Healthy Life


Mind Your Breath … and Prosper

How the hot new mindfulness movement helped this writer and can give you a boost, too.

 

The Caloosahatchee Mindfulness Center is found in a nondescript office complex in south Fort Myers, and that’s where I find myself one evening in late March, ostensibly for professional research about the emerging “mindfulness” movement but in truth for reasons more personal than that.

The sun is setting and the room lit by two tall columns of soft, diffuse light. The leader, Chris Lee Nguyen, welcomes participants to this beginner’s mindfulness meditation session and invites us to choose a floor cushion or folding chair. He explains how meditation is the gateway for achieving a more present, focused, conscious, “mindful” existence and then describes the session’s format: A brief instructional period, followed by 20 minutes of seated meditation, 10 minutes of walking meditation, and then a repeat of both. I must have shot him a look of distress because he quickly tells us not to worry; we could slip out the door halfway through.

Watch: Everyday Mindfulness for Everyday People seminar 

I am meditation’s least likely candidate. I write standing up because I get squirmy sitting down; at home, my clingy little dog makes laps around the house attempting to stay in my shadow; my family compliments me (I am not kidding) when I am still.

Anne Kracmer leads a session at Caloosahatchee Mindfulness.

My brain moves just as much. If you could listen in, you’d hear a nonstop monologue, frequently focused on the what-has-to-get-done list composed in the mornings or fretting over the what-hasn’t-gotten-done leftovers at day’s end. You’d catch me toggling among a half-dozen webpage tabs, doing choreography while doing dishes (I’m a part-time dance teacher), assessing story ideas while sorting socks.

The multitasking can be productive and useful—why not employ a little intellectual stimulation to counter housework’s drudgery? But I’ll confess: My restless mind can be self-defeating, too. It likes to wander to areas where it shouldn’t—places where worry and self-doubt and anxiety reside. It prefers the future tense, even though I’ve read enough to know that the human brain works best when functioning in the present. It distracts easily and refocuses begrudgingly.

And that’s the real reason behind my visit; everywhere lately, it seems, I am hearing the virtues of mindfulness—more happiness, better focus, less anxiety, stronger presence, greater calm—and I wanted in.

At this point, though, I don’t really understand what the term means; I don’t know if it’s merely hype; and I’m skeptical about meditation—whether it works and, more critically, whether I can stay quiet.

I sit cross-legged on a cushion. Nguyen taps a ceremonial bowl. Its vibrations reverberate through the room and fade to silence. I close my eyes.

 

Before I attempted Nguyen’s hourlong meditation and a shorter one I dropped in on that morning with mindfulness trainer Mary Robinson, I had met with Angela Tarquini-Sanders, the founder of Mindful Mindz in Naples. At that point, all I knew about “mindfulness” is what I had gleaned from psychology-oriented publications lining the newsstands—that it was all about “being present” (and that it might somehow incite a love of tea drinking, journaling, gardening and other holistic pursuits).

Tarquini-Sanders offered a more informed primer, instructed me on how to tackle the meditation component, debunked my misperceptions, and introduced some of the science corroborating mindful meditation’s psychological and physiological benefits. In her I found a relatable and credible source. Her mindfulness journey started years ago when her children were small and she was juggling motherhood and a career as a Big Pharma consultant—a lifestyle far closer to mine than whatever “hippie” stereotype one might conjure.

Angela Tarquini-Sanders talks with workshop participants during an “Awareness of Breath” workshop at the Shangri-La Spa in Bonita Springs.

“Mindfulness,” Tarquini-Sanders says, quoting a University of Massachusetts researcher who is credited with bringing the movement into the mainstream, “is the ability to sustain your attention in the present moment without judgment.” She elaborates: It’s our ability to pay attention to what’s happening right now without wanting the circumstances to be any different.

The practice cultivates the mind’s ability to focus, suspends one’s tendency to judge oneself and one’s actions, and helps adherents pause before reacting to a situation—whether that’s swallowing an urge to cuss out a fellow driver or tempering the tone used on an unruly child. That calmer, more compassionate self, in turn, treats others with greater patience, kindness and empathy. Or so the theory goes.

It sounded lovely.

I had started calming my frenetic life about a year ago, building in breaks and chiseling down my perfectionist tendencies so I could relax more and fret less. I (and, more importantly, my husband) sensed a difference; still, I might describe myself as “roller-coasterish,” sometimes on an upswing, sometimes plunging down, and sometimes—OK, too often—derailed by situations beyond my control and problems that are not mine to solve. As I start this reporting, I am at least three weeks into a bout of fatigue that isn’t resolving with extra sleep. I hope that achieving “mindfulness” might offer a leveling and consistency—and a restoration of energy.

