I do not receive any compensation for the link in this post to take you to the book I recommend. It is there simply for your convenience.
Years ago I was reading the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey in yet another attempt to fix myself with a self help book. As I was reading one day I came across this passage, “Between stimulus and response is our greatest power–the freedom to choose.” As I read that statement I knew that was the key, I needed to work on making space between the stimulus and the response so I could choose how to act. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t create that space.
With bipolar disorder it is nearly impossible to discipline your brain. When you’re in a manic or depressed state your mind is bombarded by a tsunami of intrusive thoughts and overwhelming emotions that all feel very real. This, coupled with the exhilaration of mania or the exhaustion of depression make attempts to take control of what is going on in your own mind feel useless and futile. As long as my illness was in control of my brain, I felt like I was in bondage to bipolar disorder, and I felt hopeless.
The first glimmer of hope was when I finally found the supplements that I take that balance out the chemicals in my brain (see my post Bipolar Disorder: When Medication Doesn’t Work). That made it possible to create the space, because the chemicals were finally in balance. The next step was getting into counseling to get help identifying unhealthy thought patterns and habits that I needed to change (see my post Bipolar Disorder: Why Counseling is Essential).
Now I needed to learn how to create that space between stimulus and response so that I could choose for myself how I wanted to think, act, and live. This is where I learned the value of mindfulness meditation in taking responsibility for my life.
My Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation
The first exposure I had to the practice of mindfulness was around 2006 when one of my sisters was getting her masters degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. She recommended a guided meditation cd by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I bought the cd, listened to it for a few minutes, and thought, “what kind of hippy, dippy stuff is this?” I put the cd back in its case and didn’t look at it again for several years.
In 2013, when I was pregnant with my third baby, a friend of mine recommended that I try hypnobirthing. I really wanted to have a natural birth and I was very open to her recommendation. Hypnobirthing is a form of mindfulness practice, and the birth was such an amazing experience that I wanted to have another baby just so I could do it again (my husband said no, we’re done).
In 2014 my mom told me that she and my stepfather had started practicing mindfulness meditation to help with some health issues. They were using the same guided meditation cds that my sister had recommended. Because of my experience with hypnobirthing I was more open to it. This time I bought Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living to try to understand the science behind the practice.
I only made it through two chapters of the book and three weeks of sporadic practice before I gave it up. The practices were so long that even though I could see the benefits of the practice, I was really having a hard time consistently finding 45 minutes a day to dedicate to it. The book was also difficult for me to read because it was 499 pages long and way more information that I wanted or needed.
A Simple Program That Works
Then in 2016 a childhood friend of mine posted on Facebook about his struggle with anxiety and depression and how much mindfulness meditation had helped him. He referenced a book I hadn’t heard of, Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, both of whom had studied or worked with Jon Kabat-Zinn. I got the book and decided to try again. This book was so easy to read and understand and the practices were shorter.
I had a few false starts with this program. I struggled with consistency and prioritizing the time for practice. Little by little, though, I was starting to learn the tremendous value of mindfulness meditation. As I began to read and practice consistently I finally started to see why this was so essential to my healing.
Why You Need Mindfulness
Often when you have a thought or experience, your mind tries to decide how to engage with it by going through its “files” of experience and pulling up every possible scenario in the past it thinks is related, and every possible outcome that could result from the present situation. It does all of this–without you realizing it–to tell you how you should feel, think and act in response.
When you live with bipolar disorder this scenario is amplified because you have ceded control of your mind already. It doesn’t even occur to you that this process takes place, let alone that you could change it. You have learned to believe that you are a victim and that your mind has a mind of it’s own–you’re just along for the ride.
This is a terrible way to live, and I have learned that it is not necessary. You can take responsibility for your thought processes, and mindfulness meditation teaches you how your mind works and how to change it effectively so that you can regain ownership of your mind.
Learning to Exercise Your Mental Muscles
This process takes time, like beginning an exercise program when you are totally out of shape. The way this program is set up reminds me of a couch to 5k running program. It is designed to slowly retrain your mind and help you exercise your mental muscles. The book is so simply written and straight forward.
Each week you read a chapter that teaches you a new principle and then there are guided meditation practices to teach your mind that principle. Just as with exercise, consistency is the key. And you have to make it a priority, which means making the time in your day to do the mediation practices for that week. The amazing thing is that the small amount of time that you dedicate to the practice doesn’t feel like a sacrifice once you start to experience the benefits.
I have experienced tremendous benefits in my life as I have consistently practiced mindfulness meditation. I am more consciously aware of the thoughts I have entering my brain, and instead of letting them run away from me and take over, I decide what I want to do with those thoughts. I am so much more effective and efficient with my time and more focused in my mind. I have more time for the things that really matter to me.
Best of all I have much healthier emotional responses to things. Because I don’t let my mind run away from me, I decide what I want to do with thoughts that used to get me worked up emotionally. It really is wonderful to not feel like a victim to an out of control mind anymore.
Meditation Practice, the Key to a Balanced, Healthy Day
My meditation time is an essential part of the beginning of my day now, helping me to remind my brain who’s in charge. It is also the way I calm my mind at the end of the day so I can have a restful night’s sleep. I have also learned how to use my breathing to recenter myself when I am in a stressful situation so that I am able to handle stress in a healthy way.
I heard a saying once that I now understand in the context of mindfulness,
“If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” -Lao Tzu
Mindfulness teaches you how to live in the present so that you don’t get swept up in the current of your thoughts and lose control of your mind and your emotions. As Covey said, “Between stimulus and response is our greatest power–the freedom to choose.” Mindfulness teaches you how to create that space between stimulus and response so that you can have that freedom to choose. It is the next essential step on the path to wellness.