The word ‘mindfulness’ appeared in my life in college during a work-study job. My position was at a clinic run by Harvard Medical School doctors who ran the section on Behavioral Medicine at the New England Deaconess Hospital. During my freshman year, I had the chance to hear the Dali Lama speak when he was honored at a symposium organized by this outfit. During my work days, I saw women enduring infertility issues, HIV and cancer patients, insomniacs, and others attend the clinic with the common goal of learning to control their bodies with their minds. They did this in order to combat or endure illness, to conceive or even just to relax through meditation. This was all new to me. The research and results were recorded, the data proved the correlation between general relaxation and a positive physical response, even in the face of terminal illness.
You would have thought I would take away something profound from this job, this prolific exposure. Instead, all I can claim to have learned was to type grants on a clunky word processor at breakneck speed, interpreting them as best as possible from Ph.D. chicken scratch. Grant funding was the oil that kept the machine running.
I was offered free access to any, and all, of the meditation groups (which included one for general relaxation) but hadn’t yet realized that I am and have always been writhe with anxiety. I was hard-wired to worry and that this was the perfect antidote. It was so ingrained and I was so unaware that it took decades to recognize what it was. At age 18 I considered the fact that I had lain awake fraught with all shades of worry ever since I could remember remembering. Despite this consideration, I was still unable to realize that my suffering had a name, and its name was anxiety. I wasn’t yet able to unglue my core for self-examination. It was never even a consideration. Alas, no life lesson on meditation. Yet. After all, this was 1990 and yoga and meditation weren’t the ubiquitous duo they are today. I would even say, they were cutting edge, hadn’t yet entered mainstream America’s conscious reality. Green juices, athleisure wear, Whole Foods, Whole 30, farm to table, sugar as poison, fat as healthy – such concepts would have taken an interlude with Marty McFly and Doc Brown catapulting me forward in time to ascertain as truths. Today it sounds crude to admit that I didn’t consider working on myself and my mind via the methods that arrived so fortuitously with that work-study position. I lived a rigid life then, with self imposed blocks of time for study, exercise, work, more exercise – not mindful exercise with goals, rather, rat-on-a-treadmill running in place to burn up stress, club beats playing on a Sony Walkman- from a mixed tape made by a friend at Bowdoin, sent through the U.S. mail! Another era, right? I controlled the anxiety, unknowingly, by controlling my life, or so I thought. Eventually I broke the chains, but that’s another story to tell.
Years later, I understood that anxiety had been omnipresent in my life, taking on an out-sized role, in fact. With awareness, came change. Once I could name it, I learned to quell it with mindfulness, not through sitting meditation and yoga which I have tried, rather through my experience in sports.
Motion has forever been king for my body: running, dancing, swimming, biking, team sports, competition, and endorphins. Today, I’m on a competitive tennis team. I also swim, focusing on improving technique and endurance with the goal of competition in either the pool or open water. Group training and one-on-one coached training sessions are a delight, really. Slowly, I began to notice that a new thing – a new place – emerged through physical work that was transferable to regular life. I learned to use razor beam focus during these sessions on the court or in the water – and when I’m done – I have to remind myself what day it is or where I have to go next. Seriously! I mentally immerse myself in a zone and can feel when I step out of it. Surely it’s microseconds in time, the walking from one thing to the other, a shift of the mind as it occurs, a “coming to” that gets me back to reality. Training my body has taught me an awareness of the immediate…mindfulness. In other words, how to train my mind.
Aside from sports, this translates quite evenly to being aware of the task at hand. When my mind isn’t racing to the past, future, the what ifs and the things that could go wrong, it’s sitting in the present. The anxiety beast retreats. I’m not saying that I don’t have moments when I need to work (hard) to remind myself how to get back to that balanced place. I’m training my mind to calm down with the same mental awareness that I train muscle groups to perform. I finally get what works for me. I’m no monk. But being aware of this moment has made those other moments stop racing back and forth and up and down in my mind and just shut the F up.
I wasn’t ready for mindfulness the first time it entered my life when I was in a room listening to the Dali Lama, weirdly enough. It took the USTA (United States Tennis Association) and some crazy triathletes to show me the way.