I was 17 years old when I had my first panic attack. Ironically, I was in a grade 12 psychology class. This blog is not about that, but it is about all the things that led me to decide that I wanted to be a part of bringing the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program to Winnipeg. Here is how it’s defined:
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is an approach to self-care that will help one to deal with stress, pain and illness. The techniques that are taught help people learn to focus awareness on body sensations, thoughts, and emotions in a nonjudgmental way. Through this practice, a person becomes able to explore their inner world of mind/body, recognize and mobilize their inner psychological resources and take better care of one’s self. This course is modeled on the program developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. (MBSR Ottawa)
I will never be able to tell you why I started having panic attacks as a teen, but I can tell you the many theories that were shared with me, running from wonky genetics to traumatic loss, to just about everything I was drinking and ingesting at the time. I was very lucky–I had parents with insurance, I had access to really good interventions, I was highly motivated to make these moments of terror stop, I had a library card and a very inquisitive mind. In the ensuing years of late adolescence and early adulthood, I read many books about anxiety disorders and panic and I worked with an exceptional psychologist. I did everything that was recommended, and mostly, I got better.
This blog is about the moment when I first realized that it didn’t matter why I had that panic attack, that it didn’t even matter why I had anxious thoughts at all, and that trying to find the cause and a related cure, was actually my real problem.
I had this realization when I read Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn for the first time. It was over a decade ago, and immediately challenged me to consider how it was that I was living in the world. My first introduction to MBSR felt like dipping my toe into an ocean, or finding something I did not know was lost. I was devastated that there was nowhere in Winnipeg that I and others could access the eight-week program. I felt determined to change that, if I ever found a chance.
Shortly after this, I followed my early passion and took the position of Executive Director for the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in Winnipeg. Early on in this new position, I realized that it was the perfect place to start MBSR in Winnipeg.
The first time I talked to Steven Hick, I knew I had found my teacher. As the founder of MBSR Ottawa Steven was already leading a great deal of the MBSR development happening across Ontario. What was most amazing to me about Steven was that when I called him up, told him who I was and what I wanted to do, he never once batted an eye; he was ready to go where it took him. I can’t imagine that either of us had really imagined where it would go, starting with just one public talk on MBSR that netted an audience of over 300 people.
Picking Steven up at the airport is now one of my favourite things; in the past eight years, it is something I have done ten or more times. Steven has made part of his life’s work helping us build an MBSR movement in Winnipeg, through teacher training and development. In that time, CMHA developed other partnerships with organizations like Klinic, who additionally began to offer MBSR. Klinic now has three trained teachers on staff and hosts multiple groups a year for our clients at no cost. Klinic has been a key partner in MBSR in Winnipeg, and I am pleased that my journey to Klinic has allowed me to continue to witness how this program flourishes.
Working with Steven, CMHA trained dozens of people both locally and nationally who attended teacher trainings. Winnipeg developed a unique and groundbreaking mentorship and peer support model for teachers that Steven is now using in other places across Canada. Along with CMHA, Klinic has used this process to mentor our own new teachers.
This brings me to today. It’s Friday at 4:20pm and I am at the bottom of the escalator at the James Richardson Airport waiting for Steven. Many things have changed throughout his years of visiting: he now texts me when he lands, (we thought he might never get a phone), and he no longer arrives with just his meditation cushion in tow. Seeing Steven coming down that escalator is still one of my favourite things, and I am so happy he is here once again. He is in town offering a five-day silent retreat at St. Benedict’s that many of our teachers will attend. Though I am still playing chauffeur, I am saddened that this is one of his first Winnipeg retreats that I will not be at. This time driving him to the retreat centre and visiting with him and others over dinner will be my experience.
We talk about my practice, and when I tell him the last year has been challenging, he gently encourages me back; as always, there is no judgement. As we sit down to dinner in the retreat dining hall, I am reminded of all the meals I have gotten to share with so many wonderful people here, often in silence. I remember how much this path has impacted my life. My gratitude for this person, and this place, is overwhelming.
Driving home I consider what it is that becoming a student of mindfulness has meant in my life. One of the most remarkable of those things is evident in the first sentence of this blog and the very fact that I write this at all. MBSR did not make it so I never experienced anxiety again, but it made it possible for me to stop attaching to it. I now understand that it is no different than joy grief, or the range of things that will arise for me in this life; this is just one more thing, and if it arises, like everything else, it too will eventually dissolve. This emotion, this thought, it does not own me, and it does not decide what I or anyone else should think of me.
Thank you Steven.