2015 is the year to experiment with an enduring trend in health: mindfulness. Remember Transcendental Meditation from years past? Those groovy friends who had a “mantra”‘ and talked blissfully about their mysterious meditation practice? What’s old is new again with the popularity of mindfulness, which is nothing more than meditation simplified and democratized. Focusing the mind is an ancient Buddhist practice, and the wisdom is simple and pure – a perfect antidote for our crazed, device-obsessed times.
Try it. We promise you will like it. The trick will be to find a way to fit it into your busy life!
Mindfulness at the Hammer:
Mindful awareness mediation sessions at the Hammer take place in the Billy Wilder Theater for free, each Thursday at 12;30. Let’s just say, there’s nothing quite like it. After just 30 minutes of guided mediation, I opened my eyes to a much more pleasant world. I felt like I was floating. There was no reason not to smile…everything just sort of seemed so much better. In the midst of holiday stress (and maybe a little bit of anxiety over preparing to entertain relatives) this was the perfect thing to unwind, reset, and remind myself that everything is just fine.
My session was directed by Diana Winston, the Center’s Director of Mindfulness Education, who has been practicing since 1989 and has been teaching since 1993. The first part of the session consisted of relaxing ourselves in a body scan, from toes to head. Then we were directed to focus on just our breathing and to think about “cultivating loving kindness” for someone in your life.
As a first timer, it probably took the first ten minutes or so to settle in. There’s a bit of irony in being told to think of nothing other than your own breathing; of course everything under the sun pops in to your head. But mindfulness is gentle. It doesn’t expect you to have perfect focus, just to practice being focused.
Sitting in relative silence with your eyes closed might not be everyone’s cup of tea per se, but we strongly encourage you to try. You can read up on the multitude of benefits, some of which are reducing stress, improving attention, and even boosting your immune system. But aside from all of that (which probably takes a few tries to cultivate anyway) the immediate calmness you’ll feel when you reenter the world again makes it instantly worthwhile.
Six weeks Mindfulness Training at UCLA/MARC:
Once you’ve dipped your toe in the water at the Hammer’s free weekly sessions, perhaps you will want to dive deep by taking an evening class with a professor from UCLA. The courses are offered in multiple locations all the time, and the classes are always chock full of the curious. I took a six week class with Professor Marvin G. Belzer, Ph.D., who is the Associate Director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).
MARC is part of the UCLA Health system the center studies both ways to implement meditation into other health disciplines and also teaches meditation to those seeking to reduce stress, physical and emotional pain, boost their immune system, improve self-confidence and focus, and enhance positive emotions. The UCLA folks are establishing that positive benefits of mindfulness cross many disciplines and we enjoyed being immersed in the documentation and exploration of this centuries-old practice.
It’s tough to imagine that you can have an intimate experience in a room of 40 strangers, but the group-therapy part of the class actually works nicely. Dr. Belzer speaks in sonorous tones, sharing stories of time spent in Buddhist monasteries, and imploring everyone to make of their practice what they can. The bar to entry is set low, Belzer’s tones are inviting and friendly, and the whole two-hour experience is as relaxing as a day at the spa. I did fall asleep sitting up more than once (that’s “cool”, says the professor) and struggled to focus my mind (grocery lists, admonitions to exercise, normal parenting worries). But in the course of two hours, I was able to achieve long stretches when I actually forgot about my earthly concerns. With each passing week, I was able to achieve the states of consciousness-less more readily, especially during standing and walking meditation exercises.
The true test for me lay in integrating the meditation into my busy, daily life. Even if you sit at a desk most of the day, it’s hard to remember to unplug and follow a five-minute meditation tape (found on the UCLA sites, here). But, when I did it (even for less than five minutes), I felt a clarity of purpose that is what celebs are talking about in rhapsodic terms. There is something to this focusing of the mind.
So – how do you get more of it in your life?
There’s an App for This – and we love it!
So, it’s not easy to integrate mindfulness. One useful aid is a simple, beautifully-designed app that we love called Stop, Breathe, & Think. The app is useful for anyone who wants to put this practice into their life, and is a terrific introduction for mindfulness for children. It’s clever interface allows the user to check into his or her current mood, mark a few apt adjectives to describe the current state of mind, and wait for an appropriate meditation to be served up! Voila – so easy. Adults like it as much as kids.
Stop, Breathe & Think comes from a non-profit called Tools for Peace that is envisions people around the globe connected by kindness and compassion. We can get behind that!