The Power of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a psychological concept that has roots in Buddhism. It is an exercise in awareness of the present moment and the avoidance of getting trapped in thoughts about the past, which cannot be changed, or predictions of the future, which may or may not happen. That process fosters the avoidance of criticism or judgment of one’s thoughts or feelings. As cognitive neuroscientist Adrienne Taren says, mindfulness is, “an open, accepting attention to and awareness of internal and external sensations.”

We are living in a time when the practice of mindfulness is important to our health and well-being. The reason for this is that this is an extremely stressful time in the world. Amid all the stress, we can tend to get caught up in worry-based thoughts and get away from healthy routines.

We may tend to gravitate to coping strategies that can help us feel better immediately; this may be through burying ourselves in our smart phones, comfort eating or reaching for drugs or alcohol.

These are strategies that work in the very short-term but overall contribute to the feelings of stress we have. Stress causes inflammation and in turn more feelings of stress. Ultimately this will hurt our performance socially and professionally, may cause health problems, and lead to a lower quality of life.

Mindfulness is used as a component of therapy for multiple different situations. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction writes, “From the perspective of mindfulness, nothing needs fixing. Nothing needs to be forced to stop, or change, or go away.” It allows for the release of the stress of having to “fix” things that are part of our experience and may not be in our control.

An example of the power of mindfulness is in its use in helping sufferers of chronic pain. A few years ago, I worked with a neuropsychologist at a hospital for rehabilitation of patients who suffered catastrophic traumatic injuries. These patients experienced severe pain.

He trained his staff to teach patients how to be more mindful because there was some evidence that teaching mindfulness to patients with chronic pain provides benefit. I saw patients that were in severe pain have significant benefits from the practice.

Mindfulness invites being thoughtful about pain but not negative and judgmental. The process decreases the frustration and stress about finding an immediate solution. It allows acceptance and therefore brings direct problem solving. This can include deep breathing, distraction, and a better ability to address needs.

In addition, it helps the patient focus on what is happening in the room at that time besides the pain; for example, noticing the sunlight coming in from the window, providing warmth and brightness.

Being mindful also works for children. In his article “…and Sometimes Y” in Sentinel Colorado on September 26, 2019, Grant Stringer writes about a mindfulness program in an elementary school in Aurora.

The district benefits from a mill levy bill that provides money to the district for student mental health. In the school he reports on, they bring in a counselor that helps the student body with mindfulness exercises.

These include having the children stop and listen to their own breath and pay attention to how they are feeling at the time. Students also benefit from the opportunity to talk about what they need in the classroom, vent their feelings, and plan strategies to succeed. He reports that educators at the school have said that mindfulness has “worked wonders on test scores as well as students’ well-being.”

Stringer reports that disciplinary referrals at the school have plummeted since the mindfulness exercises started, “down in 2018-2019 to about 50 from 300 the year before.”   Academically, the school’s fifth grade class has had spikes in reading literacy and math scores.

According to Ron Schumacher, the principal of the school and a 25-year veteran of working in schools, “It is the most dramatic shift I have seen in a building.”

Buddhism originated about 2,500 years ago. Isn’t it amazing that in this day-and-age, with all the technology we have and with all the advancements we have made, that there is something that old that remains that effective for our health and well-being?

Not really. There were roses back then and there are roses now. They knew the value of stopping and smelling the roses.

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