get a warning in words that it’s coming, as in, ‘Oh, I’m getting depression. What should I do about it?’ But from all this practising, this bulking up of my insula, I know I’ll be able to sense it coming. I won’t feel so unaware, so helpless, next time; I understand now that the two statements ‘There is sadness’ and ‘I am sad’ are different. (It’s part of me, not the whole of me.)
I do my walking meditation this afternoon outside by the stream, which, I notice, always burbles … except when I’m not listening. I play with that idea, noticing the difference when I’m tuned out to when I’m tuned in, and I start to experiment, choosing where to focus my attention, on the noise of the wind a mile away or on an insect up close? Why do I miss so much in my life? I don’t remember ever hearing the wind in London. All these years and I missed out on the wind, which is all I can hear here, besides the sound of the stream going over rocks into little waterfalls, which I can stare at for more than my normal ten-second limit. I smell a rose (making sure no one is looking) and decide to do my walking up and down near it so that, when the wind is right, I can get smacked in the face by that smell. Every time I pass it, I get a hit. The next day, the rose is dead and there’s no smell. I think there’s a lesson in there … I’m not sure what. No, I know: the lesson is that all things die, so don’t depend on them. (Profound or what?)
Now that I know I’m in charge of pulling focus, I decide at dinner to watch a particular sheep on the faraway mountain and then throw my focus on to a daddy-long-legs on the windowsill. The insect captures my attention for so long I think we’re starting a relationship. Who knew that daddy-long-legs were so fascinating? If you reach out to touch one of its legs it senses you and moves away, using these two hair-like antennas. They feel around like a blind person using a white stick. They’re agile and can walk on anything, sideways and upside down. (I do experiments.)
That night at dinner I fall in love with a potato. (I’ve moved on from the digestive.) I couldn’t believe that it could taste so sweet and crunchy and then so fluffy – it had everything going for it. I go into the kitchen and break my silence, demanding to know how they had cooked the potato. The chef shows me a potato and some Tesco olive oil. I don’t get it: I have eaten potatoes in my life, but never on this level. Again, I’m wanting another one while I still have one in my mouth, and I think, ‘Yup, this is how I live my life.’
I’m still not good at getting up without leaping from my bed from some emergency happening in my dream; last night it was being gunned down by snapping turtles. (Good luck with that one, Freud.) Now awake, I fill the bathtub; I never realized the difference in the feel of hot water as opposed to cold. Downstairs, I join the others for some t’ai chi-type exercises. I’m smirking to myself, thinking that these are pathetic moves, lifting my arms up and down, slowly. I’m a person who can do push-ups, for God’s sake; I can do downward dog for hours on end. So I start to lift both arms up really slowly … and find I can’t. It’s just too exhausting to lift my own arms. You can imagine the mental berating I’m giving myself for being such a wimp, but I do something I’ve almost never done in my life: I give up and just lift one arm … halfway.
At breakfast, where the taste of a raisin in my cereal leaves me breathless, I start trying to figure out why I feel so flat-lined (not depressed – this is something else, more dreamy, not scary). I realize that my amygdala has been out of commission since day one because there’s nothing in here that’s frightening. I can trust everyone; they can’t hurt me when they’re not speaking, and probably wouldn’t if they could. This is what it’s like when I’m not on the lookout for trouble. At this moment, I’m not really worried about anything; even the fear of not finishing this book has disappeared.
This afternoon we break the silence when the teachers ask us to give an update of what’s happening in our minds. One woman says she can’t stop planning things (she does it for a living); early in the day, she plans which cushion she’s going to sit on and even what she’s going to focus on in her body. Another woman says she thinks that everything she does is stupid and knows that everyone else thinks she’s stupid. (She isn’t, but I can’t tell her that in my silence.) One guy says he keeps hunting around for some problem because, in life, that’s what he is, a problem-solver, so without a problem to solve he feels empty. He then tries to solve the problem of the woman who says she’s stupid. Jody tells him to stop it. She says, when you think you’re being empathetic, you’re actually just avoiding your own issues. It’s more your need to help than theirs to be helped. Also, if you keep trying to help others you get something called empathy fatigue. People need you to hear them clearly if you want to help them, not be lost in how bad you feel for them.
