Bob is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and has found mindfulness meditation to be an important contributor to his enhanced well-being. Dr. Forster and I invited him to share his journey towards greater mindfulness with us during a 60 minute phone interview.
As is common among many mindfulness practitioners, Bob was able to observe and vividly (and beautifully!) describe his surroundings at the time of the phone interview. He described sitting on a dock looking out onto a lovely bay, relaxed by the sound of the gentle waves lapping against the shore beneath him. He commented that it felt like the perfect place to take time to ponder and describe his experience with mindfulness.
Dr. Forster: I remember first discussing supplementing your treatment with mindfulness at one of our first appointments in 2006. What were your thoughts about that at the time…did you have any doubts? What was your understanding of mindfulness?
Bob: No, I didn’t have any doubts; I thought it was a really good idea. I picked up a copy of John Kabat-Zinn’s “A Mindful Way Through Depression” right away. I had some experience with Transcendental Meditation earlier in my life and was reminded of how difficult it is to quiet the mind. I liked the opportunity to practice having thoughts go through my mind, recognize them, and let them go; that made it easier to deal with them.
Dr. Schraufnagel: It seems that getting started can be the hardest part! Would you describe more about how you began your mindfulness practice?
Bob: Well, the book I bought had a CD with three guided meditations. I listened to one each day and I did that for quite some time. There became a point when I didn’t need to have the guided CD and could do it myself. But the CD was really helpful. I typically practiced for 30 and sometimes 45 minutes.
Dr. Forster: Mindfulness can be challenging for people for various reasons. What challenges did you face early on?
Bob: When you start something like this, making it a part of life is always challenging. Trying to find time in a day to dedicate to the practice was challenging. I tried to make it a routine; I succeeded to an extent, though I have yet to establish a daily practice. I like meditating in the morning. However, I also like having coffee with my wife and reading the newspaper! I want to keep working toward going to bed earlier and waking up earlier so I have more time in the morning for meditation.
I also remember wondering how exactly mindfulness was supposed to help me; it didn’t feel transformative at the time. My identification with meditation has changed since then. I am getting more out of it now and now I know that it doesn’t necessarily need to be transformative. I remember that it was easier when I wasn’t depressed. When I was not depressed, the idea of not attaching to feelings and letting them pass by seemed doable and logical. When I was depressed, however, it was more difficult to put into action. It was difficult to separate myself from the feelings of depression.
Dr. Forster: Common to many with bipolar disorder, I remember that you felt frustrated when you noticed mild depression symptoms surfacing which seemed to contribute to a more rapid and deeper depression. I saw a shift when you started mindfulness work; early signs of depression didn’t seem to affect you as much. You seemed to manage the dips in your mood, which resulted in your depressed moods being more gradual and not as severe.
Bob: Sure. I remember that feeling of “uh-oh, I feel I am about to get depressed.” My mindfulness practice helped me recognize that depression is not “the real me.” I don’t need to deny it, but it isn’t the real me. I have rarely been able, though, to prevent completely the depression.
Dr. Forster: Were there other challenges that you faced when practicing mindfulness when you were depressed or hypomanic?
Bob: I think it was actually easier when I was depressed because there were fewer things stimulating me; it was something I could do and not feel depressed about. If manic, there were more racing thoughts. I really had to practice recognizing my thoughts and feelings and letting them go.
Dr. Forster: I remember that you would forget to do it when you were manic.
Bob: I don’t know if “forget” is the right word, but the day just gets by you and all of the sudden it is late in the evening and I hadn’t done it and I wouldn’t do it.
Dr. Forster: I’m not sure if this is your experience, but it seems many people with bipolar have a very difficult time maintaining the same duration of practice during a hypomanic or manic episode. And my experience is that is when the value also goes up! I have seen even two to three minutes of mindfulness making a significant difference when someone is energized. The mindful state is so different than the rapid state present at other times.
Bob: Yeah, I think that is absolutely correct. I remember some advice to take a few minutes for a brief vacation from the mind during the day. Very good advice that I would like to follow more frequently.
Dr. Forster: How do you think mindfulness relates to relaxation? How is breath work related to mindfulness?
Bob: The guided meditations talk about focusing on your breath as a way to meditate. I don’t think mindfulness is necessarily related to relaxation. Mindfulness is something that I do. It is relaxing, but I that isn’t my goal. It seems more purposeful than just relaxing.
Dr. Schraufnagel: You mentioned that your mindfulness practice has changed over the years. How so?
