- Background on Mindfulness Meditation
- Stress Response
- Mind-Body Medicine
- Mindfulness Practices for the Month
- Share Your Mindful Moments
Mindful Moments is a new monthly column in the Healthy UBC Newsletter that will explore all things mindful, including the concept and practice of mindfulness in various contexts and with different populations. Each month, I will highlight research being done in the field of mindfulness, outline principles and specific mindfulness practices for the month, share some of my grapplings with the practice both on and off the cushion, as well as highlight opportunities for UBC faculty and staff to participate in mindfulness practice/learning groups. I welcome you to be a regular reader of this column, and participate in this community; to explore the practices, contemplate the principals and research findings, question what you find to be true in your experience, and to share your insights from your practice and/or research in this area.
Over the past thirty years, there has been a proliferation of research on the science of mindfulness, the art of mindfulness meditation, and the effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions as medicine. Mindfulness is inherently part of our human experience; a quality of awareness that connects us more intimately with the present moment. However, we can often become very mindless in our day-to-day, and pass by opportunities for smelling the roses. Mindfulness meditation is a secular form of mental exercise that helps to tune the brain for being more in the moment, and less caught up by discursive thoughts. Mindfulness meditation is no longer mis-perceived as trying to blank one’s mind, adopting dogma, or only being practiced by monks in monasteries or yogi’s on mountain tops. Mindfulness has become part of the vocabulary articulating a science of mind-brain-body as well as a common used catch-phrase within popular culture. My inaugural column will provide a brief introduction to mindfulness and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and discuss the relationship between mindfulness and stress.
Background on Mindfulness Meditation
The study of mindfulness meditation as mental exercise has been shown to aid stress-related chronic diseases, mental illness and promote mental health (Baer, 2003; Grossman et al., 2004; Chiesa, & Serretti, 2009). While the practice of mindfulness and mindfulness meditation dates backs thousands of years within various contemplative traditions, specifically Buddhism, the first mindfulness-based program studied within the context of health care in North America is called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). MBSR was first developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre in 1979, to work with patients with chronic pain. MBSR is an example of a mindfulness-based training that teaches formal practices for cultivating present-moment awareness such as meditation, as well as informal skills for reducing a wandering attention and emotional reactivity in daily life. Since the creation of MBSR, there have been numerous other mindfulness-based programs modeled from this original program to target other populations and contexts including patients with depression, as well as students and teachers in K-12 Education.
The concept of mindfulness stems from Buddhist psychology, a tradition over 2,500 years old that promotes the cessation of mental and emotional suffering, what we today refer to as stress. Alan Wallace (2006), a Buddhist monk who lived in India under the guidance of the Dalai Lama and received a PhD from Stanford University in Religious Studies, describes mindfulness as an unwavering awareness of the present moment; a non-forgetfulness that cultivates wholesome states of mind. Thich Nhat Han, Vietnamese Buddhist monk, author and peace activist, speaks of mindfulness as an acute awareness to the present moment; the ability to access and acknowledge each moment of life deeply, however quotidian or mundane (Nhat Han, 1975). Dr. Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience.
Research on mindfulness informs our understanding of the mind-body connection in relationship to stress, health and healing. Dr. Hans Selye was first to describe stress as a physiological response taking place in the body. Also known as “fight or flight,” Dr. Selye distinguished stress as a non-specific physiological response, and highlights that a range of experiences can trigger this physiological response. This means that although we may experience different stressors, the response in the body is the same. When the stress response is triggered, the body is in a state of imbalance in which the sympathetic nervous system is hyper-aroused, and the parasympathetic system (responsible for rest and relaxation) is depressed.
The stress response is a physiological response seen in animals, such as a zebra when being hunted by a lion. During the stress response, all available physiological resources are allocated to the systems in the body responsible for ‘flight’, such as increase in heart rate to pump blood to muscles as the zebra literally flees for its life. If the zebra escapes from the threat of the lion, the stress response shuts down and the body returns to balance. The stress response becomes problematic for humans because it is triggered over and over again in response to innocuous daily events like traffic jams – a distinction described by Dr. Robert Sapolsky, professor at Stanford University as episodic vs. chronic stress in his book Why Zebras Don’t get Ulcers. Dr. Sapolsky describes episodic stress within the realm of experience of a zebra, and chronic stress as increasingly part of the human experience. Typically humans no longer have to run away from physical threats in order to stay alive. Instead , we are triggered by psychological stressors, such as worrying about deadlines, interpersonal conflict, and imperfections. These stressors can repeatedly flood our bodies with the same stress response. Over time, as the stress response is chronically triggered and one’s physiology is bathed repeatedly with stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline), the systems within the body and brain start to function less optimally (Kabat-Zinn, 1990; Sapolsky, 2004).
