In Mindfulness, A Method to Sharpen Focus and Open Minds
By Alina Tugend
LIKE most people, I have my share of tension and anxiety. And I’m happy to find ways to cope that don’t involve illegal drugs. So when the term mindfulness began cropping up everywhere, I became intrigued.
Elementary school students practice it. Doctors practice it — and their patients. Prisoners practice it. There’s mindful eating that promises a healthier way of eating. And scans show mindfulness may change the way our brains function and help us improve attention, reduce stress hormones and even bounce back faster from negative information.
But, skeptic that I am, I wondered if it was being oversold as a panacea that is simple, safe and involves no heavy objects.
First, I had to figure out what exactly it is. I had an understanding that mindfulness went hand-in-hand with meditation, but also that it was more than that.
“Intentionally paying attention to the present nonjudgmentally” is the way that Janice Marturano explains it. Ms. Marturano is a former deputy general counsel and vice president for public responsibility at General Mills, and helped start its Mindful Leadership Forum in 2004. She left a few years ago to start the nonprofit Institute for Mindful Leadership.
What it’s not, she said, is only about reducing stress. Or about emptying our minds of all thoughts. Or about religion.
“People have the sense that mindfulness is something they can do by focusing on a raisin for five minutes,” said Michael Baime, director of the Penn Program for Mindfulness at the University of Pennsylvania Health System. “That is mindful practice, but it takes more than that.”
So here’s what I learned about the basic techniques. First, find a quiet place to focus your attention — on your breath or perhaps on an object. It’s not deep breathing, but rather experiencing “when the breath enters and leaves,” Ms. Marturano said. “Feel the stretch in the rib cage, without me doing anything. Can I notice when the mind takes a hike and redirect it? That redirection is the exercise.”
Perhaps you start at 10 minutes and work your way up to half an hour or 40 minutes a day. But that’s only part of the whole practice.
There’s also what Ms. Marturano calls “purposeful pauses.” Deciding that instead of thinking of a coming meeting while brushing your teeth you really focus on the taste of the toothpaste and the bristles and the water.
“Take yourself out of autopilot,” she said. And eventually expand that “being in the moment” to other parts of your life.
The idea is that over time you’ll feel more focused and more connected to yourself and others.
It sounds simple, but it’s not, because it so goes against the grain of how most of us think and operate. We want to get things done, to identify and fix problems. And that’s the opposite of what mindfulness is all about.
“The way it’s presented in the media, people begin to believe it’s a magic pill,” said Christy Matta, author of the book “The Stress Response” (2012, New Harbinger Publications). “I’ll clear my mind and I’ll be peaceful and stress-free. If that’s what people think, they’ll be disappointed.”
Rather, she said, “it takes time and sustained practice to experience the benefits.”
And, she said, if you go into it with the idea of reducing stress, you’re working against the very thing you’re trying to attain, because you’re aiming toward a goal.
Mindfulness, “is about being present,” she said. “You have to do it just to do it. You can’t strive for things.”
While being aware of your feelings may be nice when drinking a lovely cup of tea or relaxing in a garden, Ms. Matta said, part of mindfulness is also uncomfortable feelings — not trying to change or judge them, but being aware of them. And that may not feel so pleasant.
Dr. Baime said another common misconception is that mindfulness is about learning to be happy. It’s not. Nor is it about eliminating stress.
“Stress doesn’t go away, ever. That’s why we call it stress management rather than stress elimination,” he said. Rather, he said, mindfulness can “create a world where you experience depth, meaning and connectedness. You see joy and sadness more fully and settle more deeply into an authentic way of being.”
If that’s a bit tough to wrap one’s mind around, that’s O.K. Just go with it.
Eventually, mindfulness is supposed to help us spend less time worrying about the future or fretting about the past. We’ll gain perspective, listen better and step back to consider more choices and make decisions more clearly and intentionally, rather than reactively, Ms. Marturano said.
But you shouldn’t assume that mindfulness is the one answer to everything.
For instance, while it has been used to good effect in classrooms, it shouldn’t be used in isolation, said Linda Lantieri, director of the nonprofit group the Inner Resilience Program.
She and others have found that practicing mindfulness can increase attention and focus, and help children respond to stress in a calmer manner, but it also “needs to be part of learning concrete emotional and social skills,” she said.
And although it can help with anxiety and depression, you may need to augment it with other therapies or medication, Ms. Matta said.
Is mindfulness something you can learn by yourself? There are some good books that offer guidance. Ms. Matta mentioned her own, of course, and “Full Catastrophe Living,” (Delacorte Press, 1990) by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Professor Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is considered one of the foremost experts on the subject.
But everyone I spoke to said that you need to take a course and perhaps go on a retreat to fully experience and gain value from mindfulness. I realize that the people I talked to tended to teach courses, so maybe they’re a little biased. But it also makes sense to me.
Ms. Marturano, who delivered a presentation on mindfulness at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, compared it to exercise. You can watch a video of how to play tennis or read a book and perhaps even learn to play at a basic level that way. But to get better, you need a teacher.
“You’re on a journey of self-discovery and you need a guide,” she said.
Dr. Baime’s institute offers eight-week courses, which cost $549, in which participants attend class for two and half hours a week and one full-day session, and are provided with textbooks and recordings to help meditation at home. The class members are asked to meditate for 40 minutes daily, although Dr. Baime acknowledged that wasn’t an easy goal.
Professor Kabat-Zinn’s center has a useful list to search for centers and teachers by state.
Now that I know more about the potential and limits of mindfulness, I can see it as an option. And I can see why other people are drawn to it, given that we’re living in a such a fractured, information-overloaded world. We’re looking so far ahead to the next thing, we miss what’s going on in the present.
Mindfulness may not be the answer to every ill. But it may be the answer to some. And I’ll settle for that.