The Age of Mindfulness

Today I found a half-size water bottle. I bought it because my full-size water bottles (one green, one purple) are too heavy for me to carry in my satchel, because it was only a dollar fifty, and because it was green and purple. This bottle also just happened to have the coolest spin-up twist top, at which point I stood in front of the heater for a few moments just twisting the top open and closed, so I now own an item that is both useful for reasons unrelated to the attraction of the spinning top and a colourful stealth stim toy. Thank you, Sistema. If your stuff weren’t so ridiculously expensive most of the time, I’d buy more of it.

So I’m standing in front of the heater twisting this top in wild joy at the discovery that this water bottle top is an ideal out-of-the-house fidget nobody will take askance because I’m always that person with a water bottle … and also just because it’s really fun to see the purple nozzle pop up out of the green base.

My mistake lies in mentioning my enjoyment to the person in the lounge room with me.

“You’re just a big kid, aren’t you?”

So I quietly put my bottle on the kitchen sink for washing and retreat to my room where I can bounce on my computer chair and toss the bean bag I made in my hands without commentary, at least if the door is closed, but I end up just packing things away … including the pack of squishy, bright-coloured plastic squirter fish I bought from the baby-toy section of Coles because they were so fun and squishy to touch, the mixed bag of marbles I bought in the hope that there’d be some bright red ones (there were) and the tubes of sequins and glitter glue I bought, along with a pack of plastic test-tube containers that have a hole in the lid for a string or cord, because I want to see if I can make dangling glitter tubes. And I will, when I have the house to myself on Sunday.

(A crafty person looks at everybody posting their stim toy collections on Tumblr and goes I can make that … oooh, I can make … oh, I’m so fucking making that! To the shops for more beads and minestrone mix! It’s an invitation to get crafty in all new directions, and since at least half of my storage space is occupied by craft materials – although not sequins or glitter glue –  not even my hand pain is going to stop me. Slow me, absolutely, but it won’t stop me. Nor did the fact that I already own something like half of Lincraft stop me from buying dark purple flanno for drawstring bags to hold the things I’m making. It’s purple flanno. Colourful and nice to touch.)

I’ve got to wonder, as the adult I am, why someone who dares express joy in something simple inspires such a negative, dismissive reaction from somebody else. What’s so dangerous and confronting about this – in this instance, stimming – that it needs must be promptly dismissed and shut down by the comparison to something no adult wants, childhood? I experience, and at times endure, depression, anxiety and chronic pain, and, while I haven’t told everyone in my life about my newest diagnosis (and I’ve had a few reactions that have only added to my uncertainty about coming out as autistic*), these three things are known to the speaker. These three things alone, so often, are the very antithesis of joy. People tell me to just cheer up, decide to be happy, get over it, just do things … but when I am, for a rare moment in time, genuinely joyful, I’m joyful in the wrong way, and suddenly I’m right back to anxiety and depression (two things that provoke chronic pain). Thanks for being the antithesis of helpful?

What is the right way of being joyful? Fine dining? (As a picky eater, fancy restaurants might as well be renamed The House of Culinary Torture.) A good movie? (But you can’t enjoy it too much, because that’s fandom otherwise, and you surely can’t analyse it to figure out how it works or doesn’t work, because that’s being nitpicky and you need to learn how to just enjoy things.) Clothing? (Oh, don’t get me started on the torture that is clothing, both in terms of weight/texture and gender. Sure, I feel good in the right clothes, but finding them is another thing again.) Sports? (Seriously, if I can barely cope with a movie without sewing or something to play with while I watch, and that’s assuming good plot, character and dialogue, there’s no way I’m going to cope with watching while people kick a ball around.) Chocolate? (Okay, that I’m down with. I love me a good block of high-quality 70% dark chocolate.) Why are we so wedded to the right way of being an adult that we’re threatened by those who aren’t?

Whatever that right way is, it’s not me. I’m a geeky, nerdy crafty person who experiences joy over European metal, collecting dice in as many different colours as I can afford, thinking about books and sewing clothing for fashion dolls. I experience joy, in fact, in this new outlet that being assessed as autistic has offered me – in the realisation that I need not be still, something both unnatural to me and forced upon me.

Today I walked through Coles squeezing the bag of squeezy toy fish in my hands (while other people stared at me, but the fish were so nice and squishy). Today I dragged my fingers across the metal bar of the trolley rack and the brick wall of the shopping centre just for the joy of feeling the different textures under my fingers. Yesterday I spent half an hour playing with dough on the train only to stand up and marvel at the dimpled paintwork of the railings by the door. Yesterday I ran around Lincraft just touching different fabrics until I found cloth that looked and felt good. I feel as though my hands have come alive – and since I suffer chronic hand pain, I don’t have much in the way of positive feeling towards these parts of me that hurt me in response to doing anything expressive or fundamental to being a human in our ableist Western society. I feel as though the world has come alive under my hands, and it’s a world rich in pattern and texture, new and strange and wonderful. Sure, there’s a great many things that inspire repulsion in me as I touch them, and a great many other things that feel nice to touch but smell or sound or look such that I can’t abide them, but there’s many things, so many things in fact, that make my fingertips sing. How long as it been since I touched things for the experience of touching and not as a means to another end? Years? Forever?

I’m trying and struggling with writing a piece that describes my changing relationship to movement, because in some ways it feels as though I’ve been chained all my life only to be free at least to move as I will, but I’ve been chained so long I’ve forgotten how. But now, in a moment here and a moment there, I’m beginning to learn a little of what I’ve lost.

