We are experiencing the exponential growth of a trend that can significantly make us all healthier, calmer, more efficient, and even better listeners. It is the practice of mindfulness. Often associated with meditation, some may have dismissed it as a purely spiritual practice used by Buddhists or an alternative-lifestyle promoted by hippies. And while the practice originated within Buddhist, Hindu, Chinese and Japanese cultures, its current form in the United States falls more within the realm of psychology and medicine.
Mindfulness is ultimately about concentration and the ability to acutely focus our attention. And researchers have found that short-term training in mindfulness can reward people with significant changes in their lives. Studies have shown that it can provide dramatic improvements in cognitive function, mood, efficiency, even immune function. It decreases anxiety and depression. Perhaps most surprising is that practicing mindfulness leads to real structural change in the brain.
SmartPlanet spoke with Michael Baime, associate professor of medicine and head of the Penn Program for Mindfulness at the University of Pennsylvania, about this practice, how it is done and the amazing results it can provide.
SmartPlanet: So what is mindfulness?
Michael Baime: One of the most widely used definitions comes from John Kabat-Zinn who popularized mindfulness in our culture. He says that mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally. So that’s a definition of what you attempt to do when you practice mindfulness, but it doesn’t explain why someone would want to do it. Why would you want to pay attention in that particular kind of way?
Right, so what is going on when one is mindful? And why would one want to practice this?
In the United States mindfulness has been most widely used as a strategy for managing stress. And that doesn’t seem intuitive because you’d think that the last place you’d want to be when you were really stressed, or upset, or anxious, would be right where you are.
You’d probably want to focus on anything but your worried mind.
When you are anxious your mind is usually screaming at you, “get out of here, let’s go somewhere else, anywhere else!” So you can think of mindfulness as a way of training the part of you that is reactive, the part of you that is jumpy and unsettled when you’re anxious. But you have to notice it first and then see how it works.
I understand that mindfulness is like training oneself to be more deliberate in how we focus on events or experiences.
Right. When you get upset, anxious or stressed, your attention tends to accelerate, to spin around more and more quickly. And your body releases hormones that amplify that speed and reactivity. Your whole being becomes a very active energized system.
When you learn to practice mindfulness, you learn to steady and stabilize the attention -- to focus it so you have a chance to see what’s really happening, and a chance to make better choices. When you focus the attention it slows down by itself.
I imagine that is key. Slowing down in order to make better choices.
A lot of the ways we react are somewhat automatic. By learning to pay attention better we recognize these patterns and habits and learn to change our course instead of continuing to have an argument, or eat too much, or smoke, or drink. Instead we can take a fresh start and do something different than our normal pattern.
And there are real health benefits from practicing mindfulness?
Yes. The health benefits tend be systemic -- that is, they affect the whole body. For instance, training in mindfulness is associated with a wide variety of physical changes that include improved immune function, decreased pain, and even resistance to respiratory illnesses and colds. The most significant benefits though, and the reason why it’s become so widely popular, are the psychological benefits.
When people learn to practice mindfulness they report they feel less anxiety, less anger, less confusion, that they feel happier, that they feel that their relationships work better.
And it also helps with depression?
Yes. For someone who has had several episodes of serious depression we’ve found that a particular mindfulness-based strategy called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is as effective as continuing medication. Once people learn this strategy they are as protected from having a recurrence as are people who continue on medication. That’s not to say that people should run out and take a mindfulness stress management course and stop their medication. It requires careful thought and planning.
How do we practice mindfulness? And for how long do we need to practice before we see a change? I’m assuming this is quite a commitment.
The primary program that’s offered by my center and in many institutions across the country is an eight-week program, about 27 hours of class time, that asks people to practice for 30 or 40 minutes every day for eight weeks.
That’s a lot of time.
Yes. But it’s amazing how much change can happen in eight weeks. We give people who take our class survey measures of mood at the beginning and end of the program, and over the course of this eight-week class they report very significant decreases in anxiety, almost about 50 percent, decreases in depression of about 30 percent and decreases in anger of about 40 percent. We have followed these changes in several thousand individuals and they tend to be remarkably consistent.
