Lately my mind has been overwhelmingly crowded. With homework, the latest political news, and my personal agenda taking up space in my head, concentrating on any given task has become a challenge. Now more than ever I’ve needed a way to clear out my headspace.
While I like to occupy my free time with activities such as painting, writing, playing the guitar, and spending time with my friends and family, I’ve found that the most effective way to ensure that I’m putting my best foot forward when it comes to academics and life in general, is through mindfulness meditation.
Meditation can be defined in many different ways. In simple terms, meditation is the practice of training your attention. According to the popular meditation app, Headspace, “mindfulness is a way of living in which – when we remember – we are able to step back and be in the present moment in any situation. Meditation is the training ground for learning mindfulness. At first, we meditate to become familiar with the here and now for a limited period of time. Over time, however, regularly practicing mindfulness helps us develop the ability to be present throughout the day, every day.”
The practice of mindfulness meditation has been known to help people in a plethora of ways. Whatever you’re going through, taking a few minutes out of your day to concentrate on yourself and the present moment will benefit you. While meditation won’t immediately cure all of your problems, it will help you gain clarity, rid your conscious of negative energy, and approach each situation with a more open mindset. As someone who’s experienced a lot of physical and emotional pain in the past few years, and felt the improvements from mindfulness meditation, I can promise you that mindfulness meditation is a practice that you would benefit from implementing in your life.
Meditation can seem quite daunting. At least it did to me when I first started back in my sophomore year of high school. I didn’t get how it was possible to not think. As I came to find out, that’s not the sole objective of meditation.
Judith Moyer, who teaches a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class, described the objective according to the program. “I learned that MBSR, the way that they define it, is paying attention, on purpose or in a particular way, without judgement, and in the present,” said Moyer. “These really are life skills.” With that in mind, Moyer also explained how there’s no one set objective of mindfulness meditation. “The objective depends on the person’s intention. My objective as a teacher is to teach skills and to offer ways for that person to apply this to their life,” said Moyer. “If they need to reduce their stress levels, I can offer ways to do that. If they need work with their body healing, I can offer ways to do that. There’s wide applications. But the person’s intention is the important thing.”
To get a better understanding of MBSR, I asked Moyer to explain how the program started out, and how it has expanded. She said, “MBSR is a particular program that grew out of Jon Kabat Zinn’s work at UMass Medical School. He noticed that in the UMass Medical School facility, there were people there that were having a hard time. Medicine didn’t treat their issues. He asked the doctors if they would allow him to offer the early version of MBSR, a class, to people who were at end of life, or suffering from chronic disease, or people who were simply having trouble healing. He taught what became the eight week curriculum of this class. Low and behold people changed. Their experiences changed. Their healing sped up and the chronic diseases became more manageable. Jon went on to create this curriculum that he taught others to teach. He started in the late 1970s and this developed over time.”
ORHS Library Media Specialist Kathleen Pearce, who took her first class in 2015, and began regularly practicing mindfulness meditation in the summer of 2017, added, “because it was affiliated with a medical center, [Jon Kabat Zinn] took a very scientific, brain based approach. Because it’s so standardized, it has been used in hundreds of different studies over the years, different medical studies, to test the efficacy of it.”
Pearce, who meditates for twenty minutes every day, explained why she continues mindfulness meditation as a daily practice. “I don’t do it because I love meditating because some days it is so frustrating. I do it because I felt the difference in myself.”
With everything going on in the world there’s no doubt that the amount of people experiencing high amounts of stress and anxiety has dramatically increased. Dealing with stress and anxiety was one of the main reasons why I, and many other people, started practicing mindfulness meditation. “I’ve always been someone who’s struggled with stress and snapping at people when I’m stressed,” said Pearce. “Especially right now, quarantine is so difficult, the racial injustice in our world is so difficult, the political environment, everything. It’s so easy to just get really angry. I think part of meditation for me has been, instead of just being angry at someone, really stopping and thinking, ‘I wonder why they feel that way.’ Especially when it’s someone responding with something really hateful. That has really helped me.”
The reason mindfulness meditation can help you when it comes to controlling your reaction is because it forces you to be present in the moment and think about what you’re going to do before you do it. “It takes you out of a reactionary state of mind,” said Silas Twickler (‘21). “You can often say things that you don’t mean and when you just purely react to something you can get angry but if you take a minute to process it, it takes a lot of that out of the equation and allows the situation to run more smoothly.”
