Posted by: Banta | January 26, 2014

The Humble Raisin

mindfulnessLast week I attended a workshop on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, led by Scott MacGregor, an Asheville psychotherapist and educator who trained with Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn and other icons in the MBSR field. It was a lunch-and-learn event sponsored by the local chapter of my social work professional organization. I wanted to network and collect a couple of required continuing education credits, so I signed up. Beyond that, registering for this workshop was not a particularly mindful act.

In fact, I had the hubris to assume I already knew what Scott was going to say. After all, I’ve read the works of Kabat-Zinn and Susan Salzberg, Sylvia Boorstein, Shunryu Suzuki, Ram Dass, Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh. Many of their books are dog-eared from repeat visits. I use mindfulness in my therapy work. I have a sort-of-regular meditation practice. Okay, full disclosure: I used to have a daily practice, and after a lapse of a year or so, I am struggling to reinstate the habit into my mornings. Some days I sit on the cushion for ten or fifteen minutes, some days not at all. So it would be safe to say that, when I walked into the workshop, I was more of an unreliably mindful, often distracted attendee.

Scott began by bringing us into the present moment. He dropped a tennis ball from shoulder height into his lower hand, and invited us to “drop in” to our bodies, to our surroundings. He asked us to be open to don’t-know mind, to be curious, non-judgmental, to “pay attention on purpose.” And he put two raisins on the table in front of each person in the room.

Raisins

Raisins. Just two. Look but don’t touch for now. First, he laid the groundwork. As a vast body of scientific evidence demonstrates, mind and body are connected in reciprocal ways. Simply put, anger and resentment, negativity and self-criticism, contribute to physical symptoms and illness. Conversely, positive thoughts, compassion for self and others, gratitude and appreciation, strengthen the immune system and fuel the body’s health and wellness. In measureable ways, from moment to moment, we each have the capacity to participate in our own stress or in our own well-being.

For most of us, the greatest sources of stress arise from things we cannot control, situations that are unpredictable, or times of rapid change. When the stressors are chronic, we risk getting hooked on our own negative stories: “I’ll never make enough, be enough, meet the deadline, have a partner who loves me, get out of this hole.” Round and round we go, and as the stories persist, our bodies pay the price – in chronic illness, eating disorders, substance abuse, depression, anxiety.

Mindfulness can change things in profound ways. Becoming mindful breaks the toxic pattern, opens us to a new, more positive narrative. We start, every time, by dropping into the present moment. Right here, right now. Whatever the moment holds, meet it with kindness, generosity, compassion, forgiveness. Be as close as the next breath to your own experience. Without flinching, without turning away. Meet the moment head on, or more accurately, heart on. Ask yourself, “When was the last time I was this fully present to someone I love? When was the last time I really tasted a meal? When was the last time I completely occupied my own body, on a hike, in the shower, during love-making?”

When was the last time you brought your full attention to a raisin? A humble raisin. Here we go. Pick up one of the raisins. Look at it carefully. What words would you use to describe it? Wrinkled, scarred, ridged. How does it feel? Squishy, sticky, rough, uneven. What does it smell like? Musty, sweet, like earth. Can you hear anything? (When I described this sensory exercise to my husband, he said he “heard” the Raisin Bran commercial…go figure.) Now bring the raisin toward your mouth. If you’ve ever watched a nine month old baby in a high chair, you know that the ability to feed ourselves is an act of extraordinary coordination. The raisin is close to your mouth now. Are you aware of salivating in anticipation?

Put the raisin in your mouth but don’t eat it just yet. Roll it around on your tongue first. Are you aware of any taste? Go ahead, take a tiny bite. Now describe the taste. Did you get a burst of flavor? Take your time chewing the raisin and pay attention to what is happening in your mouth. Swallow and follow the raisin’s path with your awareness.

The second raisin is for you to experience on your own, one sense at a time. Take as long as you need.

I invite you consider what just happened. Ask yourself, “So what?” and “Now what?” When Scott asked these questions at the workshop, dozens of hands went up. The synopsis went something like this. Time slowed way down. Those moments seemed to stretch and expand. It was like meeting a raisin for the first time. I had no idea something as small and ordinary as a raisin could hold such a rich experience. If I ate every morsel of food with as much awareness as I ate that one raisin, I would be fully satisfied after three or four bites. I felt so calm and peaceful. If this is what being mindful looks like, I want more of it.

Extraordinary lessons from the likes of a humble raisin. Mindful awareness is indeed within your control. When you bring your full and undivided attention to a loved one, a meal, a walk, a piece of music, a task at work, a sunset – you give your mind and body the opportunity to work in harmony. The practice of mindfulness has the power to reduce your stress level, strengthen your immune system, and shape your brain in positive ways. The more you practice, the more control you have around where you rest your attention and how steadily you maintain your focus.

Mindfulness teachers often suggest you begin with the breath. Take two or three minutes now. Close your eyes and bring your full awareness to your breath. Let the body breathe itself; it knows how to do this very well. No pressure. Simply in. And out. In and out. Notice the sensations in your body as the breath moves from your belly up to your collarbone. Notice what a long, slow exhale feels like. Just follow the flow. When your mind clutters itself with thought, as it likely will do, notice the thoughts but let them go. Come back to the breath.

Watch what happens as you develop a mindfulness practice, over days and weeks. Bit by bit, you are able to be with your experience – whatever it is – without being swept up in old, familiar emotional storms. Bit by bit, the negative emotions and  experiences carry less weight. You hold them more lightly and for shorter periods of time. You take things less personally.You become more emotionally resilient. Bit by bit, you grow in self-awareness and compassion. Your capacity to absorb and savor positive emotions and experiences increases by leaps and bounds. Less stress, more peace. Why not take this moment, this present moment, and begin?


Responses

  1. Thank you, Banta. I am having to re-learn and re-vision rituals that used to come more easily to me.

  2. I”m so pleased to be introduced to your blog. Less stress, more peace…beginning now:) Thank you!


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