Health and healing is promoted through homeostasis in the body; regulating our body systems to allow our sympathetic and parasympathetic systems to return to greater balance. To promote health, it is important to be able to prevent ourselves from triggering our stress response, and returning back to balance once the response has been triggered. Dr. Seyle also coined the term eustress to refer to an optimal amount of stress that helps us meet life’s demands, or the type of additional stress we seek in life, such as going on a rollercoaster ride. The key distinction is the tipping point from when one perceives oneself to be in control or taking a safe risk, to when one feels out of control by the external demands of the situation. Perception – our interpretation of an event, and awareness of our perception – plays a key role in triggering, and shutting down the stress response, and at the nexus between this intimate mind-body response, bringing us to the importance of mindfulness.
Many of our perceptions and behaviours occur without awareness, especially when we start running on automatic pilot. Patterns of behaviour, thoughts and emotions make up a complex web of interactions that can quickly emerge and trigger distress in the mind-body without full conscious attention. For example, ruminating on negative thoughts, experiencing feelings of fear and tensing your neck and shoulders: Those types of automatic behaviour keeps the physiology of the body stimulated at heightened levels of arousal, and this excess stimulation of the stress response breaks down regulatory systems and in time, even the ability to shut down the response. The practice of being mindful, coming back into the present moment by grounding attention in the body with the breath, is a form of self-regulating the parasympathetic nervous system back into balance with the sympathetic nervous system. Mindfulness is a non-conceptual, experiential practice that takes place in your experience of the moment. If mind and body were two blocks sitting on top of each other, breath would be the third block that sits on top which helps to keep the two together.
Mindfulness Practices for the Month
Formal Mindfulness Practice: This month, I invite you to bring greater awareness into each day and especially during stressful moments of your day. Begin to recognize points in the days when you are feeling dis-stressed at work or a home. As a tool, it may be helpful to complete a Three-Minute Breathing Space (opens as MP3) on a daily basis. Only three minutes!
Informal Mindfulness Practice: Try to notice one daily activity that you tend to do on automatic pilot – an activity you are doing physically while mentally distracted. We often tune out doing trivial tasks such as brushing our teeth, washing the dishes, driving to work. Try making this activity your informal mindfulness practice for the month, by bringing a sense of beginner’s mind to this activity. Beginner’s mind brings fresh eyes, and approaches experience by tuning in the details as opposed to tuning out toward the periphery. You may have to let go of being “productive” during this time as we intentionally focus on the task at hand instead of allowing our minds to wander off into thoughts about the past, or planning for the future.
While there is evidence to show the benefits of mindfulness practice, it is important also to let go of expectations for this practice. Investigate the practice for yourself to see what happens in your experience when you make the choice to cultivate this caring attention within the fabric of your life, both formally with a three-minute breathing space practice, as well as informally throughout the day.
Mindfulness at UBC:
- Mindfulness in The Workplace Workshop – Sept. 17th 10:00am
- Customized Mindfulness-Based Workshops for Faculties and Departments
- Organize a workshop for your Faculty/Department
- Inquiries can be sent to email@example.com
Share Your Mindful Moments
If you would like to share your mindful moments with us, we’d like to hear about it! Every month we will highlight reflections from the UBC community on their moments of mindfulness. Please email your mindful moments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Baer, R. A. (2003). Mindfulness training as a clinical intervention: A conceptual and empirical review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 125–143.
Chiesa, A., & Serretti, A. (2009). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress management in healthy people: A review and meta-analysis. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15, 593–600.
Grossman, P., Niemman, L, Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of psychosomatic research, 57, 35–43.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain and illness. New York: Dell Publishing.
Nhat Hanh, T. (1975). The miracle of mindfulness: A manual on meditation. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Sapolsky, R. (1994). Why zebras don’t get ulcers. NY: Holt Paperbacks.
Selye, H. (1974). Stress without distress. New York: Lippencott.
Wallace, A. (2006). The attention revolution: Unlocking the power of the focused mind. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.