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Practicing mindfulness can improve mental and physical health

Do you spend many of your days running on autopilot, stressed about managing everything you need to do and worrying constantly about the future? If so, learning mindfulness skills may be your answer to a less stressful and more satisfying life.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, defines mindfulness as the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.

This practice, also called meditation, has been practiced for thousands of years around the world. Its roots are in Buddhism, but many other religions including Christianity and Judaism include some type of prayer or meditation technique that allows a shift from the usual preoccupations to appreciation of the moment.

Mindfulness takes practice to become comfortable with its techniques before eventually becoming a natural part of one’s day. By focusing on one thing at a time in the present moment, one is able to make healthy decisions based on rational thought balanced with the emotional needs.

Beginning in the 1980s, mindfulness skills began to be used in a secular way to help hospital patients cope with chronic pain and psychological problems including depression. These skills have also been shown to help relieve stress, lower blood pressure, improve sleep and alleviate gastrointestinal problems. Today it is practiced by many to improve mental and physical health, encouraging concentration on the pleasures in life while creating a capacity for dealing more easily with adversity.

If you are interested in embracing mindfulness in your life, a number of exercises have been developed to help you get started. For most people, one of the easiest to learn involves an awareness of breathing.

To begin, find a comfortable place to sit where you will not be disturbed or distract by sights or sounds. This place could be your favorite chair, a bench in a secluded area of a park, or in the woods beside a quiet stream. Next, become aware of your breathing, feel the air flowing in and out of your body. Observe the rising and falling of your chest and stomach as you breathe. Feel your inner energy field. If any distracting thoughts arise, let those thoughts go and refocus your attention on your breathing.

When you become comfortable with this focus on breathing, you can practice it as you do other daily activities. Other exercises can follow, all designed to help you stay in the present moment, not replaying the past or anticipating the future. Successfully adding mindfulness to your life will result in a highly alert state of mind and you will not be living through memories of the past or anticipation of the future.

When your mind is still, you will be more aware of the majesty and sacredness of nature, the sound of a mountain stream, rain drops on a window, stars on a clear night or the music of a child’s laughter. There will be a sense of peace and joy within you. “Be in the moment” is not just an expression; it is a way of enjoying life more fully.

David Doll is a psychiatric counselor at Mount Nittany Medical Center. He can be reached by email at ddoll@mountnittany.org.

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