Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas: “Stillness: Bells and watches”

NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Stillness” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.

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Stillness: Bells and watches

Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder

At a meditation retreat I attended years ago, I was introduced to the concept of the Mindfulness Bell. At apparently random times throughout each day, a monk or nun would sound a bell, and we all had to halt what we were doing and take three slow, deep, abdominal breaths. We stopped in mid-sentence, mid-stride, mid-chew, as if we were in an enormous game of freeze tag.

At first I found this annoying: I was in the midst of spiritual evolution, damn it. Stop interrupting me! But before the retreat came to an end, I learned to value and to embrace these “interruptions.”

In my first counseling internship a few months later, I worked with a young college student whose list of mental health and life problems was long and troubling. She heavily abused alcohol, moved from one destructive relationship to another, was grieving her parents’ ugly divorce and her own traumatizing childhood, and was coming to grips with her father’s alcoholism. Also, because she had no financial support, she worked long hours at a restaurant where drinking and drugging on the job was the norm. She was depressed, angry, anxious, lonely, and uncertain of her future.

Her tendency was to bring up as many as 10 problems in any given session, and to comment critically on nearly every therapeutic intervention I tried. She often spoke negatively of her four previous therapists, and I realized I was on the road to becoming idiot therapist number five. In a moment of new-therapist desperation, I handed her my watch at the start of a session and asked her to be still for one full minute. Only after the second hand completed its appointed round could she begin the session.

What ensued was very different. She spoke more slowly, stayed with one topic, and dug deeper. We were, we both realized, actually doing therapy! After that, we started each session with my handing her my watch. A couple of weeks later, she brought her own watch. A few weeks after that, she didn’t need it.

To replicate the watch effect in her outside life, I taught her the three-breath-meditation I had learned at the retreat, instructing her to treat any bell, beep, or other sharp sound she happened to hear as if it were the Mindfulness Bell.

Over the next few months, we worked through many of her issues. By year’s end, she had quit her waitress job, stopped using drugs and alcohol, was starting to set better boundaries with her parents, and was finding other adults to mentor her. She was back on track academically and exploring new veins of artistic creativity.

In our parting session, I asked her what, of all we had done together, had been helpful. I was expecting, I suppose, to be thanked for my brilliant insights and clever use of the Gestalt and Solution-Focused therapeutic techniques I had been trying out, and I had prepared myself to deliver a falsely modest, “Oh, I just helped a little. You did the work.” So I was surprised when she replied, “That thing with the watch. And the meditation thing. That’s what really helped me.”

Learning to be still in the midst of the chaos of her life had permitted her to re-evaluate her choices. Each time she paused for three slow breaths, she had a chance to feel her feelings, check in with her intuition, and rethink what she was about to do. Stopped at a street corner on the way to work, hearing the Mindfulness Bell of a car horn, she could think, “I don’t really want to waste my time partying tonight.” On the first ring of her cell phone, about to leave for a bar, she could see how the evening would play out and decide, “Not this time.” Hearing the “bell” of a fire engine siren in the midst of pangs of guilt about her past, she could choose to forgive herself.

When the school year came to an end, along with my internship, she asked if she could continue to see me as her therapist. My supervisor had no objections, so I sublet an office in neighboring Brookline on Sunday afternoons, where she – and, eventually, several of her friends and their friends –  became my first private clients.

I continue to suggest to clients practices that create stillness and also to use them myself. When I step into my office, I stop for a moment and imagine myself putting on an invisible jacket worn only by my best self. Brief meditations throughout the day help me shift gears between clients, return to center when I’m knocked around emotionally, and reinhabit that best self. I recommend ways for clients to find stillness, even if only for a minute, so they, too, can interrupt their habitual thoughts, feelings, and actions, and consider other options.

In some ways, the brief stillnesses that happen throughout the day, in media res, seems more powerful than daily sitting meditation. They are meditations with eyes wide open, fully in the world, yet at the same time rooted, and each provides a touchstone wherever we are, whatever we are doing.

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