Try a little peace
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction makes its way to southern New Mexico
By Mike Cook
The Las Cruces Bulletin
If you suffer from chronic pain, depression, anxiety, fear or a host of other long-term physical and emotional ills, there’s a program right here in Las Cruces that may be able to help you to help yourself.
It’s not a magic elixir or a mystical incantation or some new-fangled religion, and it’s not expensive. It does, however, involve a personal commitment and some of your time. It’s a program created more than 35 years ago called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and until recently the only MBSR teacher in the area was in Albuquerque – there wasn’t even one in El Paso.
Gerri January, who works part-time as a nurse at Mesilla Valley Hospice, changed all that when she trained as an MBSR teacher and offered her first eight-week course at the hospice this past summer. The course included seven, two-hour evening classes and one seven- hour retreat on a Saturday.
January held a one-time MBSR workshop in June and then, based on the interest of those attending – including me – she offered the full course. As soon as I met January, I knew I would be interested in whatever she was teaching. She has a presence and calmness – an energy, I think you could say – to which I was immediately drawn.
January took the MBSR course five years ago, driving to and from Albuquerque one night a week for two months.
“I was having difficulty with a lot of negative thinking,” she said. “I had tried different things to rid myself of it, but, despite my efforts, it continued to plague me.”
January read about MBSR and decided to give it a shot.
“Nobody was going to say I didn’t try everything,” she said.
After the third class in Albuquerque, January said she could “see where it worked for me. I started to feel some relief.”
In the years since taking the course, January said she has fewer negative thoughts and “the anxiety doesn’t capture me in the same way it used to.”
She doesn’t mean everything is perfect or she never has feelings of anxiety or negativity. However, it does mean she now knows how to deal with them.
“That’s what sold me on it,” January said. “With practice, you get better at it. It becomes a lifestyle.
“(MBSR) helps you be in the moment … (to) pay attention to how your body is responding to a difficult situation. You can recognize the feelings for what they are and choose how you want to respond instead of just being reactive. You come to know yourself better.”
You can learn more about MBSR at www. mindfullivingprograms. com/whatMBSR.php.
The program was developed by Dr. Jon Kabat- Zinn, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Kabat-Zinn is a long-term meditation and yoga practitioner. His physician colleagues were complaining about how difficult it was to effectively manage the care of people with chronic pain.
He began looking for ways to help these patients cope with that pain. He had very positive results by linking mindfulness with simple yoga positions, January said.
And so, MBSR was born. Many hundreds of medical centers now use MBSR to help their patients and it has practitioners the world over.
This is from the website: “Mindfulness practice is ideal for cultivating greater awareness of the unity of mind and body, as well as of the ways the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can undermine emotional, physical, and spiritual health. The mind is known to be a factor in stress and stress-related disorders, and meditation has been shown to positively affect a range of autonomic physiological processes, such as lowering blood pressure and reducing overall arousal and emotional reactivity. In addition to mindfulness
practices, MBSR uses yoga to help reverse the prevalence of disuse atrophy from our culture’s largely sedentary lifestyle, especially for those with pain and chronic illnesses.”
If you are worried about doing the yoga, don’t be. Some of it was hard for me to do. However, there are yoga practices you can do sitting in a chair.
“Do what you can,” January said. “There are ways to adapt it.”
The point of MBSR, put simply, is to be present with whatever you are experiencing at the moment. You can practice mindfulness not only in meditation – allowing your thoughts and whatever you are feeling to be there and then bringing your awareness back to your breathing – but also when you are brushing your teeth, taking a shower, walking to your vehicle, eating or doing any of the hundreds of other things we each do every day.
MBSR also includes a body scan practice.
“The intention is to bring us into a more aware relationship of our body and its responses,” January said. “It is a practice that gives us both emotional cues as well as awareness of the changing nature of pain or discomfort. With continued practice, MBSR helps change our relationship to pain itself and is successfully used in combination with good medical intervention.
“ It terms of managing anxiety or depression, you learn to approach these conditions with increased awareness and decreased reactivity. This too is a practice best done in collaboration with good therapy. An offshoot of MBSR is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which has been shown to be effective in preventing the relapse of depression.”
Personally, MBSR is a means to keep me less focused on the future and the past – fearing what may happen that I have no control over and regretting what has already happened, what I’ve done and what others have done that I can’t change and may have a hard time forgiving.
“We’re driven to pay attention to the future,” January said. “There’s a place for that. But you have to be able to enjoy the moment that you’re living as well.”
“When we hold on to old angers and disappointments, it keeps them happening,” January said, when we were talking about forgiveness. Practicing loving kindness, which is a tenant of MBSR, can help release these old patterns. And even if you don’t feel it at the start, awareness and practice can have profound results. Just being aware of my lack of forgiveness and the realization that it doesn’t really hurt anyone but me has helped me. And I think I’ve come to realize that the first step is forgiving myself, which may be the biggest hurdle of all.
This summer’s MBSR course was the first one January has taught.
“It was quite an undertaking,” she said. “I spent hours putting it together.”
And, for her and her students (including me), it was “a mutual learning process,” she said.
January paid about $300 for the MBSR course she took in Albuquerque five years ago. However, with the support of Mesilla Valley Hospice, she offered the class to us this summer for $21. The cost included a notebook and a CD with four guided meditations. You can also find meditations on the website and on YouTube.
January may be offering the course again in the spring of 2016. The details are yet to be determined, but she said if it is offered again at the hospice, the cost will again be $21 per person. Mesilla Valley Hospice is located at 299 Montana Ave.
If you are interested in taking the class, contact January at firstname.lastname@example.org. She can also make presentations about MBSR at local businesses and organizations to help people learn about its benefits.
“Be in the moment for as many moments as you’re able,” January said. “Allow yourself to have that experience.”