As a psychotherapist trained back in the radical politics of the '70s, I avoided anything that smacked of spirituality as being the opiate of the justifiably angry people. I didn't believe in calming down but in rousing people to fight for social justice. As a devout atheist, the language of meditation and mindfulness, derived from Buddhist roots, was more religious than my comfort level permitted.
But times have changed, and so have I. In these stressful, overly wired times, the language of mindfulness has crept with increasing determination into all disciplines, including mine. There is now mindfulness psychology, and there are places that offer certificates in mindfulness and compassion.
Mindfulness promises to reduce both anxiety and depression, mental health problems that LGBT disproportionately suffer from. Bullying, family rejection, and the everyday stress and stigma of living as sexual and gender minorities take an emotional toll on many LGBT people's lives. Psychiatric illness then increases the risk for other medical problems, but it's claimed that mindfulness can decrease blood pressure and increase the immune system and focus. Not surprisingly, there are more and more LGBT workshops and groups dedicated to mindfulness, like OutBreath in Ohio.
OK, OK, I'll try it. If it's good enough for the gays, the Marines and 50 Cent, it should be good enough for me. I will do it for a week. Then, if I come to see its value, I can learn how to incorporate mindfulness into my work with LGBT psychotherapy clients.
Please understand where I start. I don't sit still well or long; I've got too much to do. I have a private practice as a psychotherapist, and I am the executive director of a national nonprofit organization. I have two cats, a dog, a son, a long-distance marriage and an active New York City social life. My idea of taking it easy is Swiffering my apartment floors.
I choose to try mindfulness over meditation because the latter requires sitting and focusing on my breath. Harboring long-held fears of suffocating, I do better when I forget that I am breathing and let it take its own unconscious course. Mindfulness only requires that I pay attention to the current moment in a fully accepting way. Mindfulness will also only work for me if I can do it standing up.
The shower! I am pretty delighted with my choice. Showering is something already scheduled in every day, it is a standing activity, and it is guaranteed to be a time when I can't be on the computer or talking to anyone.
Day 1: I forget to do it.
Day 2: I forget again, but I write "shower mindfully" at the top of my to-do list, guaranteeing I will see it tomorrow morning in the hour I work at the computer before showering.
Day 3: I manage to do it! Who knew the shower is a small room with competing stimuli to attend to? I limit my attention to sounds and temperatures, alternating between noticing both. I notice that water makes a pleasant sound when it hits my body, my head or the wall or drips onto the floor. My shampoo and conditioner are both cool to my touch, something I have never noticed before. My mind wanders many times, but I bring it back to the physical sensations and sounds. I feel quiet when I get out of the shower, and I choose not to disturb it by picking up the phone when it rings. Oh, maybe this is the point of it all.
Day 4: It's too loud in there, like an untrained orchestra of water sounds. There are splats and dribbles, a water racket as it hits the ceramic wall, nothing like the jingle sound against the glass shower door. If you pay exquisite attention, there is too much to absorb. A shower is a wet chaos. Get me out of here.
Day 5: I try all day to find 10 minutes to lie still on the couch and practice mindfulness there. I keep postponing it, and it never happens. (I'm not proud of this, but I have to be honest here. I'm sure I'm not the only person who occasionally fails at an attempt to be healthier.)
Day 6: I get myself to the couch at 8 p.m., the separation of my workday from my own time. It is dark and still and... lovely. Fifteen minutes pass like lightening.
Day 7: I forget again, too buried in my work.
Here's what I've learned in my week: I was wrong to be an urban political snob. Mindfulness is not beneath me; it's way above my current skill set. I learned that I am too preoccupied with my work, and that mindfulness cannot be one more thing on my to-do list. The few moments when I achieved a modicum of stillness showed me the difference between being fully present and my constant planning/evaluating/working. I am humbled. I will keep trying.