Mind Your Breath … and Prosper
How the hot new mindfulness movement helped this writer and can give you a boost, too.
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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.”