The talking ends, and I go back to … guess what? … sitting. I’m caught by the sound of two dogs barking in the distance. One is a baritone – I’m guessing he’s a Great Dane; the other a small, snippy, yappy dog. I get transfixed listening to them, noticing that they aren’t being hostile, as I would have assumed in the past, they’re just having a dog conversation. They stop, and I find myself missing their noise. When my thoughts start pouring into my head, I try to hear them as if they’re like the sound of dogs barking; some are loud, some soft, some frantic, some funny. This is working because the barking is untranslatable so I can’t get caught up in it. I’m barking to myself. If I could see my thoughts like this all the time I wouldn’t be so screwed up. I should start marketing my new practice, Barking-Based Cognitive Therapy (BBCT).
I woke up a few times during the night, as I routinely do at home; usually, it takes me a long time to get back to sleep, if I ever do. Last night was different. When I woke, at about 3 a.m., I tried to do what I’m doing seven hours each day: to focus on my breath and, when my thoughts take over, just bring it back. I also noticed the moment that the images in my mind became unreal, indicating I was starting to dream, even though I was conscious. I could tell because someone in my mind started to grow starfish arms and legs, and I remember thinking, ‘That can’t happen in real life, this must be the beginning of dreaming’ … and then I drifted off.
At the first meditation of the morning I notice that my mind is quietening down. It feels like I have taut banjo strings across my stomach which now are ripping apart with a ping. The sick feeling I had on my first day is gone and has been replaced by a tranquil kind of tingling under my ribs which then travels up my left side to the side of my head. When the ting ting sounds (get this), I want to stay sitting. This has never happened before. I realize I am not trying to correct my posture or my breathing but am just completely settled, at home in my body, with no urge to get up. The ‘I want’ button is switched off, so I can clearly hear the noises around me. I can’t hear the dogs, but the wind’s howling in all octaves and the door’s open so it hits my face and feels like someone is breathing into me. I start to get little whispers of ‘This must mean I’m doing really well. I am so getting this right. Look at me, everyone, I’m at the top of the class.’ I catch myself doing this and, for the first time, I don’t get out the whip; I’m amused.
After a while, because my stomach is flashing for food, I go to breakfast and find that I’m not so interested in eating but instead am intentionally throwing my focus away from things close up to those far away, as if I am using binoculars. I throw my focus wide and watch the mountains, and the clouds casting light over them like a wave. During walking meditation I find I can more easily throw my focus from a leaf to the whole tree, then up to the sky and then back to a bee with its sucker sucking on a purple flower. This place is like a paradise (even though it is still cold), and I decide that if the problem with the white spots in my brain means that I lose my memory, if I can just experience getting this full-frontal hit of my senses and absorb completely what’s in front of my eyes for the rest of my life, I might be okay with it. I hope if my mind does go I remember who my friends and family are but, otherwise, this focusing on the details of things around me, without flitting off to the next thing, is perfect.
Later, I get an image that letting all these thoughts drift around me is like swimming in a lake. It can be clear and icy or a murky soup, but it has nothing to do with me: I’m not the water, I’m just the swimmer. As I swim, I can just look around, not searching for problems like dead coral reefs or a shark. I can just enjoy myself in it.
The dogs bark again tonight, I love the sound and wonder where they are. When I go back to real life I’m going to have to find my old personality and somehow put it on again.
This morning I go to my chair as if it is a long-lost friend that I want to sit on for ever. I have that tingly feeling again and am so grateful that I have no pain anywhere in my body and can feel all this new energy. Hurrah! I’m not that old. My thoughts are quieter than usual, and when they do come I treat them like a parent telling her kids to go to sleep because it’s late. I feel no past or future, just this moment, listening to this stream of consciousness like I’m listening to the stream outside. I go to breakfast here for the last time and notice some of the people, and drift right back to judging them.