Mindfulness meditation started out, and continues to be one of the coping mechanisms I use to help me deal with whatever is going on in my life, such as the stress I experience from school or the more serious medical issues I deal with. But more than that, it has also become about allowing myself to take a step back, focus on something as simple as my breath, and have a few moments of silence to myself before beginning or ending my day. John Kell (‘21) has a similar reason for practicing meditation saying, “I find it really helps me unwind after a long day.”
Mindfulness meditation looks different for everyone. The time, location, and method of mindfulness meditation varies from person to person. “For me, it’s not really about meditating. It’s more about getting into a meditative state,” said Twickler. “When I’m climbing and skating, I try and do something small beforehand so I’m in a more calm state of mind.”
Twickler described how he uses mindfulness when climbing. “With the highest climb I’ve done yet I knew I needed to be completely calm and focus on the moment. Before I started climbing I took three deep breaths until I felt calm, and then I started climbing,” said Twickler. “Before that day I had only done half the run so once I got halfway there, I paused briefly and collected myself as I looked up towards the top. Then I continued to climb and only focused on the rock and my moves. This helped a lot because when I was up there I didn’t have a single thought about messing up or falling.”
According to the article, “An Update on Mindfulness Meditation as a Self-help Treatment for Anxiety and Depression” by the National Center for Biotechnology Information(NCBI), “meditation involves the intentional and repeated practice of intentionally activating the body’s relaxation response and has shown potential to improve one’s ability to manage stress, which has been shown to underlie various physical and psychological illnesses. In early studies, Benson and Klipper demonstrated that humans have the capacity to intentionally induce a state of relaxation or calm that assists the body in healing and rejuvenation.”
Helping the body in healing and rejuvenation is exactly what MBSR is known for. “Not only does [MBSR] help with stress, it helps with pain reduction,” said Pearce. “They’ve found that people who have chronic pain have seen relief from that.” MBSR classes help students to focus their attention. While practicing mindfulness on your own is beneficial, it may be helpful to sign up for a class to begin your journey. You can sign up for a class by contacting Moyer through her email- firstname.lastname@example.org.
An article titled “Mindfulness meditation-related pain relief: Evidence for unique brain mechanisms in the regulation of pain” by NCBI focused on mindfulness meditation in regards to pain reduction, references MBSR and the work done by Zinn. “In the early 1980s, clinical studies of mindfulness began with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s seminal work with chronic pain patients. It was hypothesized that training in mindfulness would attenuate pain by altering emotional responses to pain and enhancing acceptance-related coping strategies. Over the course of a five year study, it was found that chronic pain patients who completed an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program significantly improved their pain symptoms and overall quality of life, even up to four years after completion of this initial training. In other work, eight weeks of mindfulness training was shown to improve pain acceptance in lower back pain patients… It was noted that participation in the MBSR program reduced avoidance of pain-related threat words when compared to FM patients without meditation training.”
As someone who suffers from chronic back pain due to an accident in 2016, Pearce has insight into how meditation helps people cope with physical pain.“I think it has in that I understand now that pain is unavoidable, suffering is optional. You might experience physical pain, but the response you have to the physical pain is where the suffering comes in,” said Pearce. “If you’re constantly checking in on your body and are aware of things, once in a while you’re like, ‘oh my pain isn’t bad right now.’”
Helping me cope with physical pain is another one of the main reasons I started meditating. While mindfulness meditation can’t make the pain disappear, what it can do is teach you how to breathe through it, and as Pearce said, change your mindset so that you’re not suffering through pain, just experiencing it. I’ve had to cope with the fact that the pain I experience on a daily basis, due to an incurable condition, may never go away. Dealing with this is hard. And sometimes it gets the best of me. But spending time meditating has been what’s kept me sane and helped me to appreciate all the way in which I am fortunate instead of focusing on all the ways I am not.
Over the past six years I’ve been on my fair share of medication to help me through that pain. Some of the side effects have been pretty brutal, the worst being the depression and irritability. Once I started mindfulness meditation I found that I was able to avoid getting irritated as easily because I started thinking about my response instead of immediately reacting.
