By Sharon Gutterman, Ph.D.
My life changed thirteen years ago. Nothing drastic, but a series of life changes slowly started to erode how I felt about my life and my future. My husband retired from his medical practice. The business I had created lost its funding. I had high blood pressure and was overweight. I had friends who were sick and some had died. My children who were married with children moved away. I was anxious, scared, and didn’t sleep well at night. I had lost my sense of self and often wondered, “Who am I?”
My husband wanted to explore yoga in his retirement and I went to a class with him. The practice resonated with me. I began to read books and articles on the topic – on the psychology and the way they described the mind and the human condition. It made sense. I have a Ph.D. in medical education and taught the psycho-social side of patient care and stress reduction to the medical community for years. I was now learning that suffering is universal and the way to alleviate suffering is to deal with it skillfully and thoughtfully. Meditation was a foundational way to approach suffering – a way to start to feel better. And so I began.
I started to meditate with headphones and tapes, mostly visualizations where I would throw my troubles into a pond, for instance. I continued with my daily meditation practice for a couple of years, crying with everything that came up – things I hadn’t looked at in a long time. Eventually I read, “Full Catastrophe Living,” by Jon Kabat-Zinn and took an intensive Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Course with him and Saki Santorelli at Omega Institute. This course led me to take the MBSR teacher practicum at UMASS Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness. I continued to attend mindfulness workshops, to go on retreat, and to read. Nothing else held my attention like this topic.
Slowly, over time, I began to feel better. Small synergistic changes took place within me. I started doing things more slowly. I could hear myself breathing. I remember looking up early one evening and staring at a pink and silver sky. In autumn, the vibrant leaves captured my attention. My relationships were also beginning to change. I was talking to my son after being away on a meditation retreat. He said something, which ordinarily would have prompted me to respond sarcastically, but instead I replied with compassion.
A few more years passed by when I reached a place in my life when I genuinely felt authentic, that I was my true self and able to share mindfulness with others. I’ve taught adult education all my life; it was a natural extension to now teach a practice that was so pivotal in my life. I began teaching the 8-Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Course at a yoga studio and soon started to offer adaptations of it to make it more accessible to those who might not want to commit the whole series. Now I teach day retreats, workshops, and retreat weekends in a host of settings from schools and businesses to retreat centers, including Copper Beech Institute. I put the seeds out there to help others. It’s a wonderful space for me.
My mindfulness work not only takes me across the country, but around the globe teaching on cruise ships, in Israel and Costa Rica, and at international retreats. While all of these experiences enrich my life, the place I love to teach most is in prison. It’s a place where I don’t recognize myself, as I never could have imagined teaching here. I was a doctor’s wife with three children, a nice degree, and a career. When I’m teaching in prison, there is no judgment. I tell my students they are more than their crimes. We sit with each other, human being to human being just trying to figure this life out.
My teaching is truly a blessing in my life. This practice and experience didn’t just happen to me – it’s available to everyone. It does take courage to dip your toe into mindfulness and change old habits, but with time and practice change is possible. Know that I’m here to help you on your journey.