Have you noticed that the conversation about mindfulness has grown quite a bit over the past few years? Scientific American, Time, Newsweek, all have posted cover stories; Time recently dedicated an entire special issue to the discussion on mindfulness. There are specials on television, classes at colleges across the country and stress-management courses everywhere we turn. With all of this attention, many of us are still sitting on the periphery, unsure and uncertain of what it means to be mindful and more importantly, why we should give this conversation any relevance.
I believe that as a species, this is our next step in controlling our health. Stress and a sense of overwhelm is now being cited as the number one killer in this country. The American Heart Association has indicated that stress is the root cause for more than 60% of all human illnesses.
Relevant studies have indicated that a consistent mindfulness practice can actually lower your blood pressure, improve memory, boost immunity, slow the progression of dementia, lengthen your telomeres- the caps on your DNA responsible for longevity, reduce depression, help with insomnia and by actually creating a shift in the gray matter density of your brain, make it easier for you to feel happy, calmer and less stressed. (I have listed links to articles discussing some these studies below)
Mindfulness is the simple practice of slowing down the speed of your life. A practice where we take the time to be where we are and stop looking over our shoulders.
My dog Reggie was my greatest teacher when I began practicing mindfulness. You see, I was always in a bit of hurry when I walked him. Even if I had nowhere to go, I still sort of rushed through it each day. In my defense, Reggie is schnauzer, and anyone that has a schnauzer knows that they don’t really walk. They just move from patch of grass to patch of grass, and they sniff. They move on, go back and sniff that glorious spot a little more. I allowed this to drive me crazy; always tugging a bit on the chain to steer him into the direction that I felt we should be following.
There was this a-ha moment when I recognized that I was dragging him through his walk each day. I realized that this was a perfect opportunity to practice a little bit of mindfulness. For him, being in the present moment comes naturally, it used to be natural for us as well. But as a 21st century human, I needed to be reminded to stop plowing through where I was, unaware and unappreciative of the beauty.
I began to allow enough time for us to share a slow meaningful walk together each morning. I allowed him to make the decisions. Instead of taking him for a walk; I allowed him to take me. Our walks evolved and they became an opportunity to slow it all down and be present.
Here’s how it works: We walk at his pace. When he stops, I stop. I take the time to take a few slow breaths as I listen to the sound of the day. I patiently stand and appreciate our time together, until he is ready to move on. If he wants to go left, we go left, if he wants to go right, we go right. I remind myself that this is the best part of his day. We have a yard so he is outside quite a bit, but the walk is different. It matters to him because he gets to explore the neighborhood and even more importantly, spend time with me. There are times when he stops, looks around, raises his head, breathes deeply and simply takes it all in. For him, it is the shining moment of his day.
I stepped into that place with him. In the past, while I did enjoy our walk together, there was always a haunting sense of hurry. My programming dictated the pace; consistently tugging me through the walk and onto what was next on my schedule. Eventually these walks began to matter as much to me as they did to him. Eventually they became the shining moment of my day as well.
Now, keep in mind that I am an Italian women from a crazy Italian family in Ridgewood, Queens. No one in my house was meditating; it was always a little bit of crazy. It was loud. It was aggressive. I was not sitting in the room meditating. No one was; there were no Zen-like moments happening on Stanhope Street.
So when I say that on these walks I listen closely to the birds, and the sounds of the breeze blowing through the trees -that I look at these trees that line our streets, and in the spring I guess which one will bloom first- when I say that I want you to realize how not “like me” it is to be uttering those very words.
This conversation did not spark an interest for me until I was in my fifties, when I realized that I desperately needed to take a step back and stop rushing through my life. It wasn’t easy, because change never is, it is often intimidating and difficult. We fight it even if we know it is necessary because it is often more comfortable to stay where we are, even if we aren’t happy being there. I needed to regroup and start changing the way I viewed my life; I needed to start paying attention. Once I decided that it was an approach worth exploring, and began to learn the skills that I needed to flip the switch, it all fell into place.
Mindfulness can be achieved by anyone; you just have to want it enough to approach it. It has to matter enough for you, because it matters. Yes, it is a practice that takes some dedication, time and effort, but when it comes together, it is magical.
The beauty of a solid practice is that it is a very individualized experience. Our walk through life is unique; no one has the same biography outlining where we have been and where we are now. No one has the same expectations of how we see our future. The simple act of slowing it all down is an art, and each one of us has our own palette and vision of what it is that we need to do in order to breathe life into our choices.
As a species we are tired of feeling tired, and spread way too thin. We are tired of rushing from one piece of our life to the next. I believe we are ready to take back the steering wheel and regain control of our lives. In order to do this, we need to learn new skills that will teach us how to create a shift in the way we react to the stressful situations in our lives. We need to create a shift in how we are walking through our world.
You see, stress is not the situations in our lives, it is our reaction to the situations- and that reaction is something that we can change.
Mindfulness is a lifestyle, a way to walk through the fire; a skill that teaches you the art of seeing your life, away from the stress and the turbulent pace, more clearly.
It is the practice of being present and releasing the need to ruminate about our past and dwell on the what-ifs about our future.
It teaches us that walking through life in a place of peace and calm, instead of hurry and worry, is a choice.
Each morning, I look forward to starting my day in a place of patience and appreciation. Reggie loves his time with me and I love my time with him. Together, we glide into our day effortlessly and with a sense of gratitude. Often, I find myself thanking him for reminding me that every second of our life is valuable.
There are many lessons to be learned when we make the decision to relax into each moment and appreciate the walk – each step of the way.
Articles regarding mindfulness studies:
Meditation Shown to Alter Gray Matter in Brain _ Study led by Harvard researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital
“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life,” said first author Dr. Britta Holzel, a research fellow at MGH and Glessen university in Germany.
“This study demonstrates that changes in the structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.” ~ Sara Lazar, PhD, of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program
Study Reveals Gene Expression Changes With Meditation – Study conducted at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin- MadisonWaisman Center
“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice,” says study author Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Most interestingly, the changes were observed in genes that are the current targets of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs,” says Perla Kaliman, first author of the article and a researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona, Spain, where the molecular analyses were conducted.
Can Meditation and Yoga Really Slow the Progression of Dementia? – Study conducted at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
After eight weeks, the study group experienced less overall atrophy in the hippocampus and better connectivity in other parts of the brain responsible for memory. The hippocampus is shrunken in people with Alzheimer’s and is vulnerable to damage during the early stages of the disease.
Although the blood pressure reductions associated with mindfulness-based interventions are modest, they are similar to many drug interventions and potentially large enough to lead to reductions in the risk of heart attack or stroke. Further studies are needed to see if the blood pressure-lowering effects are sustained over time.
The researchers argue that mindfulness-based interventions may provide a useful alternative to help “prevent or delay” the need for antihypertensive medications in patients with borderline high blood pressure.
Meditation, Group Support Linked to Cellular Benefits for Breast Cancer Survivors – Study conducted at the University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services’ Tom Baker Cancer Centre
The research team from the University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services’ Tom Baker Cancer Centre, both in Canada – found that mindfulness meditation and gentle Hatha yoga or attending emotional support groups protected the telomeres of breast cancer survivors.
“We already know that psychosocial interventions like mindfulness meditation will help you feel better mentally, but now for the first time we have evidence that they can also influence key aspects of your biology,” says principal investigator Linda E. Carlson, PhD, of the Department of Psychological Resources at the Tom Baker Cancer Center.
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