Learn how living in the present moment can relieve stress, improve health and promote feelings of contentment.
Mindfulness can relieve stress and improve health in myriad ways.
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What do you love doing? According to surveys, some of Americans’ favorite hobbies include fishing, gardening, traveling, sewing, playing music and crafts. Why do we enjoy these activities? They all tend to draw us into the present moment. They employ our senses and clear our heads. They make us feel engaged, alert and vital.
What if we could bring that wide-eyed awareness to even the most mundane activity? What if we could spend more of our lives fully engaged?
Many great thinkers have explored that idea. Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Of course, Thoreau wasn’t the first to aim to “live deliberately.” Mindfulness as a meditative practice originated in Buddhism about 2,500 years ago. It’s about maintaining awareness of the present moment, with purpose and without judgment. For years, I’ve grasped the working definition, written about the many research-backed benefits, and heard yoga teachers expound on the topic.
Yet I hadn’t quite appreciated the value of mindfulness until last fall, when I received a dire medical diagnosis. Niggling concerns about the past suddenly seemed petty and irrelevant. Many future-based preoccupations—promoting books, planning lectures, replacing the carpets, expanding my Twitter following—fell away.
What mattered was each precious moment. Anxiety, grief and outright terror hovered, ready to swoop in. The remedy was pulling myself back to the present. I’d gaze at the crimson and gold autumn leaves, stroke my puppy’s soft fur, smell the bouquet a friend had delivered, taste my daughter’s soup, paint with my son, relax at the touch of my husband’s warm hand on my back. Every moment held beauty and love. If I stayed in the present, I felt grateful and peaceful.
To deepen that skill, I enrolled in a course on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a program developed by author and researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. My instructor was Peggy Sheehan, a Denver pediatrician who’s taught MBSR classes for eight years. For six weeks, we met for two hours each week plus attended one day-long retreat. (Note: MBSR programs typically last eight weeks.)
Here’s what I learned
At our first meeting, participants talked about our motivations for enrolling. Objectives included relief from stress, anxiety, depression, anger, insomnia, overeating and pain. Sheehan encouraged us to let go of our goals because striving can be counterproductive. Mindfulness doesn’t seek to change anything, but rather to accept the present moment without judgment. Right away, we were learning attitudes central to the practice: acceptance, nonjudgment, patience, curiosity and letting go.
In addition to being a practice, mindfulness is a way of being. We Westerners tend to spend most of our time doing—and doing things on automatic pilot rather than with full awareness. From an early age, we’re encouraged to keep busy. Study, play sports, work hard. Even when our bodies are still, our minds whir with thoughts, which many of us mistakenly take for our only possible default setting. Fortunately, we have an inherent capacity for mindfulness; we just have to nurture it.
To cultivate present-moment awareness, the MBSR program teaches participants a series of exercises. We learned a new one each week using audio files with guided meditations, as well as written material geared toward applying mindfulness to everyday life. Our assignment was to commit to practicing for 45 minutes a day—even if we didn’t initially enjoy it.
What follows is a description of the key MBSR practices. You can find these and other guided meditations in books (see “Learn More” below) and on YouTube.
The body scan. This 30- to 45-minute practice entails sensing the whole body, toes to head. It both heightens our consciousness of physical sensations and diminishes mental preoccupations. It also trains us to do one thing at a time.
First, lie on your back or take a comfortable seat. Allow your eyelids to close. Get an overall sense of your body and mind. Take a moment to focus on your breathing, the rising and falling of your abdomen. Now, bring your awareness to your right big toe, noticing what you feel. Release your attention from your big toe, and systematically move to each toe, the sole, the sides and tops of the feet. Now, shift your attention to the right ankle, then the right lower leg, the knee and so on.
Remain curious and open to sensations (or lack thereof), refraining from analyzing them or labeling them as bad or good. When your mind wanders, let the thought pass (without self-rebuke) and return to the scan. Keep doing the scan daily for the first two weeks. Later, alternate it with mindful movement.
Although some group members didn’t like this practice initially, I enjoyed the deep relaxation it evoked. In fact, I became disabused of my belief that I can’t nap. If I dozed off, I simply finished the body scan afterward. The scan became a tool for returning to sleep after nighttime awakenings.
Seated meditations. The first seated meditation, which we learned in our second week, involves focusing on the breath, a surefire means of being in the present. As Sheehan pointed out, “You can’t take a past breath or a future breath.”
Begin by sitting in a chair or on the floor. Allow your eyelids to shut. Place one or both palms on your abdomen. As you inhale, your diaphragm descends, pushing your belly outward. As you release the breath, your belly moves in. Notice the way your chest expands with inhalation, the movement of air through your nostrils.