The Buddha guy is still in a trance with his eyes closed, smelling his porridge, and I think, ‘What a wanker,’ but I figure that’s part of who I am. I don’t have to tell him he’s a wanker; I can just think it. A few of us just sit and look out of the window like there’s a big, box-office blockbuster showing there. We’re all entranced by a black-and-white bird that has just landed, the tractor in the distance and the sheep that keep moving (I never notice them doing it, but they’re always in a new spot). It’s amazing; I can tell that no one wants to be anywhere else but here, watching. I take one last digestive but only eat half because I have to go outside to smell that rose … it’s dead, but I’m just checking. I say good-bye to the dogs that I never met. I don’t want all this to end … but it will and does … everything does.
(In case some of you out there are wondering what the abnormalities on my brain were, I had to have another brain scan in London when I got back and was told by a neurologist that what I had was not of any relevance. So it all ended happily … or as happy as we can get.)
On this last day I returned to Bangor University, where Dr Dusana Dorjee performed the EEG test on me again. Dr Dusana is a very brilliant academic and neuroscientist; I’m going to give you my humble translation of her research, which you’ll find in the appendices at the back of this book.
This experiment was looking at the evidence of the effects of mindfulness on the self-regulation of emotions. Before the retreat, when I was shown the negative photos, for example, the plane crash, a destitute child, someone at gunpoint, I reacted with a high emotional response. I didn’t feel it, but the EEG picks up the electrical activation of the neurons, so it shows what I’m not aware of. The heightened reaction (shown in the black bar in the chart on p. 237) reflects an amygdala hijack with the cascades of cortisol and adrenaline that accompany it. This reaction happened in spite of the fact that, at the time, I was asked to send my attention to my breathing. After the retreat, when shown the same negative pictures while again focusing on my breath, the results indicated that I was hardly emotionally affected at all and therefore had successfully self-regulated my responses.
Dr Dusana said that, in order for this type of experiment to have been completely valid, it would have had to involve a greater number of people, along with a control group.
I phoned Mark Williams (co-founder of MBCT) with news of the positive results and told him, to his amusement, that, had they found that mindfulness had no effect on me, I would have demanded my money back from Oxford and, as he was my professor, it wouldn’t have looked good for him. I’d think, ‘All those hours of practice, and for what? I could have been learning salsa.’
There are people who say that a scan doesn’t really reveal how we feel subjectively and that all this neuroscientific experimentation tells us nothing about how we really think; your scan could show abnormalities, while you feel great.
Willem Kuyken (Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford and Director of the Oxford University mindfulness centre) writes that ‘the neuroscience of mindfulness is promising (in so far as it shows benefits for clinical disorders and generating healthier minds) but it’s still in its infancy. Though brain scanning is an incredible technology right now, it’s like looking at the galaxy through a limited telescope.’ Whether you agree or not, irrespective of the results, I feel different in my body and in my mind. I don’t think you can write a book like this and not be affected by being so immersed in this practice.
I feel a little sad that I’m no longer so gripped by the persona I worked so hard to create. It got me through. In the past, I could fool myself into thinking what I was doing or who I was doing it with was important to my life. I feel now like I’ve busted myself; I see my motivations much more clearly. Sometimes, for example, I was using people to distract me from feeling so false and pointless.
I still have the same hot emotional triggers – I don’t think they ever go – but they’re much fainter; I can watch them coming down the pipeline and remember that they’re just triggers, not facts.
I don’t know if or when I’ll have another depression, but I don’t live in fear of it, so I’m reducing my medication with the condition that, if I’m not in the percentage of people who can successfully come off them, I won’t think it’s because I’m a failure. I’ve lost my fear of being alone. I like being alone these days and listening into my thoughts rather than running from them by being eternally busy. My thoughts aren’t as bad as I thought; sometimes they’re actually fun to be around. So yes, all this changed me. For now, I can’t predict what happens next but, in this moment, I feel awake.