Saturday, July 12, 2014

Fill It Up

I recently completed a 12-week Mindfulness course at the rehab.

While many people equate mindfulness with meditation, there's a lot more to it than that. My goals specifically were to improve my concentration and focus, as well as to improve emotional control. that first goal has certainly been triggered by my stroke (though I wouldn't say it was ever my strong suit). The second goal may surprise people who haven't lived with me and who I have tricked into believing I'm even tempered and mild mannered. I feel like this class has provided me with an additional set of tools and strategies; and while I know I won't do accurate justice to describing its tenets, I will do my best to explain how I think these practices are helpful to me.

Tune in, tune out, turn on 

Many mindfulness exercises do in fact begin with deep breathing (in through your nose, out through your mouth) and relaxation but ultimately come down to concentration. Many classes would begin with
a guided meditation -- some soothing, disembodied  voice on a CD, leading us into, say, a secret garden. It would then be up to us to flesh out the environment's sights, sounds, smells, and sensations, all while tuning out the ambient artifacts of the room in which we were actually sitting. Needless to say, that's not always an easy task for those with scattered brains. Eventually, we moved on to touring our own "happy places" (no, that term was never actually used). I found this especially challenging as I took myself to Alcock Tarn (a small, manmade pond -- dug and stocked with fish by Lord Alcock-- on a hill near where I lived in England). What I found most challenging about this exercise was deciding which "me" I was taking on the journey -- 1989 Kenny, who thought nothing of trudging up a steep hillside to sit beside a mirror-still lake while Royal Air Force jets performed low-fly maneuvers below him; or the 2014 Ken who probably wouldn't  be able to make it up that hill and who would think twice about even sitting on the grass, knowing the effort involved in getting up again.Ultimately, while just trying to concentrate on the pastoral scene, I was arguing with myself about who I wanted to allow myself to be. In the end, despite the distraction, I won out. Because, you know, Radical Acceptance (another key principle of mindfulness). Jamie captured it well long ago. I don't have to like where my life is -- every moment of every day -- but I do have to be okay with where I'm at now or else melt down.

As you can see, a lot of mindfulness -- for me -- is about choosing how and where to concentrate my very limited concentration and energy. Ridiculously, I've actually told my kids, "Choice is a super power." It's all part of my best-selling parenting manual -- Focus Pocus: The Magic of Getting Your Children to Pay Attention. Learning to carefully choose my battles has helped considerably with emotional control, as has learning to focus in on certain sounds (like laughter) and tune out others (like teasing). And recognizing when to simply remove myself from a situation. Another good mind-over-matter trick is to actually zero in on pain (such as at the dentist), in order to dampen the sensation. My personal spin on this is to challenge myself to smell or taste a food, simply by thinking about it. If scents can trigger memories, why not the other way around?

Shiny Objects

At work my challenges often center around "Executive functioning, " which is often affected by right-side strokes. Planning and prioritization can be a struggle, as I'm easily distracted from doing the things I should be doing by the things I want to be doing. Not that strange, but my manager and I have been working on ways to turn those should activities into "shiny objects" I'll want to tackle. Not exactly Mindfulness, but a useful strategy nonetheless.

Opposite Action

As George Costanza discovered, sometimes you should do the opposite. Opposite Action is a Mindfulness technique which has provided some nice, tangible results for me. While constant vigilance and planful movement has been a key to keeping me physically balanced and safe for the past four years, fear of falling has also held me back somewhat from certain returns to previous normalcy. As usual, it's a matter of finding a way to reasonably test boundaries. For instance, while it still would not be advisable for me to attempt to run (or even jaunt), my tricycle provides a safe way for me to exercise and satisfy whatever vague, self-propelled Need for Speed I may have. Enough so, that when presented with the proposition of a September 5K walk/run to support brain aneurysm awareness and research, I ignored the fact that I haven't walked nearly that far post-stroke, did the opposite, and signed up.

Even more basic, I'd been showering sitting down for four years, except on the odd occasion when I was someplace with a walk-in shower. Then, while at the hotel in D.C., my handicap-accessible bathroom turned out to be a tub/shower with grab bars. Faced with the options of calling to ask the front desk for a tub bench, stepping over the edge of the tub, or simply not showering before meeting with my Congressional representatives on a hot spring day, I did the opposite of what I was used to, faced my fear, took faith in the strength and balance I've recovered, and stepped into that tub so as to not stink up Capitol Hill (insert your own Republican joke here).

And, once home, considering that we have the same layout of grab bars in our bathtub, I've continued to shower standing.

The victory may be all in my mind, but I'll take it.

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