For the first time in six years, I’m getting joy from the parts of my body that have tortured me for days on end. They’re torturing me right now, in point of fact, because I don’t ever get to write without pain. Is it better, though, to write in pain now knowing that beforehand I squished a green plastic fish and felt momentarily transported in the give of the plastic and the soft exhalation of air it made? Yes, indisputably yes.

The neurodivergent community calls it “stimming”.

The ignorant call it “childish”.

But we live in a world where it’s now acceptable, in Western society, for an adult to buy a colouring book – albeit the right kind of colouring book – and pencils just for relaxation, only they call it “mindfulness”.

Curious, isn’t it? What was once just a psychological buzzword is now everywhere.

I don’t have a good relationship to mindfulness. Most of the time, it’s peddled by psychologists who believe its sum total is cross-legged breathing and meditation exercises accompanied by new-age music, and, after four years of trying in good faith to find anything but frustration in this, I now have crying meltdowns if someone just mentions the word. It’s not complicated, with the benefit of hindsight. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to ignore my body’s discomfort in the quest to present as neurotypically as I can. Meditation makes me more aware of this discomfort, and, while I didn’t have the language or understanding to know what was happening, all I knew was that meditation and mindfulness made me more distressed and, over time, triggered. My new, amazing psychologist doesn’t even whisper the word around me, but while I’m waiting on acceptance into a program run by the local pain clinic, I’m still desperately afraid – after all the other chronic pain specialists I’ve seen who believe it’s the only effective treatment for pain – they’re going to keep on pushing mindfulness meditation.

The funny thing is, though, that the most interesting experience with mindfulness I ever had was with an ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) group who spent a session on real-world mindfulness practices. Things like … blowing bubbles and looking at the shimmer of colours in the bubbles or listening to the sounds they make when they pop. Things like eating chocolate, slowly, and letting the flavours play over your tongue. Things like closing your eyes, reaching for an item out of a basket and trying to describe it without looking at it. (There were cloth swatches and plush animals and bouncy balls and rubbery-plastic children’s toys … the kinds of tactile things to which many neurodivergent people are drawn.) Mindfulness, in this approach, is all about being in the present moment, and that means curiously and deliberately engaging, wholeheartedly, with the world we see, hear, touch, smell and taste. Mindfulness is paying attention and finding connection with everything that surrounds us, and psychologists taught us this through toys and games and chocolate. Mindfulness, as taught from the ACT mindset, teaches us that it’s easier to endure difficult emotions and experiences when we have a greater connection with those that are positive, including those that we, in Western society, seldom acknowledge or celebrate.

The neurodivergent community calls everything we did in this session “stimming”.

Our natural behaviour has been repackaged and rebranded as “mindfulness”, as long as it’s expressed in the narrow confines of what the mainstream considers to be acceptable expressions of said mindfulness (colouring books and meditation and office anti-stress gadgets).

How can we possibly be childish when we’re actually just ahead of the game?

I don’t want to use “mindfulness” as part of the dialogue for stimming. (In fact, I wish the term “mindfulness” would die a bloody death.) I don’t want to be acceptably adult in the eyes of the mainstream if it means I’m a judgemental arsehole who makes others miserable for daring to be their honest selves. I’m not living the talk with my family, due to matters of safety, but I’ll squish my colourful fish when I’m shopping or sitting on the train. (And I’ll grin because “squish my fish” is kind of funny.) I’ll delight in my new drink bottle and my red marbles and the glitter tubes I’m going to make and the pot of bubble mixture on my desk because stimming is sensation and expression natural to the person I am. Why shouldn’t I feel positive about my attraction to colour and the fact that every so often, now, I don’t entirely hate my hands? Why shouldn’t I be grateful that stimming is making me feel more connected to my body than I’ve ever been?

I just want to make the point, because that helps me square my shoulders and squish my damn baby-toy fish against the odd moments of doubt that follow those awful words that seek to diminish dangerous me, that what we’re doing is in fact a centuries-old, meaningful practice that has been stolen by popular media and marketed back to us in a limited, restricted way (and misunderstood by too many psychologists, in my experience) to appease ignorant mainstream notions of what is and isn’t adult.

What we’re doing is the exact same thing pushed in those bloody colouring books, only we’re not so insecure as to need it to be explicitly marketed to adults before we decide we too can grab some pencils and colour.

We’re not big kids.

We’re adults who know that only insecure people assign age to healthy forms of experience and expression.


* Side note: as somebody several different sides of queer, I think I get to use “coming out” with regards to autism. As far as I’m concerned, as someone who “passes” neurotypical (used with the sarcastic scare quotes it deserves) on account of society’s habit of assuming people to be cis, het, able, neurotypical, allistic, etc., there’s little difference between coming out as queer or coming out as autistic (or disabled in general). This revelation opens you up to the possibility of violence, medical malpractice, abuse, discrimination, hatred and ignorance. This revelation means, instantly, that you are less safe as your real self in the world. The hate wears different faces and attacks from different angles, but that experience of having to take a breath and step over the edge of a cliff – and hoping that this time there’s mattresses at the bottom while preparing myself for rocks – feels too much the same. When I sit there and don’t know what other word to use, it occurs to me that the only right word is, in fact, “coming out”. I may have written otherwise at some point, because I thought otherwise, but, hooray, political thought is no more immutable than gender!