Bob Condor, Seattle Post-Intelligencer: You’ve seen those small, water-filled globes that you shake up to simulate snow falling inside the scene. Dr. Mark Abramson wants you to think about those globes the next time you feel a bit frazzled or stressed out.
Like, oh, today or tomorrow as we go careering into the holiday weekend. There are just so many hours to wrap presents and wrap up work projects. Or to see friends and relatives while seeing to all of the details.
“We live in daily worlds that seem to always be shaken up,” says Abramson, who teaches mindfulness meditation and stress-reduction classes at Stanford University’s Center for Integrative Medicine. “We rarely feel settled. Starting a meditation practice is a way to resettle ourselves.”
Abramson is way ahead of you, because you likely are thinking that meditation is too hard, you’re never very good at it, there’s not enough time … have I mentioned the right reason yet?
“The first thing I address in any class is debunking the myths of meditation,” said Abramson, who teaches several “Mindfulness and Heartfulness” weekend courses at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif. “Historically, when meditation first came to the U.S., there was the idea that it leads to a trancelike state in which you develop super powers.”
Just not the case, said Abramson.
“What people find is they can’t stop their flow of thoughts as they try to meditate and quiet the mind,” said Abramson. “They think they are failing. They think everyone else is able to do it.”
Just not the case.
“There is just no stopping our thoughts,” said Abramson. “It’s not going to happen and it’s not necessary.”
Instead, Abramson practices a form of meditation called “mindfulness” that simply urges you to be mindful of those thoughts, that you are having them, that you may be distracted. You can even practice mindfulness on your last-minute shopping trips this week or over the weekend when a relative at the holiday table is, well, annoying you.
The aim of mindfulness is to be more aware of your body and your mind. Stopping to recognize your anxiety levels in itself slows stress hormones.
Abramson doesn’t want his students to set rigid goals for meditation. The idea is to “tap into whatever experience is going on inside of yourself.” Staying mindful becomes easier because there is no right or wrong way of doing it.
Abramson’s association with Stanford is no aberration. Meditation has become subject for many academic researchers looking to increase what we know about the mind-body connection. Some examples: The University of Massachusetts has a large-scale stress reduction program used at its medical center. UCLA scientists are evaluating whether meditation techniques can help individuals with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder.
An Indiana State researcher, Jean Kristeller recently was awarded a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to explore whether mindfulness meditation can help decrease the alarming rate of obesity in the U.S. by helping to curb eating binges.
“The focus of this research is to help people more effectively internalize control about eating through meditation,” said Kristeller, who has been a meditation researcher for 25 years. “Not only do they learn better to control their eating habits, but they don’t have to struggle with it as much. They don’t have the temptations that usually exist because they simply don’t want to overeat.”
For his part, Abramson said a meditation starts with awareness of breath. A taped meditation he provides to students even acknowledges that the mind is likely to wander.
“Just bring it back to being aware of your breathing,” explained Abramson. “Notice that your mind wandered, then refocus on your breath.”
Next, Abramson suggests a body scan. Start with your feet. What do you feel? Then your calves and shins, the knees and on up through the body and head. Make any number of stops.
It’s possible you won’t feel much at all in some parts of the body. That’s OK, said Abramson.
“That’s information,” he said. “You want to learn from your meditation practice.”
Not feeling parts of your body reinforces the need for connecting the mind and body. So does lots of activity or stress. It is healthful simply to know that your mind is racing or your shoulders and neck feel tight. You can do a body scan in seconds.
After the body scan, Abramson suggests checking in with all of your senses and any emotions you may be feeling. If a noise is distracting you, be mindful of it. If you are sad about not being with a loved one this holiday, be mindful of it. Honor all of the senses and emotions, then let go and refocus on your breathing.
Abramson was trained as a dentist who now specializes in patients with head and neck pain. He came to mindfulness early if accidentally. As a 14-year-old, a serious auto accident put him in bed for 10 weeks. During recovery he decided to pay attention to his considerable pain and suffering, that it might teach him something. As a dental student, he learned about the more formal art of mindfulness meditation and “realized I was already doing it.”
His Stanford classes are filled with patients referred by physicians to help address such conditions as heart disease, cancer, chronic pain, along with “Silicon Valley executives who realize if they keep up their current pace and lifestyle they will get sick.” He works with plenty of beginners.
“My students jump right into practices of 45 minutes a day,” said Abramson. “But I tell them if they can’t find 45 minutes, then even 15 minutes can be effective. Meditation practice gives you the choice of deciding who you are. It starts with being kind to yourself every day.”