With mindfulness meditation, the world doesn't necessarily change, your reactions to it do

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By Doug Erickson/The Wisconsin State Journal (TNS)
January 2, 2015

The 31 people arranged themselves in a circle, some in chairs, their spines erect, others kneeling or lying on the floor.

Among them was a veterinarian, a financial planner, a school administrator, a child psychotherapist and a legislative aide.

“Take a moment to recognize what's going on with your mind,” class leader Carmen Alonso encouraged them, after dimming the lights and ringing a meditation bell. “Check in with yourself just as you would with your best friend. How's it going?”

With that, the monthly drop-in session of UW Health's Mindfulness Program was off to a soothing start. All of the participants had, at some point in the past, completed an intensive, eight-week curriculum called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). This was a refresher, a tuneup.

While it may have looked like nothing much was going on in the room, researchers have learned quite the opposite. The participants were changing their brains in scientifically demonstrable ways, strengthening areas that would help them understand themselves and others better and allow them to respond with more resilience to life's challenges.

“If I tried to do my job without the mindfulness skills I have, I think it would probably kill me,” said Mark Knickelbine, 56, of Mount Horeb, an aide to a state senator and one of the people at the drop-in session.

Especially when the Legislature is in session, he bounces from one thing to another all day in an intensely partisan environment, dealing with people who also are under a great deal of stress.

Through mindfulness training, he learned his thoughts don't always give him a true picture of a situation.

“As I notice signs of stress rising in my body, I'm able to step back from that and say, 'OK, this is going on now,'” Knickelbine said. “It's just that simple ability to recognize it instead of reinforcing it and making it worse.”

'Not a fad'

Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the developer of MBSR in 1979, has defined mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose to the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Although it's an ancient practice, it's on a modern-day roll.

Time magazine heralded a “Mindful Revolution” in a February cover story. Anderson Cooper did a “60 Minutes” segment on it this month. The Seattle Seahawks NFL team hires a sports psychologist for team meditation sessions, and Google offers its employees mindfulness training.

“It's not a fad,” said John Morgan, 41, of Stoughton, a freelance science writer. “I think this is really going to mark the next jump in human health.”

Though skeptical at first, he turned to mindfulness several years ago to manage stress.

“It's not about making it all go away,” Morgan said. “It has to do with bringing a lot more presence and intention to your life so you can see stress when it's happening. That was the game-changer for me.”

UW-Madison neuroscientist Richard Davidson is among the pioneers putting hard science behind the testimonials. His work shows mindfulness meditation can physically alter parts of the brain, and rather quickly at that.

In a 2013 study, Davidson and his colleagues put a group of experienced meditators through a day of intensive mindfulness practices. A second group with no mindfulness experience spent the day doing quiet, non-meditative activities, such as reading and walking.

The participants in both groups then were put in an inherently stressful situation. They had to give impromptu speeches and perform five minutes of mental arithmetic in front of judges and a video camera.

The meditators showed a range of genetic and molecular differences that allowed their bodies to physically recover from the stressful situation faster than the bodies of those in the control group.

Basic capacity

“The invitation is that we can take more responsibility for shaping the mind,” Davidson recently told an audience in Manhattan.

Unconscious stimuli routinely try to hijack our emotions, plunging us into bad moods, Davidson said in the September speech. “It turns out that becoming more aware of (the stimuli) through meditation can actually help regulate your emotions and help you recover more quickly from adversity, to cope better with the slings and arrows of everyday life.”

This ability to pay attention and be aware of what's happening inside us and around us is a basic capacity we all have, said Bob Gillespie, a psychotherapist and manager of the UW Health Mindfulness Program.

“How you see things and how you handle things, in large measure, determines how much stress you feel,” he said. “Mindfulness is not a panacea at all, but what it does is interrupt that stress response and shift our habitual reactions to stress.”

Louisa Kamps, 47, of Madison, has studied mindfulness for several years and attends a free, Tuesday night meditation group in Madison sponsored by the Tergar Meditation Community. The gathering is just one of numerous options for meditators in the city.

“Mindfulness helps me remember that my thoughts aren't always true,” said Kamps, a contributing writer for Elle magazine and the married mother of two boys, ages 5 and 9. “It lets in a little bit of daylight, so there's no longer this solid belief that things are never going to get better.”

She thinks of the weekly meditation sessions as “this little thing in my hip pocket. If I'm really gasping for breath on any given day, I can know, OK, there's going to be an intervention.”

Many varieties

One way to think about all of this is that mindfulness is the process, while meditation is the practice, Gillespie said. There are thousands of different kinds of meditation that have many different objectives and vary wildly, he said.

One is a meditation where you sit with an awareness of a particular thing or things, such as your breath or body sensations or thoughts. Mindful yoga is another example, as is loving kindness meditation, a method for developing compassion and cultivating love for all living things, with no expectations of anything in return.

“The biggest part for me was understanding that I am not my thoughts, that there's a choice that I can make to step out of these negative loops in my head,” said Stacy Corless, 51, of Waunakee, who took the MBSR curriculum this spring after a stressful period in which her grandmother died and another family member fell ill. “It's helped me to be kinder to myself and to others.”

Katie Petykowski, 36, of Madison, a substitute teacher and the married mother of two young children, sought out mindfulness training two years ago after strep throat tore through her household multiple times.

“I just felt I didn't have any strategies to help me when I got to that point of being stressed out and exhausted,” she said.

She now tries to attend weekly drop-in meditation sessions, but that's not always possible with her schedule. Even just five minutes during the day to sit and focus on her breathing helps.

Soon after completing the series of mindfulness classes, Petykowski said she hit a wall. Literally, she rammed into a wall with her vehicle.

“I cracked the bumper, which wasn't a big deal, but before the classes, that would have startled me into more of a stressed-out response,” she said.

Instead, she repeated a mantra she'd learned: May I be safe and protected. May I be healthy and strong. May I be peaceful and calm. May I be at ease. May life not be so difficult.

“I say that a lot now,” Petykowski said. “It's ingrained in my head.”

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