THE DETAILS: Most of the guests who attend my mindfulness lectures and workshops at Canyon Ranch are looking for help managing stress. They want to quiet their overactive thoughts, especially their tendencies to worry about the future and ruminate about the past, and to judge themselves and others. They are seeking peace of mind. Sal was one of those guests. He came to me at the urging of his physician, who was concerned that his agitated depression and high blood pressure put him at risk for a second heart attack. His sharp mind and sharper tongue made Sal a force to be reckoned with. The same perfectionism and critical eye that made him a success running his own business were threatening to destroy his heart and his relationships with his family. He always felt he knew what was best for everybody, and he let them know it, whether they liked it or not. Recently, though, his confidence was flagging. He was suffering from periods of depression, and found it harder to summon up the energy to get to work each day.
I introduced Sal to some mindfulness exercises in our first meeting. He learned how to follow his breath and notice the stream of thoughts that flowed through his mind. Sal took to it quickly; he enjoyed the feeling of relaxation and the idea that he could let his mind rest for a few minutes without having to worry about the myriad concerns that populated his life. As he continued to practice mindfulness exercises, Sal observed the many critical and judgmental thoughts that seemed to constantly be crowding his psyche. Gradually, he was able to see the thoughts for what they were—just thoughts—and he came to realize how his perfectionism was driving his family crazy. He saw that his frequent angry outbursts pushed people away and made it impossible for him to receive the love and respect he craved. He shared these insights with me, and resolved to refrain from criticizing and micromanaging his family.
Sal practiced his mindfulness exercises religiously during the four months we worked together. On most days he did a sitting meditation or tried some mindful walking, and he took time out late in the afternoon for a light snack that he ate mindfully. He was pleased to see his blood pressure coming down, and to feel a sense of freedom from his habitual tendency to react first and think later.
WHAT IT MEANS: Learning how to consciously and compassionately pay attention to what you are experiencing in the present moment can profoundly enrich your life and improve your health. It can be helpful to anyone who wants to be happier and more peaceful, especially those of us coping with emotional or physical challenges. Like a healthy diet, regular exercise, and diaphragmatic breathing, performing regular mindfulness exercises is a low-cost, low-tech strategy that will significantly enhance your health and your quality of life.
Mindfulness may not be a new idea—it's a practice that's been part of various spiritual traditions for centuries—but it seems to be an idea whose time has come. Doctors and therapists are referring their patients for mindfulness training to help them cope with anxiety, depression, and a wide array of medical conditions. Research has shown mindfulness to be helpful in coping with chronic pain, and in reducing symptoms of psoriasis, high blood pressure, and immune system disorders. Women struggling with infertility experience higher rates of conception after participating in mindfulness programs. Mindfulness has also proven helpful for patients seeking to lose weight or overcome drug and alcohol abuse.
If you are interested in bringing mindfulness into your life, there are a number of ways to begin:
• Find a mindfulness program in your area. You can find a listing of programs around the country through the University of Massachusetts Medical School's Center for Mindfulness website. Taking a course or workshop is a good way to learn because it allows for interaction with the instructor and other students. While the concept of mindfulness seems simple, the experience is often elusive. The opportunity for guided practice and discussion is invaluable when it comes to developing mindfulness skills.
• Read books on mindfulness. A good book to start with is Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Another excellent book is The Miracle of Mindfulness by Tich Nhat Hanh.
• Listen to an audio series on mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn has recorded a number of excellent audio programs. A good one to begin with is Mindfulness for Beginners.
• Try it out. See our topic page on mindfulness for more details about how it works. Then try informally practicing mindfulness during daily activities like eating, showering, or washing the dishes. At its most basic level, mindfulness is about noticing what you are experiencing in the present—the sensations, the sounds, your thoughts, your feelings. The key is to develop your ability to consciously observe your experience without judgment.
Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, is a Rodale.com advisor and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. His column, “Mind-Body-Mood Advisor,” appears weekly on Rodale.com.