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The Practice of Mindfulness

Published on January 13, 2013 by VWC

By Lisa Cuseo-Ott, Ph.D., January 2013

The practice of mindfulness can be an effective tool for stress management and relaxation as well as a healthy attitude or approach to life. Its applications can range from practicing mindful eating to treating depression with Mindful Cognitive Behavior Therapy. The actual practice of mindfulness is ancient with roots in Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Taoism. It is defined as “moment to moment non-judgmental awareness cultivated by paying attention” (Kabat-Zinn 2007).

In order to practice mindfulness, one needs to first train the mind to focus on the here and now through disciplined meditation. By sitting in quiet silence, one learns to allow thoughts and feelings to float by without worry or judgment, thus promoting a state of inner peace and deep relaxation. One of the foremost researchers in mindfulness, Jon Kabt-Zinn, emphasizes the fact that meditation is not merely a form of relaxation or a technique to switch on the mind, but a familiarization and acceptance of oneself.

Meditation Exercise

  1. Find a straight-back chair and sit erect with your back away from the rear of the chair. Close your eyes or lower your gaze.
  2. Concentrate on your breath as it flows in and out of your body. Focus on the different sensations of each in-breath and each out-breath without altering the breath in any way.
  3. Random thoughts or worries may enter your mind as it naturally begins to wander. When this happens, gently bring your mind back to your breathing without frustration or anger. It is precisely this non-judgmental attitude that characterizes mindfulness.
  4. Eventually, your mind may become still and at peace – or it may not. This stillness may be only temporary just as the random thoughts or worries are fleeting. Let whatever thought or emotion be as it is without the need to control or criticize.

Meditation is the essence of true relaxation in that it slows down the nervous system and induces the stress response within the brain. Harvard physician, Herbert Benson, M.D., has trained cardiac patients to manage blood pressure and heart conditions through this practice of meditation. It is the basis of mind/body medicine. The benefits of daily meditation are plentiful. Studies have found that regular meditators see physicians less often, spend fewer days in the hospital, and have improved memory, increased creativity, decreased hypertension and faster reaction times. In addition, such individuals enjoy more fulfilling relationships with decreased stress, anxiety and depression (Williams & Penman, 2011).

According to the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” By practicing mindful meditation, one learns to detach from random thoughts, realizing that no emotional state is permanent and that negative thoughts are transient. This allows one to work through feelings of depression by focusing on the here and now.

An important outcome of mindfulness is that that it leads to a heightened awareness of one’s world and surroundings. Once we are grounded and at peace within ourselves, we are better prepared to fully appreciate and take in all aspects of the world. One approaches life in a mindful way by remaining fully present and accessing all of one’s senses to experience one moment at a time. This is related to the Buddhist principle that we are one with everything and that all feelings or thoughts should be treated equally without the need to maintain control.

When we are fully engaged with one activity at a time, we allow ourselves to “savor” moments and experiences. It does not matter the activity – eating a cookie, taking a shower or walking in the park – each task is approached with a mindful awareness of how all of the senses are being experienced. For example, when practicing mindful eating, one is encouraged to take time to notice the texture, taste and aroma of a given food. By taking time to savor a food item, we give the body time to feel full, which avoids overeating and more enjoyment of our meals.

Whether one embarks on the disciplined journey of mindful meditation or simply approaches life experiences with a mindful attitude, the end result will be a heightened sense of peace and well-being as well as a multitude of physical and psychological health benefits.

 

Resources:
Williams, Mark and Penman, Danny: Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World (Rodale Press, 2011).
Williams, Mark; Teasdale, John; Segal, Zindel and Kabat-Zinn, Jon: The Mindful Way Through Depression (Guilford Press, 2007).