Falling short and reaching in: The goals and limitations of mindfulness in practice

IMG_0252.JPGI’ve written on mindfulness on this blog several times, both as a concept and as a practice. I’ve been a practitioner for only a few months, but in that time I’ve found it to be helpful in developing skills that allow me to manage my anxiety, I’ve found it has shaped my thought process when it comes to relationships and it has given me a confidence in myself that has been lacking in some areas. I’ve also discovered that it isn’t a magic solution to all of my problems, it’s not a means of escaping from my anxiety and that like many practices that can be helpful there are a few people who will exploit those seeking help. This weekend I had reason to reflect on both the limitations of my practice and on the benefits of it.

On Saturday I sent a friend last minute regrets that I’d be unable to attend a Christmas party she was hosting. I don’t like breaking the rules of etiquette in this way unless I have sufficient cause, and Saturday before the party I was having some significant anxiety issues. My initial anxiety centers around my struggles with alcohol- both my own ability to abstain as well as the judgements I fear others may make about me because of my abstention. The first one is what I’ll call a real problem, in that it’s tangible- if there is physically a fridge full of beer or a table of liquor, it is very tempting to open a bottle and drink, or, more surreptitiously, mix myself a drink that I can pass off as a soda or cup of coffee or the like. Sometimes resisting this urge is easier than others. More on that in a moment.

The second problem is less tangible, so I’ll call it an emotional problem. I fear that by abstaining from drinking in a social situation people make assumptions about me and pass judgment based on the fact. That I’m no fun. That I must have a problem and am somehow unstable and should be avoided. The things may be true, they may not be. But my mind somehow convinces itself, before observing evidence of it one way or another, that that’s the reality of the situation. There are some other social anxieties at play here as well- there were a good number of people who would be at this party who I don’t know, and meeting new people in these situations seems to give my mind permission to jump to these conclusions faster, since I have no evidence to the contrary.

Back to the temptation to drink- in a small group of family or close friends, the temptation to drink is much lower, because I know them and they know me, so I understand that they aren’t passing judgment. I am comfortable being sober around them, even if they are drinking. This was a pretty big step for me in terms of my sobriety. The problem with strangers is that not only do I think on some level that they’re passing judgment, but that I know on some level drinking would actually relieve the anxiety. I’m a much looser guy when I drink, the inhibitions I feel about making small talk evaporate. So the temptation to drink is higher because I know it will actually help with the anxiety in the moment.

In the hours leading up to the party I tried a few things to relieve the anxiety I was feeling. I mediated. I took a clonidine. I smoked a cigar. I kept telling myself not to jump to conclusions. As I was in the shower I made a deal with myself- just go for an hour, make an appearance and then you can come home. But it wasn’t working. As I was getting dressed I could feel a panic attack brewing, and so I cancelled. My friend handled it graciously and with concern for my well-being. Another friend who went to the party followed up with me this morning and had the same tone. I have some tremendous friends and consider myself very lucky to have them in my life.
I meditated again this morning to try and clear my head. Sitting there focusing on nothing but my breathing for forty-five minutes helped clear my head, allowing me to be present in the moment without thinking of the party, my anxiety, my guilt for canceling. Afterwards, eating lunch I went back through what had happened in a rational way, examining each step I took, my decision making process and what I might do differently next time.

Then this evening I was watching “60 Minutes” and they had a segment dedicated to mindfulness, which if you’re interested you can watch online. I think it was a very good overview and after watching it with my father we discussed my mindfulness practice. I shared with him how I meditate, sitting in a chair with my feet up, limiting distractions in the room and focusing on breathing. He asked if it worked, what I got out of it. I told him about the limitations and the successes. It’s not a magic bullet, as my experience leading up to the party revealed, but that it helps me process my thoughts and analyze them. Without mindfulness I might have wallowed in negative thinking about the party for days, feeling guilty for not going, mad at myself and embarrassed. Instead it allowed me to reflect on what happened, learn from the experience and move past it.

It gives me the freedom to not be a prisoner to the traps in my head.

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