A Few Thoughts on the Power of Mindfulness
I had the privilege of attending the University of Arizona's Integrative Mental Health Conference in April. At our dinner and book discussion in April, I shared some of the topics that were presented there. A common theme during the conference was the far reaching benefits of mindfulness. What is that? And what's it good for?
Measurable improvements in overall well-being can result from the application of skills training in mindfulness and meditation. Why? A few of the known reasons are that these evoke neuroplasticity (how brain cells talk to each other and rewire), epigenetic changes (which genes are turned on and off, changing body functions), and better functioning bidirectional communication between mind and body. According to researcher Richard Davidson, human traits that we would all recognize as "goodness" are cultivated by such practices.
What practices? Things like self-awareness, awareness of what one's mind is doing at any given time, self-reflection, and ability to distance oneself from one's own mental and emotional states (I am not my feelings or my thoughts). These then become associated with social connections that are marked by kindness, compassion, and empathy, and also a sense of purpose in life. This can be framed as the opposite of mind wandering. At least one very large study showed that on average, Americans’ minds are wandering and not paying attention to what they’re doing at the current moment about 47% of the time. Training the mind to pay attention (mindfulness exercises) increased overall sense of well-being. Exercises in mindfulness also train the brain to recover more quickly from emotional insults and stresses. Meditation practice also improves immune function, decreases inflammation. (see the work of Richard Davidson at centerhealthyminds.org). Mindfulness is a wonderful practice for creating equanimity in a chaotic world. These are just a few of the terrific take homes from the conference. For more of the flavor of this, I commend Shauna Shapiro's popular TED talk to you. Look it up!
We will continue exploring mindfulness at our May dinner and book discussion. If you are local, I hope you will make plans to join us. We are growing a group of like minded people eager to own their health and lives. Last month we were all inspired by a 103 year old Augustan who came and shared her life story with us.. she still drives, cooks, lives alone, volunteers and takes ballroom dance! Let's all aim for well lived lives!
To your health,
Robert Pendergrast, MD, MPH