Can you remember a time when your parents or grandparents said, “Come sit on the porch and we’ll watch the evening come in”?
Do you remember a time when you actually did that, watched the sun slowly dip behind the mountain?
Watched the clouds change shape and color from gold to blue, then gazed at stars blinking in the darkness while birds rustled and twitter as they roosted, until at last the quiet of night descended?
That’s mindfulness, the involvement of all of your senses in the experience of the present moment.
Today, science is showing that this simple technique of quieting the mind and being still may have special benefits for older adults.
A recent research study from Carnegie Mellon University has shown that meditation and mindfulness practice reduces loneliness, which can be a major factor contributing to emotional and physical decline in later years.
Another benefit that was pronounced in the study was the protection from inflammatory disease.
Using the blood samples collected from the control group, they found that the older adult sample (55-85 years old) had elevated proinflammatory gene expression in their immune cells at the beginning of the study, and that the training reduced this proinflammatory gene expression, as well as a measure of C-Reactive protein. These findings suggest that mindfulness meditation training may reduce older adults’ inflammatory disease risk.
According to a recent Time magazine cover story, “Mindfulness is going mainstream,” many cognitive therapists recommend it to patients as a way to help cope with anxiety and depression.
More broadly, it’s seen as simply a means to deal with stress.
Local mindfulness teacher Peter Montminy, a clinical psychologist and founding director of MidStep Centers for Child Development, said that the above example is an “informal approach” to cultivating a mindfulness practice.
Montminy recommends being aware of simple pleasures.
“Instead of taking a shower and thinking of hundreds of things, just try noticing the sensuous experience,” he said. “The steaming hot water, the soapy lather, the smells and feelings.”
Pausing to notice what is going on around you and within you is a goal of mindfulness, he said.
A formal approach would involve classes, books and guided meditations on audio recordings.
The idea would be to increase one’s meditation practice from one to five minutes a day, to 30 minutes or an hour. A formal approach means setting goals and stretching the “meditation muscle.”
According to an article in Mindful, a new magazine, meditation provides good “training” for the practice of mindfulness. Think of mindfulness as a “muscle of attention.” As with any muscle, it’s good to exercise it (in this case, with meditation), and like any muscle, it will strengthen from that exercise.
Gretchen Swank, part-owner of Yoga in State College and a certified yoga instructor, explained that getting involved in mindfulness through yoga practice is helpful because the emphasis is on being “present with your breath.”
“Sometimes it’s hard for people to sit in stillness,” she said, “but they may be able to stretch and breathe.”
She said many older adults have become habituated in their response to daily life, and that doing a practice of yoga/meditation allows people to become more aware of that. It’s a way to “step outside of themselves, and become a witness.” In this way, needed changes in habits can be initiated.
Professor and author Jon Kabat-Zinn is credited with introducing mindfulness to American culture through his book “Full Catastrophe Living.” His thesis is that people with chronic pain, through meditation, can reduce their symptoms, because they change the way they relate to their pain.
Science supports that meditation engenders neuroplasticity of the brain.
This rewiring helps with adaptation, flexibility, and emotional and cognitive self-determination. Scientists have also shown that meditation and rigorous mindfulness training can lower cortisol levels and blood pressure, increase immune response and possibly even affect gene expression.
Ron Torretti, a local counselor and instructor of mindfulness-based stress reduction at the Friends Meeting House in State College, offers these five no-nonsense reasons for practicing mindfulness/meditation:
• Use clarity to provide awareness of what may be causing mental pain and anxiety.
• Develop stress hardiness by replacing maladaptive coping patterns with positive responses to outside circumstances.
• Use compassion to help feel more connected to one another.
• Build your sense of control, relying on inner resources and strength.
• Quiet the incessant chatter of the mind, particularly the “what ifs” of future thinking that create anxiety.
All three local practitioners said that one of the most important functions of mindfulness is that it allows a person to respond rather than react to life. It is, perhaps, one of the best paths to freedom, because the person actually makes conscious, rather than habitual choices with increasing frequency throughout the day and throughout his or her life.
In the area of education, mindfulness is becoming a new focus in curriculum and teacher training. Tish Jennings, who is on the board of advisers for Mindful, an initiative that celebrates being mindful in all aspects of daily living, is a proponent of a “contemplative approach” to education.
She recently took a new position as a researcher at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.
Jennings, also a senior fellow of the initiative of contemplative education at the Garrison Institute, said she believes that the classrooms of the future will be more innovative, flexible, creative and responsive to the needs of the children and society when teachers and students learn “self-regulation and self-awareness,” which comes from mindfulness training.
In the Centre Region, a number of venues provide training and practice in meditation, from yoga studios to the public library.
Although the practice of meditation comes from Eastern philosophy, particularly Buddhism, the word mindfulness, in today’s vernacular, is obtaining a character and distinction of its own, apart from any religious connotation. Some teachers only speak of the techniques involved and do not involve a philosophy.
According to the website of O-An Zendo, based in Julian, people interested in learning more about the philosophy of mindfulness in the Eastern tradition are welcome to attend Sunday services at a small meditation center nearby. Dedicated to Zen Buddhism in the Soto tradition, O-An is located in Julian Woods Community, which is a member of the school of Living Land Trust near the village of Julian in Huston Township.