Now, place your hands on your thighs, palms up or down. Continue to witness breath rising and falling like gentle ocean waves. When emotions and thoughts surface, notice them without judgment and refocus on breathing. Silently saying “in” on the inhalation and “out” on the exhalation helps me focus. I also variously imagine my breath as an eraser decluttering my mind, wind blowing away cloudlike thoughts, and windshield wipers sweeping away raindrops of thoughts.
Later, we expanded our awareness to appreciate sounds both internal and external. Later still, meditations encompassed other sensory details or kindled feelings of love and kindness toward ourselves and others. We started with 10 to 15 minutes of seated meditation a day, then increased to 20 minutes—in addition to the body scan or yoga. Ultimately, you can substitute a 45-minute meditation for any of the longer practices.
Mindful Movement. This practice, which we added in week three, involves moving the body in a slow, deliberate manner. Most of the exercises derive from yoga. In class, we flexed and extended our spines, balanced on one leg then the other, stretched our legs—all while focusing on breath and bodily sensations.
Thoughts and emotions do arise. Notice what comes up when you encounter physical limitations. Then return attention to the movements.
You can learn these movements in formal MBSR training, or you might enroll in a community yoga, tai chi or qigong class. Look for instructors who teach not just the physical poses, but also breath work and inner awareness. You can also find many yoga poses and practices, guided by professionals, if you search online.
Walking meditation. During week four, we walked silently in a big circle, slowing our pace so that each step matched our breathing. Decelerated, ambulating becomes a balancing act. As I articulated through the bones of one foot then the other, I recalled the skill required in ballet to walk quietly and gracefully onto the stage.
Try mindfully walking as you go to work or enter the grocery store. Ramble slowly through your neighborhood, with no particular destination in mind. Just put one foot in front of the other.
By the end of my MBSR program, benefits were apparent. Insomniacs slept better. Moods had brightened. Pain had become easier to bear. Participants described shifting away from autopilot busyness. Stressful events resolved more smoothly. People engaged more fully with loved ones. A busy pediatrician found she could focus more completely on each patient, rather than simultaneously worrying about the crowded waiting room. An overworked father described noticing his daughter’s joy in riding her bicycle. Life can be so sweet.
Living is a temporary condition. Don’t waste another moment. To quote a Ram Dass book title, “Be here now.”
Discover how living in the present moment can improve physical health in Health Benefits of Mindfulness Practice.
Experiment with mindfully performing one mundane activity each day. Examples include chopping vegetables, washing dishes, showering, making the bed, folding the laundry, sipping a cup of tea, putting your child to bed or tending your garden. Whatever you’re doing, slow down and focus on all the sensory details of that act. How do you feel when you’re fully engaged rather than simply going through the motions? Do you feel more contentment and joy?
Denver pediatrician Peggy Sheehan taught our Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class the STOP method of coping with potentially stressful events. I say “potentially” because our perception of events determines whether our bodies mount a stress response—complete with racing heart, rapid breathing, sweaty palms and skittery thoughts. Mindfulness helps us respond deliberately, rather than falling victim to a knee-jerk reaction.
Take a breath.
Observe your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations.
Proceed with a plan borne of awareness and, ideally, wisdom.
Within days, I had the opportunity to apply the STOP approach. As I cycled home, a car door flew open, striking my back tire and nearly catapulting me onto the asphalt. My fight-or-flight response kicked on. My whole body trembled with adrenaline. The driver handed me the remains of my pannier, then returned to his car and drove off.
Dazed, I sat on the curb and slowed my breathing. Then I took stock of any injuries, which were minor. I observed my emotions (annoyed, anxious, sad, relieved) and thoughts. Alternately, I blamed the driver for his carelessness and callousness, and myself for not biking farther from parked cars. I returned to my breath, to the fact that the accident was already in the past.
In a few minutes, I was able to dust myself off, call my partner, and start pushing my bike along the sidewalk. Each time the accident began to replay, I noticed my thoughts and feelings, then refocused on the actual moment—green trees, kids playing soccer in the park, people walking dogs, my steady breath, my limbs moving me homeward.
Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman
Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment—and Your Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn
The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh
Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh
Plum Village, peace activist, author and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s Mindfulness Practice Centre
Stress Reduction Program, Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School
Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Linda B. White is a doctor and the author of Health Now: An Integrative Approach to Personal Health and the coauthor of 500 Time-Tested Home Remedies and the Science Behind Them.
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