In my last post I talked about the importance of Kabat Zinn’s Mindfulness for older people. In his book Brain Rules For Aging Well, Medina says: “It is not an exaggeration to say that Kabat Zinn’s ideas revolutionized the field of mind-body medicine, putting it on a firm scientific footing. Now his technique is one of the most powerful anti-stress therapies ever shown to actually work in the elderly population (p. 77.)”
Medina’s praise for Mindfulness was enough to convince me this was something I needed to explore. So, what is Mindfulness? It’s about paying absolute attention to whatever is happening in the moment without judging your experience. Frankly, when things go wrong, I find it very hard not to wish things were different. If only I could accept events without judgment, I could join the ranks of mindful seniors who handle stress well and have a marked reduction in depression and anxiety.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction could improve my memory too, because cortisol would not be causing my hippocampus to atrophy. (See the previous post about stress and memory.) Even if this part of my brain has already atrophied because of stress, the good news is that the hippocampus is capable of neurogenesis. (Remember when scientists believed that the brain never changed for the better? or that it was capable of healing?)
Mindfulness demands two things. First, we have to pay attention to what’s happening right now. Second, we have to stop wishing things were different. You can’t be mindful if you’re caught up in wanting a different reality. I find this very difficult. Accepting whatever’s happening right now without judgment seems almost impossible.
So what does an average day look like now that I’m practicing Mindfulness?
There are some changes to my routine. For example, I’ve always listened to the radio as I work around the house. Now the radio is turned off while I try to concentrate solely on washing the dishes or separating the garbage for recycling. Walking along the shore of the lake, if I find my mind wandering, I tune into sounds, the feeling in my feet or the number of oak trees lining the path. Anything to keep from daydreaming or worrying about something that might never happen.
At some point during the day, I do the body scan. In the U-Tube’s body scan, Kabat Zinn’s gentle voice instructs you to lie down and listen as he guides you through a deep letting go of each part of your body. The trick is to stay awake. For me, this means doing the body scan early in the day before I get tired. It’s really hard not to drift off with the sonorous voice telling you to breathe into your belly.
Then there’s daily meditation. That’s no problem for me. I have a long-established habit of making space for meditation each morning. Basically, Mindfulness meditation is a practice of concentrating on the rise and fall of the belly, as you pay attention to your inhaling and exhaling.
“The twin ideas of awareness and acceptance can literally rewire your … brain,” says Medina (p.80.) I’d certainly like to meet those calm, happy seniors who’ve mastered this way of being in the world and I’d like to hear from other people who have pursued and struggled with Mindfulness. If you struggle with or successfully practice Mindfulness, I’d appreciate reading your comments in the space below.