Good Life

Helping Hands: Let ‘mindfulness’ help you transform your health

Almost 25 years ago, Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote a chubby book with a funny-sounding title, “Full Catastrophe Living.” When I stumbled on it in the 1990s, my life felt like a controlled catastrophe — raising young children, caring for an aging parent, trying to build a small business while my partner juggled his profession and making “quality time” with the kids.

I thought the book sounded a little dangerous, and decided to keep my distance.

Over the years, I stumbled on a couple other books by Kabat-Zinn: “Wherever You Go, There You Are” (1994) and “Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness” (2005). Ah, I thought, another American Buddhist.

Meanwhile, my partner became a devoted practitioner of Asian movement and breathing practices such as tai chi and qigong. And I got intrigued by connections I found among contemplative prayer, meditation and the self-reflective learning that undergird most self-help programs.

But it wasn’t until my own life spun out to what felt like a full-blown catastrophe that I remembered that title and searched out the 15th anniversary edition subtitled, “Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness.” With some trepidation, I opened it and what I found was not a positive-thinking manual or a new-age formula for conjuring my inner guru. Instead, I was introduced to the distilled insights from 25 years of experience with more than 16,000 people in the stress reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

In his book, Kabat-Zinn offers a full account and detailed guide to the program at UMass, now in its 35th year and widely known as mindfulness-based stress reduction or MBSR.

What is so powerful about this approach? Lots of things; I will focus on just one.

It’s become cliché to say the American health care system is “broken” and debates surround us on fixing it. What’s consistently marginalized is the extent to which our body/mind fixes itself.

Cuts heal before our eyes. Exhaustion is cured by a solid night’s sleep. Sadness can be transformed by a quiet conversation with a friend. Even chronic, life-threatening diseases such as asthma and diabetes respond to basic shifts in our daily practices — fresh air, fresh food from the garden, a daily walk in a park.

How can we develop this power in ourselves, to cooperate with what helps us to heal? How can we cultivate our awareness and confidence to discern what’s happening in our bodies/minds — and act on that awareness? How can we become our own primary care providers and turn to health professionals only as expert consultants, not as the ones who “fix” us?

“Mindfulness,” simply stated, is learning to pay attention, learning to notice what’s right under our noses, and learning to make our health decisions based on what we understand from within, first, and what is prescribed from without, second. Practicing this will transform your health.

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