When I was in my teens and twenties, it seemed to me that my parents worried about everything. I was determined that I would never worry like they did when I grew older. I would be calm and relaxed and take all of life’s ups and downs in stride. Now I know better. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that worry and stress are my constant companions. The challenges of work, parenting adult children, and aging, not to mention worrying about the state of the world, cause me stress from which I find it difficult to escape. It appears I’m not the only one struggling with the stresses of 21st century living. One researcher reported that 7 in 10 Americans suffer from physical symptoms due to stress, and 67% reported high levels of daily stress. Given that ongoing daily stresses can contribute to serious health problems, as well as taking away from enjoyment of life, what can we do to manage our stress? One answer is mindfulness.
Mindfulness is everywhere in the news these days. In the last month, I’ve read articles about mindfulness being used by librarians to offset the stress of heavy workloads, by teachers stressed over high stakes testing and time urgency, by professional basketball players to slow down the mind to get into game shape, and by the U.S. Marines preparing for deployment. The library catalog has numerous books on mindfulness, for parenting, for people dealing with pain and acute illness, and increasingly, for children in school, as well as many other situations.
So, what exactly is mindfulness? Is it different from meditation? Mindfulness is simply awareness. It is slowing down, paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way. Meditation is a large umbrella term encompassing many techniques and practices to reach a heightened level of consciousness. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn who has studied mindfulness for over 35 years, practicing mindfulness is actually a form of meditation, and all meditation is about paying attention, no matter what tradition or technique is used.
Jon Kabat-Zinn was a molecular biologist who began meditating as a graduate student at MIT, and founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. In developing the first program to help patients deal with chronic pain, he brought an ancient tradition into the mainstream of Western medicine. He and his colleagues at the Stress Reduction Clinic began an 8-week program known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MBSR. At the end of the 8 weeks of mindfulness training, participants reported lower stress levels and a greater ability to deal with chronic pain, as well as other stressful situations. Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues began researching the patient outcomes of their program. Since then, many thousands of peer reviewed scientific studies have confirmed the usefulness of mindfulness training in helping people cope with stress and develop a broader repertoire of ways of experiencing themselves. Other benefits have been shown in treating cardiovascular disease, depression, addictions, and many other conditions. Today, MBSR programs exist at hundreds of medical centers and clinics in the U.S. and around the world.
The developing field of cognitive neuroscience has made it possible to actually see the effects of mindfulness training on the brain. Recent MRI studies done before and after an 8-week MBSR program show structural changes in four regions of the brain, areas involved with learning and memory, emotional arousal, and empathy and compassion. Other studies have shown changes in brain activity during mindfulness activities, specifically an increase in connectivity between regions of the brain. These structural and functional changes in the brain correlate with decreased stress and greater calmness and balance in patients.
So, how does one begin the practice of mindfulness? Jon Kabat-Zinn says that you can be mindful anywhere, anytime, and with anyone you like. This is simple, and at the same time, difficult. When I take my morning walks, I try to focus on what I am seeing and sensing — the trees and sky, the sounds of birds, the warmth of the sun on my face, the way my body feels as I walk. Inevitably, I find myself thinking about other things, trying to solve problems, planning my day. Each time I realize that my mind is wandering, I bring myself back to focusing on the present moment. I’ve read that with practice, paying attention to the present moment becomes easier. One of the simplest things we can do to get back to the present is to focus on breathing in and breathing out. I’ve found that ten minutes of slow, regular breathing relaxes me and reduces my stress. It is encouraging to me that practicing mindfulness doesn’t require advanced skills to be helpful and effective, and that a small time commitment to practice can provide immediate benefits.
I’ve been reading several books on mindfulness, all of which have aided me in understanding this topic. Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn is a collection of reflections and practices that he has found most useful with his students, and includes a CD with 5 guided mindfulness meditations. In This Moment: Five Steps to Transcending Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroscience by Kirk Strosahl and Patricia Robinson provides practical strategies for dealing with the daily stresses we all experience. Mindfulness in Eight Weeks by Michael Chaskalson gives detailed instructions to support you in learning mindfulness in a structured way. And finally, The Little Book of Mindfulness by Patrizia Collard is just that – a small book, containing simple 5 and 10 minute practices to let go of stress and anxiety. These are but a few of the numerous books on mindfulness in the Minuteman Library Network. I encourage you to take a look at some of them. I hope you will find them useful as I have.