“I don’t want to go to bed,” whimpered my 4-year old son, Gabe, “I’m afraid.” This was a regular occurrence. Several months earlier he had experienced a nightmare, and since then he dreaded sleep. Drawing upon my parenting instincts and my skills as a clinical psychologist, I had been normalizing his fears and giving him ample opportunity to process his bad dream . . . all to no avail!
This particular evening, I decided to try something new: mindfulness. As a student of mindfulness meditation at UC Irvine’s Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine, I was learning first-hand the benefits of being in the moment. Emulating my instructors, I explained, “Your body is in the room, but your mind is in another place. Would you like to bring your mind into the room, where it is safe?” Gabe was an eager participant!
“Let’s use our senses. What do you see?” I asked. He noticed the world map on the wall, and the blue glow of his lava lamp. “What do you hear?” A car driving by, the dishwasher. “What do you notice with your sense of touch?” The soft bed, the warm covers. “Now bring your attention to your breath. Don’t change the way you’re breathing – just notice the air coming into your body, and the air going out.” He seemed to be focusing. “How do you feel?” I asked.
“Good,” Gabe replied, as he drifted off to sleep.
Mindfulness meditation is an ancient practice found in most cultures and in every major religion (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006). A secular program was created in 1979 by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a student of Zen Buddhism and a researcher at University of Massachusetts (UMass) Medical Center. He believed that patients could alleviate their suffering through moment-to-moment awareness, which led to the development of a groundbreaking course entitled Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
MBSR is a highly participatory 8-week course consisting of up to 35 participants who meet approximately 2 hours per week, with one 6-hour silent retreat, and daily mediation homework. Mindful awareness of the present moment is cultivated through formal practices (e.g., focus on the breath, body scan, gentle yoga, sitting and walking meditations) as well as informally exploring applications in daily life (e.g., eating, relationships, work, stress).
More than 18,000 participants have completed MBSR at what is now known as UMass’s Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society. In addition, more than 9,000 health professionals have completed their training to become an instructor. Programs are taught worldwide in fields such as medicine, psychology, neuroscience, education, business, law, and even the military.
Over the past 30 years, there has also been exponential growth in research examining MBSR and a variety of offshoots termed mindfulness-based interventions. Studies demonstrate benefits for a range of conditions, including chronic pain (Kabat-Zinn, 1982), type 2 diabetes (Rosenzweig et al., 2007), cancer (Carlson, Speca, & Faris, 2007; Witnek-Janusek et al., 2008), HIV (Robinson, Mathews, & Witnet-Janusek, 2003; Creswell, Myers, Cole, & Irwin, 2009), and substance abuse (Bowen et al., 2009), as well as anxiety and mood problems (Hoffman, Sawyer, Witt, & Oh, 2010). Even healthy individuals demonstrate improvements in such areas as immune functioning (Davidson et al., 2003), attention (Jha & Baime, 2007), and well-being (Carmody & Baer, 2008).
Recognizing the public’s interest in evidence-based approaches to complementary and alternative medicine, UC Irvine’s Samueli Center has become Orange County’s hub for MBSR offerings. Dr. Don Maurer, an instructor, notes that most people who enroll are seeking better ways to respond to their stress, which is making their lives unnecessarily unpleasant.
“We are all so busy,” Maurer explains, “and there doesn’t seem to be enough time. Yet we are usually ruminating about the past or worrying about the future, and we are rarely in the present.” At the conclusion of each course, active participants consistently report that the ability to tune into the here and now provides greater peace of mind.
The Samueli Center has also partnered with Human Options, a non-profit focused on ending domestic violence. Supported by generous gifts from two individuals, Beth Mulligan, a nurse practitioner working in the center, customized a mindfulness program and taught it to women in transitional housing who had recently left a battering relationship.
“The residents found it especially helpful to learn about stress physiology,” Mulligan shared. One landmark study (Hölzel et al, 2011) used MRI brain scans to show the impact of mindfulness on the amygdala, which activates the “fight or flight response” to protect people when they are threatened. If it continuously alarms under safe conditions, however, it can harm one’s health. Pre- and post-MBSR scans showed that participant-reported reductions in stress correlated with decreased density in the amygdala. As the women at Human Options came to understand these findings, they felt empowered to take charge of their own stress reaction.
A final mindfulness endeavor at the Samueli Center involves a collaborative research project with UC Irvine’s Environmental Health & Safety department. The purpose is to examine whether the practice of mindfulness improves employee safety, health, and (in cases of hospital staff) patient care. According to the university’s injury investigation reports, nearly 70% of the primary root cause of injuries (e.g. trips and falls, needlesticks/sharps) is that individuals were “inattentive or distracted.” Distraction also plays a large role in medication errors. This project will teach employees a new way of paying attention through an adaptation of MBSR that emphasizes safety.
In MBSR, mindfulness is defined as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” How can something as seemingly simple as the way in which we pay attention impact the masses, generating a mindfulness movement within our culture?
And why is it that every night, without fail, as my son climbs into bed, he asks, “Can we do mindfulness?”
As Kabat-Zinn illuminates, it’s not about falling asleep. It’s about “falling awake” to each moment of our lives.
Bowen S., Chawla N., Collins S.E., Witkiewitz K., Hsu S., Grow J., Clifasefi S., Garner M., Douglass A., Larimer M.E., Marlatt A. (2009). Mindfulness-based relapse prevention for substance use disorders: a pilot efficacy trial. Substance Abuse, 30, 295–305.
Carlson L.E., Speca M., Faris P., Patel K. (2007). One year pre-post intervention follow-up of psychological, immune, endocrine and blood pressure outcomes of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) in breast and prostate cancer patients. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 21, 1038–1049.
Carmody J., Baer R.A. (2008). Relationships between mindfulness practice and levels of mindfulness, medical and psychological symptoms and well-being in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 31, 23–33
Creswell J.D., Myers H.F., Cole S.W., Irwin M.R. (2009). Mindfulness meditation training effect son CD4+ T lymphocytes in HIV-1 infected adults: a small randomized controlled trial. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity,23, 184–188.
Davidson, R.J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S.F., Urbanowski, F., Harrington, A., Bonus, K., Sheridan, J.F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564-570.
Hofmann S.G., Sawyer A.T., Witt A.A., Oh D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(2), 169–183.
Hölzel B. K., Carmody J., Vangel M., Congleton C., Yerramsetti S. M., Gard T., Lazar S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research, 191, 36–43.
Jha A.P., Krompinger J., & Baime M.J. (2007). Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cognitive Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, 109-119.
Kabat-Zinn (1982). An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: theoretical considerations and preliminary results. General Hospital Psychiatry, 4(1), 33–47.
Robinson F.P., Mathews H.L., Witek-Janusek L. (2003). Psycho-endocrine-immune response to mindfulness-based stress reduction in individuals infected with Human Immunodeficiency Virus: A quasi-experimental study. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 9, 683–694.
Rosenzweig S., Reibel D.K., Greeson J.M., Edman J.S., Jasser S.A., McMearty K.D., Goldstein B.J. (2007). Mindfulness-based stress reduction is associated with improved glycemic control in type 2 diabetes mellitus: a pilot study. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 13, 36–38.
Walsh, R., & Shapiro, S. (2006). The Meeting of Meditative Disciplines and Western Psychology: A Mutually Enriching Dialogue. American Psychologist. 61(3), 227–239.
Witek-Janusek L., Albuquerque K., Rambo Chroniak K., Chroniak C., Durazo-Arvizu R., Mathews H. (2008). Effect of mindfulness based stress reduction on immune function, quality of life and coping in women newly diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 22, 969–981.