How a raisin can change your view on stress

Following on from my blog entry of October 16th, I have now had my first session of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. It was in a corky old house in Rye, New York, and sitting in this room with 10 complete strangers it felt a little awkward and, for a moment, I contemplated leaving to spend some time playing with my 8-year old daughter instead.

Laurence, the instructor, jumped into this thought when she started the session by encouraging us to think about why we were there. I remembered that, not only was I there as I have made a firm commitment with myself to live life fully and to not let stress (or the fear of its consequences) interfere with my aspirations, but also to add new skills to my toolkit that I can utilize with my clients (many of whom are stressed!). So, as promised, I’ll share some of what I learned with you…

The Raisin Exercise

Laurence got up and handed us an object which we had to experience ‘consciously’, pretending we had no previous experience with it and looking at it with the eyes of a child who had never seen it before (it was a shriveled up raisin and, of course, my mind began to wander, thinking of the shriveled up skin of an old person who has spent to much time in the sun… Remember the old lady in ‘Something about Mary’?).

We spend the next 10 minutes exploring the ‘object’, staring at the raisin in our palms, bringing awareness to how it looked to the eye, its folds in the skin, the reflections from it, the different shades of maroon.  I noticed how it felt to the touch, the sensation of it lightly resting in my hand. Then, holding it up to my nose, I sensed its smell: musty and slightly sweet.  I tuned in to the sensation when I placed it in my mouth, noticed how saliva was building up and an urge to chew developed. The taste, once I bit and swallowed it, was more aromatic than I had remembered.

It was unbelievable how, once you focus on these different sensations, a simple raisin can take on entirely different dimensions and become a ‘new’ experience. If other thoughts appeared then Laurence encouraged us to gently but firmly bring our mind back to the here and now. In this case back to the raisin sitting on my palm.

So what about the raisin?

The goal of this exercise was to introduce participants to the concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness practice, inherited from the Buddhist tradition, is increasingly employed in Western psychology to alleviate a variety of mental and physical conditions, including stress and anxiety. Jon Kabat-Zinn has defined mindfulness as ‘moment to moment non-judgmental awareness’, creating a greater awareness of the body’s functions, feelings, content of consciousness, or consciousness itself. Scientifically demonstrated benefits of mindfulness practice include an increase in the body’s ability to heal, plus bringing awareness to what is happening in the ‘now’ tends to reduce stress, as stress is often triggered by worrying about past or future events.

Mindfulness practice can also result in a neurological shift from a tendency to use the right prefrontal cortex, to a tendency to use the left prefrontal cortex – associated with a trend away from depression and anxiety and towards happiness, relaxation, and emotional balance. No wonder the number of followers is steadily increasing!  In fact a 2007 study by the U.S. government found that almost 10% of U.S. adults (over 20 million) have used meditation.

As with anything potentially life changing, to introduce mindfulness into your life takes practice. So our homework was to choose one activity we routinely do on a daily basis, and to bring awareness to it. It may be having a meal by yourself, brushing your teeth, or sitting at your computer. So now I am having a sip of coffee and being truly mindful of it… And the experience is heavenly. So, what would you do?

Next time I’ll talk about Lying Meditation- based on the Vipassana Body scan.