Wow. And quite significant.
And those changes continue to evolve as people continue to practice the techniques.
Can give an example of one of the techniques.
The practice itself -- in fact all meditation practices -- involve focusing on something in your experience that is stable. So we typically begin with the breath.
It isn’t that there’s anything special about the breath, it’s just always there. Even if you forget to do it, it’s still happening. So you can come back to it very easily.
Another mindfulness-based practice involves paying attention to the body. Meaning moving through the entire body one part at a time and focusing all of your attention on the sensation that’s present in that part of the body.
This is all done so that we can control our attention?
Right. It doesn’t matter so much what you’re focusing on; what you’re learning to do is to focus attention, and to notice distraction in a way that allows you to come back into the present moment. So yes, the experience of meditating really is the experience of wandering off over and over again, and coming back.
Ironically the better people get at it, the more wandering that they’re likely to notice as their noticing gets better. As people get more adept at this kind of steady awareness they can begin to use more complicated situations as a focus for their mindfulness practice. By the sixth week of our class, we ask our students to focus their attention on the people who they’re talking to.
Focusing on another person, as opposed to just our breath, has got to be a lot more complicated.
Yes. You are more likely to become distracted, or to have reactions, or thoughts, or judgments, or things that you want to say. So it’s harder to stay present because the situation is so much more complicated.
And eventually this ability to attend and focus becomes easier and easier to do?
Ultimately this kind of awareness starts to happen naturally. We know through our research on cognitive neuroscience that there are physical changes in the structure of the neural systems that manage attention. Mindfulness practice actually changes the structure of the brain. Studies using very accurate MRI measures have documented increases in grey matter density [i.e., brain cell density in the central nervous system] in areas that manage learning, memory, and the regulation of emotion. Incredibly, these changes occur in just eight weeks.
Your program in mindfulness is embedded in the cancer center at the University of Pennsylvania. How is mindfulness helping cancer patients?
When people have cancer they realize something that we usually forget: That every moment of life is precious. Mindfulness helps them to notice each moment fully. And mindfulness is also very helpful for them because it teaches them to undo the negative predictions for the future and the catastrophizing that makes the life of a cancer patient so stressful.
How long has the program been running for?
It became a formal program about more than 20 years ago at the University of Pennsylvania.
You mentioned Dr. Kabat-Zinn and I understand that it was 1979 that the program at University of Massachusetts was founded. So it’s got a relatively young history.
Yes, in America. But the technique has been around for close to 3,000 years. It originated in India. And then moved to Tibet, Southeast Asia, Japan and China. In each case it adopted a presentation that was compatible with the culture that it had moved to. So Tibetan mindfulness practice that was a part of Buddhism there looks really different than Japanese mindfulness.
And then it comes to the U.S. and it looks different again?
Yes. This is the biggest transition in mindfulness that we’ve seen because it’s not coming into our culture as a religion, or a form of Buddhism -- it’s coming through education and health care, and psychology as a way to help people enjoy better health, to help them find happiness, and to manage stress, difficulty and negative emotions.
Have you found that suddenly in the last five years there’s been a surge of public interest in mindfulness?
Oh my goodness, it’s just shocking from my point of view. It’s unexpected and very, very dramatic. For a long time I was really something of a weirdo for doing this.
It has entered the mainstream of our culture. In some circles it’s even fashionable.
Why do you think that is?
Partly because of the impressive body of evidence that supports its use. If you look at a graph measuring the number of research studies done on mindfulness you don’t just see that they’re increasing; you see that they’re increasing exponentially. There’s been an explosion of information to support its use in fields ranging from business to education to psychology.
The vast majority of people who come to our program come because someone else has recommended it to them. And some of our classes are filled even before they’re publicized, and they have a waiting list often before the first notice about them has been released. Mindfulness has such a successful track record over such a long time because it works. It was passed from person to person and from generation to generation because people found that it made a difference in their lives. That was true thousands of years ago, and it’s still true now.