Mindfulness might sound like something only yogis should care about. But that assumption is dead wrong. We arrive at destinations without any memory of driving there. The phone rings as we are walking out the door, and without any intention of doing so, we pick it up. In fact, there’s quite a bit of research showing that we mortals make decisions, pursue goals, and live our lives often unconsciously. Instead of responding thoughtfully to things, we react out of habit. Being mindful is the antidote to our crazed way of living—nonstop rushing around on autopilot.
Jon Kabit-Zinn, one of the pioneers of integrating mindfulness into Western society, refers to mindfulness as an “inner technology.” As implied by his clever metaphor, “mindfulness” reflects a know-how, a skill set that improves with intention and regular practice.
Being mindful means being present, alert, and very discerning. It’s about taking our minds off autopilot and instead making fresh new choices aligned with what we care about most. Instead of judgmental self-talk, a mindful perspective fosters appreciation of where we happen to be in the moment, despite where we’d like to be or where we think we should be. Mindfulness fosters compassion toward ourselves and our lives—a necessary ingredient for well-being.
And a necessary ingredient for health. These days we prioritize being in constant contact with others but ignore the instantaneous messages sent from our own bodies when we’re tired or stressed. Learning to genuinely listen to and be mindful of our bodies’ messages—instead of ignoring them—is a key to sustaining healthy lives.
Mindfulness May Help Veterans with PTSD
A collaborative study from the U-M Health System and the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System shows that veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder who completed an eight-week mindfulness-based group treatment plan showed a significant reduction in symptoms as compared to patients who underwent treatment as normal. Veterans in the mindfulness treatment groups participated in in-class exercises such as mindful eating; “body scanning,” an exercise where patients focus on physical sensations in individual parts of the body; mindful movement and stretching; and “mindfulness meditation,” including focusing on the breath and emotions. The participants were also instructed to practice mindfulness at home through audio-recorded exercises and during the day while doing activities such as walking, eating, and showering.
“Mindfulness techniques seemed to lead to a reduction in symptoms and might be a potentially effective novel therapeutic approach to PTSD and trauma-related conditions,” said lead author Anthony P. King, a research assistant professor in the U-M Department of Psychiatry.—UMHS News Service
Meditation, Purpose, and DNA
Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn and her research team have found that meditation and other contemplative activities foster a sense of purpose and direction in life, which in turn increases the activity of telomerase—the enzyme that repairs telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of our chromosomes. Blackburn compares telomeres to the tips of shoelaces, noting that “if you lose the tips, the ends start fraying.” As the ends of our chromosomes wear down, telomerase comes in to repair them. Studies by Blackburn and her colleagues have shown a link between low telomerase and stress-related diseases. Thus meditation and other mindful activities that can help alleviate stress and deepen our sense of transcendent purpose can actually protect our DNA and slow the process of cellular aging.
Claudia Dreifus. “Finding Clues to Aging in the Fraying Tips of Chromosomes.” The New York Times. July 3, 2007.
In Practice: Being Mindful
While she’d probably be the last to take credit for the success of the U-M Men’s Basketball Team in the 2013 NCAA Men’s Division 1 Tournament, SPH alumna Sandra Finkel, MPH ’88, admits that the meditation and mindfulness techniques she taught members of the team may have helped fuel their run to the final. “When athletes are able to be focused on the right things, and be really present and aware of their surroundings, they get better results,” she says. “And if it’s true for athletes, is it not true for the rest of us?”
In addition to the men’s basketball team, with whom she’s worked for the past two seasons, Finkel has brought her mindfulness techniques to the U-M Health System, MHealthy, and organizations and executives throughout southeast Michigan. Her key message? Mindfulness can reduce stress and boost overall health. “The myth is that when we live this very stressed lifestyle, we’re more productive. But that’s not true.”
9 Ways to Incorporate Mindfulness into Your Daily Life
- Pay attention to more moments as they are unfolding, as opposed to thinking ahead to the future or holding onto the past.
- Let your breath anchor you to the present moment. Don’t fret if your mind keeps going—just keep focusing on the breath.
- If you’re having trouble sleeping, lie down and focus on your breathing.
- Do a mental body scan. Pay attention to different parts of your body, starting with your feet and working your way up to your head. By bringing awareness to a part of the body that’s holding tension, you naturally relax.
- Take microbreaks. Sit still and quietly watch your breath for five minutes, or do a quick body scan.
- Take mindfulness breaks even if you have to do it incognito. If you’re stuck at a computer terminal, pretend you’re working and actually be mindfully in your body, even with your eyes open.
- Go mindfully into nature.
- Turn off the technology. Impose a non–cell phone or pager portion of group meetings—and then reward yourselves by shortening the meeting.
- Instead of thinking “I’m bored,” and turning to your cell phone—or the refrigerator—tell yourself, “Here’s a chance to be mindful.”
Activate the Senses
- Practice active listening. Often when someone else is talking, we’re formulating what we’re going to say in response instead of listening. Try the opposite: in conversations with others, be truly present and attuned.
- Instead of regarding outside sounds as an annoying distraction that intrudes on your peace, try regarding them as part of your overall experience and letting that be okay.
- Be mindfully aware of what you’re tasting when you eat and drink. Slow down and savor the experience from first bite to aftertaste.
- Try a walking meditation. Unlike normal walking, where you’re often multitasking—talking, listening to music—just be in your body and pay attention to what you’re hearing, feeling, and seeing.
“Athletes Who Meditate: Kobe Bryant & Other Sports Stars Who Practice Mindfulness,” Huffington Post, May 30, 2013.
Elizabeth Robinson, Sandra Finkel, and Elizabeth Jackson. (2011) “Psychosocial Interventions: Meditation.” In Psychiatry and Heart Disease: The Mind, Brain, and Heart. Ed. Michelle Riba, Lawson Wulsin, Melvyn Rubenfire, and Divy Ravindranath (John Wiley & Sons).