If you find yourself too often vibrating with emotions like the driver in Bob Aul’s drawing above, you’re overworking that tiny almond-shaped monster in your brain called the amygdala, which rings the alarm bell as loud as hell probably sounds. Whether it’s rage or anxiety or some other demon of fear, those fierce reactions are supposed to be reserved for emergencies, not the daily commute—or daily life. People may bombard you with lame-ass advice such as “Calm down,” “Get over it,” “Pull yourself together,” or “Make America Great Again.” Except they never say how. (Or maybe you’ve resisted finding out because you harbor the erroneous notion that all that angst is what makes you edgy?)
But if you are ready to raise that little triangular flag of surrender, here’s a stress-management program you might try that doesn’t reek of religion or new-age blather: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Have you ever heard, somewhere in your brain way down below the clatter and backfiring of your runaway thoughts, a calm voice saying something like, “Yeow. I am freaking the fuck out”? That awareness is what the MBSR course helps you cultivate. It’s already in there; all you have to do is learn how to make it part of the way you roll.
MBSR originator Jon Kabat-Zinn created the Stress Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School around 1980. Physicians referred patients there, often because there was nothing else medical science could do for them. Heart attack survivors who wanted to avoid a second one; people with high blood pressure or auto-immune diseases or chronic pain or unrelenting insomnia or cancer all benefitted. MBSR classes are taught locally at the Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine, part of UCI’s medical school, in its brand-new location on Bristol Street near the 55 freeway. No one here will try to guru you. The teachers are longtime health pros (an ER doctor, a pain management specialist, a physician’s assistant), who’ve all trained with Kabat-Zinn.
The courses meet once a week for eight weeks, two hours per class, with a daylong Saturday retreat around the 7th week. But you practice every day, whether you feel like it or not. Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as the awareness that arises by paying attention to each moment in a nonjudgmental way. That last bit is the trickiest part. But becoming aware when your inner critic is sounding off goes a long way toward jettisoning its sting. They teach three basic ways of training in cultivating mindfulness: one is done reclining, one sitting, one while moving and stretching. Recordings are provided, so you just follow along as best you can when you practice on your own. Over time, you may notice a relaxed wakefulness seeping into your everyday life, a kind of curiosity you can play with as you go about even the most mundane activities.
Here’s a taste: It’s my favorite of the three formal meditations, recorded by Kabat-Zinn himself: the body scan. You will need 30 uninterrupted minutes—no media of any kind!—while reclining on your bed or other comfy surface, wearing loose clothes that don’t restrict you or your breathing in any way. Enjoy falling awake. . . .
MBSR is one way to stop living your life like a full-on emergency and start loving it, all of it, every moment—the thrills, the disasters, the silliness; even the time you spend on the traffic-snarled, road-raging 405 or 57 or 5. Enjoy!
For more info on the MBSR program and to see a schedule of upcoming classes go to: www.sscim.uci.edu/Education/index.asp
Lisa Black proofreads the dead-tree edition of the Weekly, and writes culture stories for her column Paint It Black.