Some things are far beyond our control. No matter how hard we try, we just can’t see them coming. Today, I was officially inaugurated in as The Mindfulness Guy. Not by choice. Not by want. Just by fate. Had no idea that it was going to happen. I just went to the market to get a few things for dinner.
I never set out to be The Mindfulness Guy. I have set out to be many things in my life (professional tennis player, fiction writer, abstract painter, successful blogger) but everything that I have set out to become on my own terms, has failed. The things that I did not set out to become, that I became as a result of necessity, destiny or practicality (security) seem to be the things at which I succeed.
I live in a town but I prefer to call it a city. The reason why I prefer to call it a city is because no one waves here. People keep to themselves. In a town, it seems like strangers, acquaintances and friends are always waving back and forth at each other. Not here. I work as a mindfulness psychotherapist. I lead mindfulness groups. I work with individuals, couples and families in private practice where I teach them mindfulness skills. This is what I do in the city where I live.
I’m not a Buddhist. I’m not spiritual or religious. I am not very interested in matters pertaining to psychology or the neurobiological aspects of brain functioning (like most mindfulness teachers are). I have no desire to have a following (like most mindfulness teachers do). I try to work as little as possible (most mindfulness teachers seem to work all the time). I’m just a guy who enjoys practicing mindfulness and helping others to live less stress filled lives.
For at least a decade I had debilitating anxiety and panic attacks. I was depressed and angry most of the time. I was an alcoholic and habitual marijuana user. There were few things that I enjoyed more than numbing my unruly brain with substances. I was introduced to a few people who were serious mindfulness practitioners, started practicing with them regularly and in time the panic attacks, intense anxiety, depression and uncontrollable anger went away. Despite my skepticism, I was impressed that mindfulness actually worked for me. So I have stuck with it.
By no real effort of my own, it just so happens that I am able to teach others what I was taught. People can take it or leave it. This is as far as I go with my work as a mindfulness teacher. I don’t read much about mindfulness. I don’t go to lectures about mindfulness. I do not watch videos about mindfulness. When speaking with others I don’t refer to myself as a mindfulness teacher or psychotherapist and I prefer not to talk about mindfulness when I am not working. I just practice mindfulness because it helps me. This is why I was shocked when I was in the market looking for maple syrup (and wondering if I should buy molasses instead) and heard some lady shout: “Hey mindfulness guy, help us!”
At first I thought, “Who’s the mindfulness guy?” I looked around the market to see if I could catch a glimpse of my competition and suddenly noticed that a lady, dressed in the market’s uniform, was kneeling down above a body that was wiggling all over the floor. The strange thing was that this lady was looking directly at me.
“Hey mindfulness guy, come here please!!,” she yelled in my direction. “Who me?” I said pointing at my chest. I do not know why I was so surprised at being the one who was being summoned, but I was. “Yes, please come here NOW!” I quickly grabbed a random maple syrup off the shelf, put it in my basket and then walked over towards where the woman was kneeling down. A large group of people, all with shopping baskets hanging from their hands, gathered around the woman wiggling around on her back, on the floor. The kneeling woman who called for me was the store manager and I recognized her because she had come to a few of my mindfulness groups. She told me that the person wiggling around on the floor was having a panic attack. She asked me to use mindfulness to help settle the person down. This was a very unusual situation for me to be in.
I admit, I was slightly annoyed. When I am out in public I do not like to be bothered. I prefer to just go out, do my thing, maintain some degree of anonymity and then return home. I am not the type of person who says hello to people I recognize and then engage in brief conversation. I would rather avoid this. Why I am this way I do not know. One of my previous therapists called it anti-social behavior disorder after I had walked past her on the street one day and pretended not to see her. She knew I did. I do not see the need to label this behavior “anti-social,” I think it is just a fundamental aspect of being an introvert.
But now I had to come out of my self-created shell. I had to act like an extrovert and make conversation with a woman who was wiggling around on the floor in a state of extreme panic. The woman looked like she was in her mid-forties and I noticed that her hair was dyed purple and she had a nose ring. She was wearing a Bernie Sanders For President t-shirt and was sweating profusely, shaking, hyperventilating, stomping her feet down onto the ground and shouting out, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”
I have certainly been in this similar panicked situation myself, but never on the floor of a crowded supermarket (thankfully). I noticed that Huey Lewis And The News was playing on the store speakers and I wished someone would turn it off. “This man can help you, he’s the mindfulness guy,” the store manager said to the woman wiggling and sweating and hyperventilating all over the ground. The Mindfulness Guy? Really? Did you have to introduce me to her in this way?, I thought to myself. But there was no time for my ego right now. I had to act. I had to figure out how to teach mindfulness to someone who was in the middle of a panic attack on a supermarket floor. I decided to do a body scan.