Tarquini-Sanders, who regularly teaches at Integrative Mindfulness in Bonita Springs, continues to explain: “You can’t have mindfulness without meditation.” She likened it to wishing for a fit and healthy body without committing to exercise.

Like most non-meditators, I had a mental image of the kinds of people I would find in a meditation session: stone-still, utterly disciplined souls whose minds were like computers in sleep mode—brimming with information but temporarily off, blank, silent. How could I possibly fit in?

“It’s just breathing,” Tarquini-Sanders promises. She then explains the process: You sit (or lie down, or even walk) and focus your mind on your breath. You don’t have to breathe deeply or change your breathing patterns; you just notice what the body is doing. Every time your mind wanders (and it’s going to wander—that’s what the brain does), bring your attention back to your breath. Don’t scold yourself. Don’t reset the timer because you “failed” to maintain focus for the entirety of your allotted time.

“You can’t eliminate your thoughts,” she says, “but you can notice when your mind is wandering and come back to your breath. … It’s like the ocean; the waves that come in, those are your thoughts. Your mind is like a boat, and the anchor that keeps it steady is the breath.”

Hearing that my busy brain is normal is encouraging (Tarquini-Sanders also tells me it’s OK to squirm a little, as long as I do so deliberately, not subconsciously). Nevertheless, I remain skeptical—all those benefits from breathing?

She laughs with understanding. “It is so simple, and that’s what is so mind-blowing.” Over time, by focusing on one singular action, the brain learns to concentrate. In the silence, the mind can listen to the body. In the act of “non-doing,” the psyche learns what it means to exist in the present moment without our typical penchant of racing to the what-comes-next or ruminating over the what-just-happened.

 

On the aforementioned newsstand of a local bookstore, I had found at least nine magazines dedicated wholly or in part to mindfulness. At my public library, I came across a table filled with literature on mindfulness, meditation and conscience. The Caloosahatchee Mindfulness Center is just a few months old (the founders had borrowed space in a school until surging interest warranted a standalone location); the organizers of a Naples festival, who introduced me to Tarquini-Sanders, dedicated three of their 22 events this spring to mindfulness, stress-reduction and brain science. Big firms, including Aetna, Nike and Google, are offering mindfulness training to their staffs. Anderson Cooper did a 60 Minutes special on his mindfulness training; ABC News anchor Dan Harris wrote a best-selling book, 10% Happier: How I Tamed The Voice In My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story, on discovering mindfulness meditation after suffering an on-air panic attack.

But the mindfulness philosophy that’s catching fire here has been followed elsewhere for some 2,500 years, stemming from the teachings of Buddha. It began spreading to the West in the late 1950s during the Tibetan exodus, and then by way of young people returning to the United States after stints with the newly created Peace Corps and other extended travels.

(Incidentally, there is no requirement that one must convert to Buddhism to practice mindfulness meditation; I even visited with a British-born Buddhist monk at a Buddhist center in Fort Myers who led a decidedly secular meditation class and stressed the universality of its objectives.)

But it was a scientist, not a spiritual leader, who put mindfulness on a course leading to today’s emergent fascination with all things “mindful.”

In the late 1970s, University of Massachusetts molecular biologist and meditation practitioner Jon Kabat-Zinn proposed teaching critically ill patients to meditate as a means of pain management. Kabat-Zinn developed an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training program that incorporated mindful breathing, “body scan” meditation and movement derived from Hatha Yoga. He also taught the patients to “be present” during everyday activities such as eating and walking. Participants were required to attend weekly classes and practice meditation for 45 minutes a day on their own.

Randomized clinical trials followed, and the results were so pronounced they surprised even Kabat-Zinn.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t believe it,” Kabat-Zinn said in a video explaining one of his earliest trials—a study that found psoriasis patients who participated in guided meditation while undergoing phototherapy treatment healed four times faster than patients who did not. A larger, follow-up study affirmed the results.

Additional research at UMass and elsewhere demonstrated improvement in everything from psychological distress to a spectrum of physical diseases and conditions. Mediation has been shown to boost immunity, improve sleep quality, lower blood pressure and help recovering substance abusers stay clean.

Meanwhile, other scientists began using MRIs to peek inside the meditating brain. The findings are astounding: Over time, the very structure of the brain changes. The area related to sensory processing thickens; the age-related thinning of the region that controls problem-solving, reason, logic and memory slows; gray matter—the thinking, remembering, muscle-controlling part of the brain—increases.

Mary Robinson has practiced meditation for 30 years and leads guided meditations at Caloosahatchee Mindfulness in Fort Myers.

