Thriving in Nature article and video clips in the Michigan Today Newsletter February 6, 2014.
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.