Health: On Mindful Meditation and The Skill of Being Present

Anna Amelianchik

If you are determined to make 2020 your healthiest year yet, now might be the time to add one more item to your list of New Year’s resolutions. While better nutrition and exercise can bring you closer to your fitness goals, your physical health and emotional well-being will most likely further benefit from mindful meditation. Although the practice of meditation dates back to 5000 B.C., meditation as a secular and therapeutic activity in the past several decades brought renewed attention to the ancient practice. In the traditional context, meditation is a mental practice designed to improve concentration, increase awareness of the present moment, and allow for the spiritual exploration of one’s mind. However, a more contemporary definition of meditation refers to the practice of focused attention, mindfulness, and compassion designed, among other things, to reduce stress and promote relaxation.

Meditation has also received a lot of attention in the scientific literature, where its benefits on brain function and cardiovascular health have been extensively studied. Scientific studies focusing on the neuroscience of meditation report both short- and long-term changes in brain electrical activity that occur as a result of dedicated meditation practice. These changes include the activation of the frontal cortex of the brain (associated with meta-awareness), the sensory cortex and the insula (associated with body awareness), the hippocampus (linked to cognitive function and memory), and cortical areas (linked to self- and emotion regulation). Scientific studies have also evaluated the effect of meditation on multiple cardiovascular risk factors, such as physiological response to stress, blood pressure, and smoking and tobacco use. These studies concluded that meditation possibly reduces cardiovascular risk. In fact, in 2017, the American Heart Association stated that meditation is a useful therapeutic tool for cardiovascular risk reduction when used as an adjunct to more traditional medical recommendations.

Although multiple forms of meditation exist, mindful mediation, which originated from Buddhist teachings, has been popularized in Western culture by people like Jon-Kabat Zinn, Ph.D., the creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, and Sharon Salzberg. Salzberg is a meditation teacher and a New York Times bestselling author who played a major role in bringing meditation and mindfulness to the West in the 1970s. In December 2019, Salzberg visited The Rockefeller University where she gave a public talk on compassion and guided a short meditation practice. Salzberg described meditation as a skills training which is available to everyone, regardless of religious affiliation or worldview. These skills include concentration, mindfulness, and compassion. “Most of us would describe ourselves as fairly scattered or distracted,” said Salzberg, adding that when we let our attention go to the past or the future, the feelings of regret and anxiety cost us energy. This is why the first principle of meditation is gathering—gathering the attention, learning how to settle, and learning how to center. Salzberg defined the second skill acquired through meditation—mindfulness—as a quality of awareness in which our perception is not distorted by biases, like old fears or pain. Finally, the third skill—compassion—is central to mindful meditation, as this form of meditation teaches one to accept all that arises as a consequence of the practice without judgement. Salzberg highlighted the importance of self-compassion and described it as resilience against the pain of not having fulfilled something or having made a mistake.

The foundational technique of mindful meditation taught by Salzberg and other experts involves choosing an object of awareness, resting all of one’s attention on that object, and bringing the attention back when it wanders without self-inflicted judgement. Commonly, the central object of awareness is the feeling of breath. However, many people find it difficult to continuously focus on breathing and eventually fill their mind with thoughts, which causes them to lose their object of awareness. Salzberg teaches that being able to start over is an important part of meditation: “The healing and the empowerment is in being able to come back. Having self-compassion is not the same thing as being lazy—it’s the source of tremendous strength, not a weakness. Self-compassion is the best way to have a sustained effort toward learning something or making a change.”

Whether you are new to meditation or trying to improve your existing practice, consider following these steps to learn concentration, mindfulness, and compassion:

  1. Sit as comfortably as you can.
  2. Close your eyes or keep them open—however you feel most at ease.
  3. See if you can find the place where your breath is strongest and clearest for you: in the nostrils, the chest, or the abdomen.
  4. Unlike in some yoga traditions, in meditation the breath is natural—do not try to make it deeper or different from your normal breath.
  5. When you find the place where the breath is the clearest for you, bring your attention there and rest.
  6. If you like, you can use a quiet mental notation, such as “in-out” or “rise-fall”, to help support the awareness of the breath.
  7. If images, sounds, sensations, or emotions arise, let them flow, unless they cause you to lose the feeling of the breath.
  8. If you lose the feeling of the breath, it is your chance to let go and begin again by bringing your attention back to your object of awareness.

Salzberg recommended finding a formal dedicated time period for meditation practice—ideally about ten minutes a day during which your only goal is to hone your meditation skills. Although some meditation teachers encourage their students to meditate in the morning, Salzberg believes that the best time for meditation should be determined by you. In addition to dedicated practice, the “short moments many times” type of meditation can help you be present when you are under the most pressure and during the most complex times of the day. Consider taking a few mindful breaths before making a phone call, writing an email, or attending an important meeting. However, just like weight training makes your muscles stronger and prevents you from strain-induced injury, dedicated meditation allows you to practice being present to protect your physical and emotional health from the stresses of modern life.

Last March, Ann Campbell, MSN, MPH, an occupational health nurse practitioner at The Rockefeller University and a Nalanda Institute fellow, and the late Dr. Bruce McEwen, the head of Rockefeller’s Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology, formed an interdisciplinary steering committee which currently includes scientists and non-scientists who are interested in measuring the effect of mindfulness practices on health and expanding the available classes on campus.

McEwen’s research indicated that mindfulness practices might have an impact on public health. Campbell was interested in clinical translation of mindfulness practices as a clinical practitioner. Before the steering committee was formed, there were no free yoga classes on campus. Currently there are five yoga classes and two free 30-minute meditation sessions available to the members of the Rockefeller community for free. In addition to expanding mindfulness practices on campus, the committee is working to develop clinical protocols to measure the effect of mindfulness practices on various health outcomes in patient populations, such as patients with rheumatoid arthritis. In particular, they will focus on the effect of mindfulness practices on the results of blood tests, levels of inflammatory markers, and gene expression. Additionally, they are organizing a journal club and bringing speakers to increase awareness of the benefits of mindful meditation.

It can be advantageous to do mediation in guided sessions versus on your own because when someone guides you, this helps you understand barriers and create an awareness of “inner landscape.” You can attend one of these mindfulness practice sessions on Tuesdays at 12 p.m. or 12:30 p.m. in Rockefeller Research Building 110.

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