But the finding most applicable to my objective is this: Regular mindfulness meditation shrinks the amygdala, that little almond-shaped “fight or flight” control switch. An expanded, agitated amygdala signals our bodies to release cortisol, the stress hormone, which fuels anxiety-related tempers and tummy aches, melancholy and memory lapses.

“We do know from the research that when the mind has been trained in a certain way, certain neuronal patters—new neuronal patterns—are created and we don’t go to ‘fight or flight’ as much. We can circumvent it,” says Mary Robinson, a licensed marriage and family therapist and a mindfulness trainer at the Caloosahatchee Mindfulness Center who trained in Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR approach.

She believes science behind and the medical profession’s growing acceptance of meditation are driving its growth in American culture. She uses its principles with her patients, and she’s been using it for some 30 years on herself.

“I began to recognize that I was much calmer, a lot less anxious, not so driven in my work and in what I was doing … and a lot more open and interested in people and how they think and how they can improve their lives. In Buddhism, they call it ‘avoiding suffering.’ It’s being happy,” Robinson says.

Robinson had tried other kinds of meditation, but the mindfulness one resonated for its practicality and everyday applications. “If I’m caught in traffic, and I’m really uptight, I can mindfully breathe and change my whole system. … Three mindful breaths, and I dare you to wind up in the same place you were before you started.”

 

True to myself, I don’t tiptoe but instead plunge into my mindfulness meditation exposure. On a Thursday in late March I arrange my schedule to attend two guided sessions—a 45-minute one led by Robinson and the hour-plus one by Nguyen.

“Apprehensive” doesn’t quite define my mood (I mean, nothing bad can happen), but even with Tarquini-Sanders’ previous encouragement, I wonder whether I’ll be crawling out of my skin 10 minutes in.

I wasn’t. Time felt altered in a way I’d never experienced—simultaneously suspended and moving in fast-forward. I achieved even the hourlong meditation without desiring to flee halfway through. When Nguyen brought that session to a close, I felt as if I had emerged from a dream, returning to reality after having been somewhere else.

When I woke the next morning, I felt refreshed—fully and completely rested—for the first time in weeks. The feeling persisted all that day and into the next. It made me hunger for more.

 

Over the weekend I practice on my own with mixed results, and on Monday, I join another guided session, this time with Chodor Kelsang, the Buddhist monk, at Samudrabadra Kadampa Buddhist Center in Fort Myers. I hoped to glean as much as I could from someone who’d studied mindfulness from its native origins.

Kelsang put to words exactly what I was experiencing, and in doing so, he put my still-lingering self-doubts to rest. At the start of a meditation session, a frenzy of thoughts swirls through our consciousness, he tells the small class. With breath, stillness and concentration, they quietly settle into submission.

“Through that,” he says, “there is a feeling of peace, and when you find peace within yourself, you can find peace in the world.”

Paige Coniglio practices breathing during the workshop.

I’m hardly there yet. To be honest, I’m struggling to maintain a consistent practice; my time is limited, my schedule fluctuates, and as open-minded as I profess to be, I’m not comfortable announcing: Mom is going to her room to meditate now.

But even in my irregularity, I’m noticing change. My energy level is better. I managed 2 hours worth of stop-and-go traffic to Captiva without my heart rate jumping. I’m remembering to take in small details—the warmth of sunlight, the smell of dinner cooking, the way the wind rustles the bougainvillea in my backyard.

Meditation’s stillness has allowed me to make new physical discoveries, too—like the shallowness of my breath and the tightness of my jaw and the way my neck twists ever so slightly to the right. With breath, my muscles are letting go. I feel the difference in the dance studio. In fact, meditation creates a sensation that’s not unlike a post-workout glow, that slight pulsating of the muscles, expansion of the lungs and surging of blood through the vessels. How curious, I think, because for 30 minutes, I’ve merely sat.

Kelsang had encouraged us to find a state of equanimity in our meditating—a brain neither sluggish nor excited. I wonder, perhaps, if this onslaught of “mindfulness” is really a societal push for the same—a counterweight to the social media obsessions; order-by-app, eat-on-the-run meals; be-all, do-all, have-it-all messaging; and angst-provoking news that shouts at us all day from devices we wear on our wrists and carry in our pockets.

As with any hot trend, mindfulness runs the risk of extinguishing or commercializing or otherwise succumbing to the “next big thing.” I hope not. I’ve spent a mere two weeks dabbling in mindfulness meditation, and I sense its potential. Its practice and the study can go much deeper, though at this juncture, I’m not sure I’ll go beyond the simple act of breathing in, breathing out. For now, that is enough.

It’s a Friday afternoon, and no one is home. I think I’ll sit cross-legged for a while and listen to the wind in the bougainvillea and breathe …