While mindfulness meditation is known more for helping people with stress, anxiety, pain, and depression, it has also been proven to help with bias. “Racial bias, gender bias, whatever. Your meditation practice trains you to notice the reaction that you’re having to something and pause before you do something about it,” said Pearce. “That helps with bias.”
According to an article titled “Three Ways Mindfulness Can Make You Less Bias” by Greater Good Magazine, “one study found that a brief loving-kindness meditation reduced prejudice toward homeless people, while another found that a brief mindfulness training decreased unconscious bias against black people and elderly people. In a third study by Adam Lueke and colleagues, white participants who received a brief mindfulness training demonstrated less biased behavior (not just attitudes) toward black participants in a trust game.”
The second study listed in the previously mentioned article by Greater Good Magazine is by Central Michigan University, who found wrote that “recent research has demonstrated that mindfulness meditation reduces implicit race and age bias by weakening the associations of the target group with negative constructs. The current research examined the potential for mindfulness to also affect discriminatory behavior. Participants listened to either a 10-min mindfulness audio or a control audio before playing a game in which they interacted with partners of different races in a simulation and decided how much they trusted them with their money. Results indicated that the mindfulness condition exhibited significantly less discrimination in the Trust Game than did either of the 2 control conditions.”
Throughout my years of meditation, I’ve meditated for as short as three minutes and as long as an hour. I’ve found that even though longer periods of meditation are generally more challenging to get through, some days three minutes can seem like an eternity. On those days it’s important to not push yourself too hard and understand that your brain will be less cooperative and you won’t be able to meditate for as long as you may usually. That’s okay.
For the times when your brain isn’t cooperating and your thoughts seem to have a mind of their own, Pearce has a technique that she uses. “There’s a great meditation on the 10% happier app. It’s called Welcome to the Party. Just imagine that your brain is a party, and your job is to greet people and welcome them to the party, but you don’t have to stand there and talk to them all night. Just welcome them to the party and then go back to what you were doing,” said Pearce,“when I find myself really frustrated and I just can’t stop thinking, I go to welcome to the party.”
For Pearce the hardest part about meditating is “just continuing to make it a daily habit. It’s so easy to have your day get away from you and be like, ‘oh I’ll do it tomorrow.’ Making the time is the hardest.”
Continuing mindfulness meditation can be as difficult as getting started. But what should you do when getting through one five minute session is a challenge? “It definitely helps to follow along with a guided meditation. There’s some good ones on YouTube,” said Kell. “It really helps you get the process started.”
Twickler added in his advice on what to do when you’re having trouble staying present. “Until you get to a certain point, it’s pretty easy to get distracted,” said Twickler. “When I get distracted I focus on my breath and that helps me bring my attention back.”
Before you get started it’s important to note that meditation is not just relaxation. Pearce described it perfectly when she said, “meditation is jogging for the brain. It’s a way to help your mind work better. You don’t have to om and you don’t have to do a mantra. You just focus on one thing and whenever your mind wanders you focus and go back to that one thing. It’s like teaching a dog to walk next to you off leash.”
Besides understanding what the purpose of mindfulness meditation is before you begin, there are other ways that you can make the process easier for yourself. “Designate a space to meditate. That space will then become associated with that state of mind,” said Twickler. “If you say you’re going to meditate one day make sure you follow through with it because it will improve your mental strength.”
Whether you begin mindfulness meditation to help you deal with stress, anxiety, sadness or depression, physical or emotional pain, or just to gain a new perspective, incorporating it into your life will benefit you.
According to Headspace, “meditation isn’t about becoming a different person, a new person, or even a better person. It’s about training in awareness and getting a healthy sense of perspective. You’re not trying to turn off your thoughts or feelings. You’re learning to observe them without judgment. And eventually, you may start to better understand them as well.”
“I have seen so many people benefit by learning and using mindfulness skills,” said Moyer. “Even now- or especially now, in these Covid-19 times- so many people who have taken my classes say how grateful they are to have and use their mindfulness practices to get them through the challenges. The skills and practices help us navigate through difficult times with more ease and less suffering…and that gives us the inner reserves to help others who are perhaps struggling and not thriving.”
Artwork by Acadia Manning