Bob: It has taken on a more spiritual dimension. In the past couple of years, I have started listening to recordings by Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti, who practice in Petaluma, which were recommended by a close friend of mine (PL) who has been on a years-long spiritual quest. The recordings have offered a spiritual element and made my practice less mechanical.
Dr. Schraufnagel: Can you say more about what you mean by spiritual versus mechanical?
Bob: I had been approaching mindfulness in a linear way. This is what you are supposed to do. Do it. It was a method of doing something more than spiritual practice. As I see it, we’re made up of mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional quadrants. I always felt my spiritual quadrant was underdeveloped and I have been happy to pay more attention to this area of my life. I have felt supported in this by my wife and my good friend, PL, who has been a great role model for me.
More recently, listening to Adyashanti has made a huge difference in my meditation practice. He discusses the idea of getting rid of the “meditator.” He describes his own meditation experience and the challenges he had trying to quiet the mind. He realized that in a sense, the meditator was getting in his way. You are supposed to sit, be quiet, and watch your thoughts and let them go. Trying to get to original state of being. To be devoid of the mind. But the mind interferes! We’re taught that there is a “right way” to do it. I find the idea of getting rid of the meditator fascinating. Getting rid of the voice that tells you what to do and how to meditate.
My friend, PL, takes an hour every morning to “sit quietly.” He doesn’t call it meditation. He sits quietly and is not disturbed if thoughts work through his mind. If something passes through his mind, he may even take a couple notes. That is what I have been doing; I find it very satisfying just to sit quietly. Letting things go and not being focused on, “Okay, now I am meditating?” It feels like a break through. I sit quietly. And just let things be. I am meditating and I certainly don’t try to solve problems, but I am not focused on if I am meditating correctly.
Dr. Forster: The idea of meditating “correctly” reminds me of what I have seen in the world of yoga. The phenomenon of competitive yoga and working toward achieving the “perfect pose.” That just seems contradictory.
Bob: Exactly. My wife and I have actually just started yoga again. It is wonderful. I practiced yoga when I lived in Africa, but it has a different depth for me now. I like that I am learning yoga in conjunction with a meditative practice. I feel like a different part of life is opening up.
Dr. Schraufnagel: Where do you think your mindfulness practice will go from here?
Bob: As I said earlier, I really want to incorporate it more fully into my life. I hope to develop the discipline to practice everyday at the same time. I need to change my sleep schedule so I can wake up earlier and sit for 45 minutes before my current morning routine. If I don’t do it in the morning, I find that the day goes by and I don’t do it. I’m not sure exactly where it will go.
I feel I am entering a new stage of life. I have always been competitive and an athlete; I have played all types of sports. I am now 65 and am physically less able to play some of these impact sports with the same frequency. That was a very difficult reality for me and I continued to play frequently until I was injured two years ago. It feels less devastating to me now. Now, I am looking forward to adding swimming, which might be meditative, as well as yoga, and meditation.
Dr. Schraufnagel: How does your mindfulness practice inform your day-to-day life?
Bob: Well, Dr. Forster has recently commented that I am calmer now than he has seen me be in any of my three mood states. I agree; I feel that way too. I feel that I am in a new place. As I said, I think I have taken a more spiritual direction. I have changed the pace of my life and the pace of my thinking. I hadn’t thought of life that way. I was always competitive, successful in business…a charger. And now that pace is changing.
Dr. Forster: I am reminded of one of my favorite psychologists, Carl Rogers. He had the idea that the more one listens to and accepts her or himself, the more one can change. Listening to you today, it occurs to me that you are much more able and willing to change because you have been listening to yourself. You are being guided by what is important to you rather than what you are supposed to do.
Bob: Yes, I think that is right. I do think I am listening to myself and my “self” is putting out a different message to listen to. This is a good thing.
Dr. Schraufnagel: Thank you so much for your time and sharing your journey with us. In the spirit of mindfulness, how are you feeling in this moment?
Bob: Oh, I am feeling good. I am sitting above the water. It is a beautiful and calm day. The sun is setting. I can hear the water lapping beneath me. This conversation has been comfortable and soothing. A lot of interviews have a highly mental element. This has seemed less mentally stimulating. Much more soulfully stimulating.
Resources mentioned in this interview:
The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing yourself from Chronic Unhappiness. By: J. Mark G. Williams, John D. Teasdale, Zindel V. Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Eckhart Tolle’s Website