A quiet place

BY HOWARD COHEN, South China Morning Post, Dec 5, 2008

Mindfulness is going mainstream as more people seek ways to calm the mind's chatter

Hong Kong, China -- Our worries. They're crescendoing like the finale of Beethoven's "Ninth": Bailouts, buyouts. Recession, depression.

Enter the meditative practice of mindfulness. Born of Buddhist roots, it's increasingly recognized as a measure to calm the mind's chatter and elevate the brain's thinking and organizational processes.

 Mindfulness seminars. Mindfulness books. Even the medical mainstream is taking note -- the Sept. 17 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association had a piece titled "Mindfulness in Medicine."

"The uncertainty of tomorrow creates a lot of the angst or discomfort," says Scott Rogers, director of the Institute for Mindfulness Studies in Miami Beach. "People are looking more and more to bring a little bit of 'ahhh ...' Not just stress reduction, but allowance and acceptance."

Mindfulness is built around the premise of disengaging from overly emotional responses and extraneous thoughts that clutter the mind's ability to think clearly. By using techniques such as breathing, visual imagery and meditation to slow down and focus on the present, the theory goes, a person can tap into a higher level of awareness. The more acute awareness is the byproduct of more active brain waves brought on by meditation, studies have shown.

Simply put, it's going from worrier to warrior, says Rogers, 45, a lawyer who conducts seminars for other lawyers and school groups.

"We want to move into a place where the outside world will do whatever it's going to do without us going through the roller coaster of emotions," Rogers says. "We want to maintain this more alive, vigilant, present way of being that is somewhat independent of how things are going."

Dr. Patricia Isis runs a mindfulness seminar at South Miami Hospital and says her weekly classes fill immediately. "People are stressed to the max," she says.

"Mindfulness is an opportunity to be awake and aware as much as possible from moment to moment in this one wild and precious life of ours," she says.

The mindfulness practice has ties to sports psychology, says Dr. Janet Konefal, the assistant dean for complementary integrative medicine at the University of Miami.

"Most of the research about this self talk comes from coaches and psychologists involved in sports," she said. "They're interested in how athletes talk to themselves and how that can make the difference and be cutting edge."

Olympics swimmer Michael Phelps, for one, is renowned for envisioning every race before he dives into the water. He focuses on the time he wants to achieve -- down to the hundredth of a second -- and the exact stroke count per lap he needs to achieve his goal. He credits this focus with winning a gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly at the Beijing Olympics last month despite a goggles failure that impaired his vision.

There is a growing body of evidence that this type of mental discipline and meditative practice can carve new pathways in the brain. It's a concept called neuroplasticity and it's just the opposite of what scientists had believed for years -- that the brain's nerve cells were set in childhood and didn't change.

Research has shown otherwise. A 2005 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences measured the brain waves in a group of Tibetan monks schooled in Buddhist meditative practices from centuries ago. The researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that when the monks meditated -- especially the ones most skilled in meditative practices -- their brain waves, as measured by brain-scanning machines, recorded much greater and more powerful activity than previous standards of healthy people. The Dalai Lama sent the monks to the Wisconsin lab.

Rogers recounts an experiment conducted by Harvard Medical School two years ago. A group of pianists were instructed to play a five-finger scale repeatedly to a metronome's steady beat. For five days the volunteers played the same pattern for two hours. The volunteers were hooked to a machine that sent a brief magnetic pulse into the motor cortex of their brains. This allowed scientists to gauge brain activity.

After a week of practice, scientists found that the motor cortex devoted to these finger movements took over surrounding areas in the brain, thus creating new pathways.

The experiment was repeated, but this time the volunteers were instructed to imagine themselves playing the piano. Hands never touched keys. The results were the same: The brain still cut new pathways.

"Twenty years ago, they would have said this is absolutely impossible," Rogers says. "In stroke victims this is hugely significant because we now know parts of the brain that we thought were localized -- this part for vision, hearing, the moving of the hand -- won't repair itself.

"Now we know this other portion of the brain can take on the necessary function to work with the arm. This has totally changed how we work with stroke victims. That part is not growing back but another part of the brain says, 'I can do that."'

Even earlier, in 1982, researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn studied patients with medical pain of six months to 48 years' duration who agreed to receive training in mindfulness-based stress reduction. The 51 participants who completed the program -- 88 percent of the 58 total enrolled -- said their perceived pain decreased significantly. In fact, half reported a reduction of 50 percent or greater, the Sept. 17 Journal of the American Medical Association reports.

Actor Alan Alda, at a recent appearance in Coral Gables for Books & Books, told an anecdote about how he used the "being present" technique of mindfulness to alleviate the pain of having a fingernail torn off in a fluke accident in an airplane bathroom. He says he went into a state of becoming fully aware of everything -- the sights, the sounds, even the throbbing in his finger, "and the pain went away," Alda insisted.

Andee Weiner, a grandparent and mother of three grown children in Miami, turned to mindfulness after a heart attack in 2006. She enrolled in an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course at South Miami Hospital, a program based on the teachings of Kabat-Zinn, author of "Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness" (Delta; $20).

"I had no expectations because I had never done this before," said Weiner, 59. "It's one of the best things I've done for myself. A year and nine months later, I can't believe how it's enhanced my life. I have found myself to be more proactive in my medical care and trusting my instincts with a better understanding."

Weiner cites several examples of how mindfulness works for her: "I can be in traffic and instead of having nasty thoughts I can bring myself into a state where I focus on my breathing and those thoughts leave me. Or, I'm sitting in a doctor's office and instead of getting agitated while I'm waiting, I'm not agitated, my blood pressure is not sky high and I let go of a lot of baggage."


There are several mindfulness techniques anyone can practice, anywhere. Here are some:

Scott Rogers, director of the Institute for Mindfulness Studies in Miami Beach, offers these techniques to help reduce stress and stay centered:

4-7-8 hand-breathing exercise

--Inhale and open your hands to the count of four.

--Hold breath and stretch fingers to the count of seven.

--Exhale and close your hands to the count of eight.

Every step my
heart beats

Slow down and feel the foot as it presses the ground, getting in touch with your heartbeat on each stride. Next, incorporate the thought of a loved one's heartbeat beating in time with your pace. It can be a child, pet, partner. "This brings us a connectedness to the moment," Rogers says.

Accept your thoughts as natural

"There is a myth about meditation that you are quieting your mind. The mind's job is to be all over the place. It's about accepting wherever your mind is and bringing it back to the moment," says Dr. Patricia Isis, mental health counselor with South Miami Hospital. "The reality is our minds are fairly active most of the time and that's why people think they can't meditate."

Adds Rogers, "It's said we have about 50,000 to 60,000 thoughts a day and most of those are thoughts that we had yesterday and the day before.

"Just a small number are really relevant to what's taking place. If we can tone down the chatter, we get rid of the static," Rogers says.

"Mindfulness is catching the mind as it wanders. That's perfectly OK. We have a mind that wanders and is likened to a puppy dog. 'Stay here.' It walks off. 'There you are, you wandered."' Just bring it back to the moment.