“Oh god, oh god, I can’t breathe!,” she kept saying. “I can’t breathe!, I can’t breathe!” “Ok, ok. Everything is going to be all right. You are going to be fine, I promise you. I just need you to really try to notice the sensations that are present in your feet. Just become aware of the sensations in your feet,” I told her as I rested my hand gently on her chest. “I can’t breathe! I cant breathe!,” she kept yelling out. “Please, just pay attention to your feet. Notice the sensations in the soles of your feet. Can you feel tingling sensations? Are your feet warm or cold? Can you feel pulsations in your feet?” I asked. “I can’t fucking breathe and you want me to feel my feet!?” the lady shouted out at me. Ok, this is not working, I thought to myself.
She continued to wiggle, shake, sweat and hyperventilate. I decided to do some basic mindfulness breathing with her. “Ok, I want you to just focus on your breathing moving in and out through your nose. Just follow your breathing as it moves in and out through your nose. Don’t try to control your breathing, just let it move in through your nose and then back out again. Just follow the breath with your awareness.” As I told her this I was modeling how to do it for her and occasionally she would look at me and watch but then she suddenly said, “I can’t breathe you son of a bitch and you want me to follow my breathing! Help me! Oh god help me! I can’t breathe! I don’t want to die! Get me a doctor not this fucking mindfulness lunatic!” I couldn’t believe that this woman was shouting this at me. I was only trying to help. It was embarrassing but I had to remain calm. I could not take her insults personally. I needed to act fast before everything was lost.
I noticed that there was a large stack of Alhambra bottled waters by my side. The water was on sale. A few times in the distant past I had used the splashing cold water on your face method to calm myself down from a panic attack. I quickly grabbed a bottled water from the stack, which caused the entire stack to come falling down on to the ground. Bottled waters bouncing around everywhere. But this was a crisis situation and in a crisis no one cares much about maintaining how things look. You just need to do what you got to in order to get control of a situation. So I opened the bottled water and poured it out all over the panicked woman’s chest and face.
I could hear gasps of shock from the crowd that had gathered around as I emptied the water bottle onto the woman. They could not believe what I was doing. I knew that if this did not work I was doomed. I would be killed in a supermarket by an angry crowd who would use their shopping baskets to clobber me.
This is why I was so relieved when I noticed the woman suddenly stopped wiggling. She sat right up, looked directly at me and said, “What the fuck?! What did you do that for?!” She used her hands and shirt to wipe the water off her face. She shook out water from her drenched hair. “You son of a bitch! What did you pour water all over me for?!” The woman was so angry that she stood right up off the floor, like suddenly she had gotten all of her muscle back. I stood up along with her not sure what to do next. I was concerned that the woman would attack me since she looked enraged. All I could think to say to her was, “Can you at least breathe ok now?” And then there was a silence. All I could hear was the terrible music playing on the store speakers.
The woman’s face immediately changed. She looked around for a moment as if she was trying to figure something out. I stood there waiting for whatever was going to happen next. This is a big part of my mindfulness practice, the practice of just being comfortable with uncertainty and just allowing things to unfold naturally while keeping myself present with what is. I focused on my breathing as I noticed that the woman was realizing that her panic had gone away. Her angry face suddenly turned into a happier face and then everything turned upside down. This complete stranger threw her arms around me and gave me a very constricting hug. Now I could not breathe but all I could do was stay present with the discomfort and put my arms around her. She kept saying, ”Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you so much. You are truly the mindfulness guy. You saved my life!” I could feel her tears on my neck and thought to myself, oh shit.
The hug lasted a lot longer than I would have liked but it stopped right when the crowd suddenly started clapping. The woman let go of me, stepped backwards towards the crowd and joined them in giving me a standing ovation. I noticed some people were crying. And then something really unexpected happened. The woman, the store manager and the large crowd standing around all began chanting: ”Mindfulness Guy!!, Mindfulness Guy!!, Mindfulness Guy!!, Mindfulness Guy!!” They repeated this over and over again and I thought it would never end. I wished they would stop but I just stood there thanking them because I did not know what else to do. It felt humiliating to be the center of attention in this way but I followed my breathing, stayed aware of sensations in my body and accepted what is.
The store manager walked up and hugged me and then kissed me on the cheek. She said, “Thank you so much! I need to come to more of your mindfulness groups. Please let me know when you check out. I want to give you a 50% discount.” Thankfully the crowd gradually dispersed but suddenly there was a long line of people, still holding their shopping baskets in their hands, and now wanting to shake my hand and get a business card from me. Business had been slow lately and I thought that this could be a good way to get some new customers. I felt excited about the prospect of my business picking up again but when I reached into my pocket to grab my wallet (within which I kept my business cards) I realized I had forgotten my wallet at home. This does not look good, was the thought I had. I picked a bottled water up off the ground and drank it down.