Mindfulness meditation has been practiced in East Asia for thousands of years. In the 1960s and 70s, interest in it brought this Zen staple to the US and Europe. It was common within the counterculture movement and continued over the decades among “crunchy granola” and “New Age” types. Since, several studies have shown remarkable health benefits gained by those engaging in such meditation.
Renowned Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh calls mindfulness “present-focused awareness.” This is clearing one’s mind of all the chatter, what Buddhists call the “monkey mind,” as well as any thoughts of the past or future. In reality they don’t exist. All that is real is the omnipresent now.
Time unfolds moment to moment. So we must live fully in the now to truly be free and at one with nature and our place within it. Mindfulness is therefore recognizing everything that is before you with a sharpened focus. In a way, this is jettisoning worry and instead, embracing wonder and gratitude for the rich sensual tapestry unfolding at each moment in one’s life.
Today lawyers, tech professionals, and executives at some of the top companies in the world including: Goldman Sachs, Aetna, Google, Bank of American, and Salesforce, all practice mindfulness. Studies have shown that it increases focus, memory, and may even improve cognition.
One surprising find, it alters attitudes, even the ones we don’t consider malleable. A 2015 study out of Central Michigan University, found that regularly practicing mindfulness reduces implicit ageism and racial bias.
People from all walks of life practice mindfulness medication. Getty Images.
Engaging in mindfulness reduces stress. Chronic stress elevates the hormone cortisol in the bloodstream, which in turn raises our blood pressure, increases our awareness of pain, weakens our immune system, and causes chronic inflammation—implicated in a whole host of conditions including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Such meditation can also save you from wrinkles and gray hair. Practicing regularly has been proven to lengthen the telomerase or “caps” at the end of chromosomes. By doing so, cell damage is reduced and the aging process, slowed.
There are multiple psychological benefits as well. 2013 Massachusetts General Hospital study, found that engaging in mindfulness can decrease anxiety. Meanwhile, the American Psychological Association (APA) has developed a Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), to treat and prevent depression.
What about someone diagnosed with a serious illness? For instance, receiving an HIV diagnosis can be emotionally devastating. The impact can affect patient care, as the emotional strain interferes with one's adherence to medication regimes. Researchers at Northwestern University wanted to know if an emotional intervention could help improve the health of HIV patients, and ease the burden of such an emotional blow.
Judith Moskowitz was the lead author in this study. She’s a professor of medical social sciences, and the director of research at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine. “Even in the midst of this stressful experience of testing positive for HIV, coaching people to feel happy, calm and satisfied — what we call positive affect — appears to influence important health outcomes,” she said.
An “emotional intervention” was shown to offer significant benefits to HIV patients. Getty Images.
Moskowitz and colleagues selected eight mindfulness practices that patients had to perform each day. The methods chosen were selected based on evidence showing they increased positive emotions. Then researchers recruited 80 mostly male San Franciscans recently diagnosed with HIV. Another 79 participants acted as a control group.
The HIV patients saw a 13% drop in their viral load and used far less antidepressants than those in the control group at the follow-up, 15 months later. “To have a difference like that is amazing,” Moskowitz said.
The lower viral load may be a response to a stronger immune system, or it could mean the patients tolerated antiretroviral drug therapy better. There may be public health benefits here as well. A lower viral load among patients could translate into a lower transmission rate. The results of this study were published in the journal Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
The 8 practices used in the study are as follows:
1. Recognize a positive event each day.
2. Savor that positive event and log it in a journal or tell someone about it.
3. Start a daily gratitude journal.
4. List a personal strength each day and note how you’ve used this strength recently.
5. Set an attainable goal each day and note your progress.
6. Report a relatively minor stressor each day, then list ways in which the event can be positively reappraised. This can lead to an increased positive affect in the face of stress.
7. Understand that small acts of kindness can have a big impact and practice a small act of kindness each day.
8. Practice mindfulness with a daily 10-minute breathing exercise, concentrating on the breath.
Future studies will see if an emotional intervention can help dementia patient caregivers, newly diagnosed, metastatic, breast cancer patients, and type 2 diabetes patients. Of course, no one says you need to be diagnosed with a condition to use this plan to improve your life. Perhaps add some or all of these practices to your daily routine and see if they help.
To learn more about mindfulness as a way to improve psychological health, click here: