When Mindfulness Meets Life
From the chair of my desk it can be all too easy to make life seem like a paper tiger when viewed through the lens of mindfulness practice. However, what happens when the real stresses of life break from their cage with real claws and teeth? Adrenaline hits the control-alt-delete switch in our frontal lobe and we run from our stresses, forgetting all the mindful lessons that we’ve learned. The inevitabilities of such a sequence can be either a tragedy or a comedy for those of us who take our mindfulness practice seriously. The intensity of dedication that it takes to wake up early so that we have time to meditate during a busy schedule is the same intensity that can lead us down the path of perfectionism. When the inevitable hiccup in our life occurs, the perfectionist can blame himself or the true practitioner can laugh and appreciate the reminder that at the end of the day we are all inescapably human.
It is with this introduction in mind that I would like to tell you a story from my life.
The human organism has evolved to take tests very seriously. After all, in the test of who could outrun the lion on the prehistoric Serengeti failure was an unappetizing option (for our ancestors that is – I’m sure the lion was stoked). Unfortunately, our bodies are still playing evolutionary catch up in a world where our streets are free from roaming lions. The biggest danger most of us face now involves navigating our daily commute, but our bodies still pump lion-level adrenaline at the slightest hint of failure.
As a medical student I take a lot of tests. Sometimes as I’m leaving one exam I feel like a character from Narnia who discovers that what I thought was an exit door to freedom really opens into another lecture hall and another exam.
For whatever reason I never get nervous before tests. It’s only after a test that the anxiety kicks in, when the 10 questions I may have gotten wrong become 12, 14, 16, and the questions I likely answered correctly disappear altogether to some dark corner of my mind.
This post-test obsessional fear is unfortunately all too common in medical school. A colleague of mine shared his experience trying to deal with this fear by participating in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The basic premise of CBT entails coming up with a list of horrible situations and then systematically acting them out. The method is a bit counterintuitive, and I’m pretty sure that’s why they can still charge for it.
My colleague, who we will refer to as ES, took a couple of fake tests in his therapist’s office. The therapist would grade them and then ES would sit opposite his therapist as she withheld the grade and ES tried to pretend the test mattered. My colleague insists that he is a terrible actor, and as such, he was an even worse method actor. Try as he might, ES couldn’t get himself into the role of the anxious test taker with these fake tests. The therapy required him to be a Daniel Day-Lewis but ES told me he was at best a Sofia Coppola a la The Godfather: Part III. After this failed venture ES worked with his therapist to create an imagined worst-case scenario that he could record and listen to. By visualizing the scenario over and over as he listened to the recording, ES would eventually tire of the anxious situation. ES recounted one of these recordings for me:
It was a cold morning when I left the lecture hall to make the walk to my car.
ES told me that it was at this point that his own voice, heard for the umpteenth time, would begin to grate like sand paper against his inner ear.
I drew up my collar to fend off a gust of November wind, thick with the foreboding of the coming winter.
ES remarked that he was not sure why he felt compelled to make these therapeutic exercises sound like a Dickens’ novel but his therapist told him to make them as detailed as possible so he obliged.
As I opened my car door and lowered myself into the driver’s seat I heard the faint hoof beats of my Worry-Stallions as they jumped the fence of sanity and thundered toward my all-too-brief post-test tranquility.
From deep within my pocket my cell phone vibrated.
“Hello?” An unknown number, never a good thing.
“Uh, yes, ES? This is your anatomy professor. I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
My heart skipped a beat, not unlike that poor guy in question 35, a forty year old ex-smoker complaining of intermittent chest pain, palpitations, and…
“ES,” my professor interrupted my thoughts, “I was watching you during that test and the way you furrowed your brow really concerned me so I took the liberty of grading your exam immediately. I’m sorry to have to tell you this but you failed.”
“I what?” I asked, feeling a little chest pain of my own.
“You failed, and I’m afraid it gets worse. I’ve contacted your mother and she’s on her way in now. I also spoke with your girlfriend, she’s leaving you by the way, but she has agreed to come too. We’re all going to meet with the Dean because as it clearly states in the student handbook, ‘Should ES, because he is a particularly undeserving student, ever fail an anatomy exam he will immediately be expelled and all his future opportunities squashed.’ “
“Are you serious?”
“Deadly, like a heart attack – incidentally, the correct answer to question 35,” the professor chuckled, “just so we’re clear: you’ll never become a doctor, we’re going to petition to strip your undergraduate degree, and we’re going to take back that bowling trophy from high school intramurals. Oh, and by the way, your loan repayment starts at the end of the month. Tootles!”
Gazing through the windshield at the empty parking lot I saw myself in twenty years living under a bridge scraping the last remnants of my maple smoked baked beans from the bottom of a dented tin can and quenching my thirst on the steady stream of my own tears.
ES ended the imagined scenario at this point because he felt that, like horror movies, a little bit of the unknown is a whole lot more scary than any creation of the special effects department.
ES told me that he would like to be able to declare that this exercise cured his anxiety surrounding exams and that he now skips in and out of tests humming a happy tune, but this is not the case. Life is a game of inches, and sometimes it can feel like centimeters. ES got a little bit better at managing his post-test anxiety and assures me that he will definitely never listen to that recording of himself again, but he’s learned that there is no magical cure for the anxieties of life. At best we can learn to laugh about them.
ES taught me that within laughter there lies a wonderful truth. Laughing at oneself requires taking a step back from one’s own mind to observe the humor in it. Worries, like horrible little narcissists, survive on one’s constant attention, and so with every laugh the worries lose a little attention and with it, their strength.
So laugh often.
Can you deal with the most vital matters by letting events take their course?
Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things?
— Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
Laozi, and Stephen Mitchell. Tao Te Ching: A New English Version. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Print.