Healthy Outlook: Mindfulness — How to embrace it, and why you might want to
Plus, how a surprising neighbor city is practicing mindfulness from the top down
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Some of the effects of mindfulness are surprising, even to a local psychiatrist who has been practicing and teaching it for decades.
“What (studies) show is that mindfulness, for either anxiety or depression, is as effective as medication alone or psychotherapy alone, which is remarkable, actually,” said Dr. William Hale, who practices in Lawrence and Overland Park. “Even I, as a believer in mindfulness, find that remarkable.”
The term “mindfulness” has become relatively mainstream over the past several years. It gets thrown around a lot, but what does it really mean?
Hale said a quick and simple definition is “bringing awareness to present moment experience and allowing that experience to just be as it is.”
“Usually instead of having awareness in present moment experience, our hands are here doing one thing while our minds are elsewhere doing five other things,” Hale said.
Also, rather than simply experiencing the moment nonjudgmentally, we tend to focus on our internal reactions and thoughts. We want to make pleasant experiences more pleasant and strive to avoid the unpleasant, Hale said.
He clarified that mindfulness doesn’t simply refer to relaxation of any sort, as some may believe. There are some key distinctions. Mindfulness is a type of meditation, but it can also refer to a way of being in relation to one’s day-to-day life while not meditating, he said.
Effects of mindfulness
Hale was trained to teach a mindfulness course in 1994 through an internship at Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts.
photo by: Contributed Photo
The course is fairly standardized, and Hale said it’s been the basis for many studies, now including metastudies — larger studies that examine multiple comparable studies.
The effects of mindfulness on physical, emotional and cognitive health can be far-reaching in those who practice it. For instance, Hale said mindfulness can increase our enjoyment and productivity by allowing us to better concentrate.
“Every moment of our waking experience is mediated by our awareness and by our ability to hold it where we want it,” he said.”So if one is less distractable, then that results in feeling more relaxed because the mind is less busy and less stressed if it’s able to stay where it wants to stay.”
That can impact a lot of aspects of daily life.
“We can experience enjoyment, for instance, of eating a chocolate chip cookie only to the extent that we are mentally present when we’re eating the chocolate chip cookie,” Hale said. “If 95 percent of the moments that we’re eating the cookie our mind is somewhere else, we don’t really get the full pleasure out of eating the cookie.”
Physically, mindfulness can improve our health even at a molecular level, Hale said, preserving the telomeres that protect our chromosomes. On a macro level, though, he said the practice has been shown to help those with chronic pain and migraine headaches; it also lowers blood pressure and boosts immune activity.
As mentioned above, studies have shown benefits to those with anxiety or depression. Also, work groups that are trained in mindfulness tend to work more cohesively, and employees of mindful bosses tend to be happier, Hale said.
How to get started
Hale offered some tips and strategies you can implement to practice basic mindfulness.
• Focus on your breath. Whether it’s for just one inhale and exhale, five minutes or half an hour, focusing your attention on your breath can help you let go of stress that’s present in the moment.
• Try mindful eating, even just for one bite. As you’re about to take a bite, take a moment to examine the food’s colors and visual textures. “We don’t do that, normally,” Hale said. Then, be mindful in bringing the food to your mouth, chewing, tasting and swallowing, and take 60 seconds or so to slow that process down.
• Do a quick body scan. Start at your toes and work your way up, taking a moment or two to bring attention to each part of your body individually. “One might find that some tensions are present in a particular location, and so then one could spend a little more time at that location and notice more deeply what’s there,” Hale said.
• Enjoy the subtle, pleasant features of your environment. Oftentimes, we’re wrapped up in negativity in our own heads, Hale said, even when we’re surrounded by hundreds of pleasant stimuli throughout our days. “If we tune into even the little stuff,” such as a cloud formation overhead, a breeze or a single red leaf, for example, “that helps us be in a happier frame of mind.”
• Use a break at work to meditate. It can help, even if it’s just for one minute of a 15-minute break. “A lot of people, while on a break at work, might be sitting there going through social media, and that’s not relaxing,” Hale said. You can also take a moment in a stairwell, for instance, to enjoy the quiet, slow your pace and simply tune into the experience of taking one step at a time.
• Go off the grid. Take some time out of each day to (gasp) avoid all screens, TV and radio or music — no media whatsoever. “Even if you’re engaged in activity during that time, being engaged in that activity without multitasking in the form of listening or watching the TV or music or radio is a way of being at least a little more present, and at least a little less distracted.”
• There’s an app for that. There’s a multitude of apps available for iPhone and Android — Calm, Headspace and 10% Happier to name a few — but those all come with a pretty hefty subscription cost. Hale favors Unified Mindfulness, a course at unifiedmindfulness.com that teaches the basics for free, but he said he’s heard good things about the paid apps from patients, also.
• Struggling with meditation? That’s OK. Hale said a lot of people get discouraged when they first try meditation because they expect to have a calm, peaceful and relaxing experience, but that’s a misconception.
“If what is in the moment is restlessness and they are doing their best to do the technique and doing their best to allow present moment experience, then they’re doing great meditation,” Hale said. “… And when I say great, I mean that’s beneficial meditation. It doesn’t feel as good, but if you actually bring mindful awareness to a state of agitation, and if you actually (allow that as much as you can), you’re cultivating some pretty potent skills.”
Our job is simply to do our best. For example, in focusing on our breathing, we may be able to hold our minds pretty well on the breath, or maybe we can’t do that much at all, “but our job is simply to do the best we can at that moment,” Hale said.
In doing these two things, then in future times when you sit down, you actually are more likely to have a quiet, relaxing experience, Hale said.
Training courses and mindful Ottawa
About two years ago, Hale began working with community leaders in Ottawa to make the city more mindful.
In the time since, many city leaders — including those at Ransom Memorial Hospital, city government, chamber of commerce, community mental health center and Ottawa University — have taken the intensive eight-week course with Hale, and several meet monthly to coordinate efforts to extend the training to the rest of the community.
“Since leaders have meaningful contact with large numbers of people, that would have an effect, it would spread, whether or not other people practiced mindfulness,” Hale said.
Additionally, nine organizations in Ottawa have paid for staff to be trained, and several others have planned for training in the near future. Hale said that 1 percent of Ottawa’s population is trained in mindfulness now, and he’s not read or heard of any other city with these types of efforts underway.
“(Ottawa) has so many characteristics that you would not associate with a community wanting to be mindful,” Hale said. “You know, it’s rural, it’s in the Bible Belt, it’s politically conservative. But there it is, so it’s, I think, really a ‘man bites dog’ kind of story.”
For Ottawa residents, another class will start on Jan. 22. More information is available on the hospital’s website, ransom.org.
For Lawrence folks, Hale will teach a class beginning in mid-March. More information will be available at mindfulinthemoment.com.
About Healthy Outlook
Healthy Outlook is a column written by Journal-World reporter and Health section editor Mackenzie Clark, in hopes of helping readers make their lives a little bit happier, healthier and more active.
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