We know that chronic stress is bad for our health and we should strive to manage it. Yet, is it possible to find some peace of mind in our hectic, busy lives?
Well, yes, according to Jill Kieffer, R.N., who teaches mindfulness meditation at MCMC. But it takes practice.
“We all have glimpses of time when we feel like our perspective is healthy; we feel at ease, balanced,” says Kieffer. “Practicing mindfulness can help you get to that place.”
Kieffer studied with internationally known scientist, writer and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., who developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical School more than 30 years ago. Studies have consistently shown that mindfulness helps people reduce stress and improve emotional and physical health.
Here, Kieffer gives us a taste of what mindfulness is and how it can benefit anyone seeking to create a greater sense of well-being.
What, exactly, is mindfulness?
“Mindfulness is paying attention in a certain way,” says Kieffer. “It’s about moment-to-moment awareness."
It also involves acceptance or paying attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them, she says.
“If you’re aware of the sunset, mindfulness is just being aware of the sunset,” she explains. “You fall away from mindfulness when you start comparing that sunset to other sunsets. Or not even seeing the sunset anymore, but thinking about what you forgot to get done that day. All of a sudden, you’re in thought and not just with the sunset anymore. But you can become mindful again if you’re aware that your mind is all over the place.”
“After a while you start to feel the ease of being in the present moment,” she adds.
Letting go of certain thoughts and feelings that the mind wants to hold on to is another key aspect of mindfulness.
“We learn to let go of the grasping and resistance, which leads to tension,” says Kieffer. “There is joy and relief in letting go—we don’t have to be so gripped.”
By tuning into how the mind actually works, we can begin to nurture a sense of well-being and balance; a feeling of being at ease, she says.
Why practice mindfulness?
Kieffer’s clients come to her mindfulness classes for various reasons—to ease pain, stress, anxiety or depression. Some are looking for more meaning in their lives. Others want to make healthier choices—to lose weight, exercise more or quit smoking.
The benefits of mindfulness are well documented. Research shows that mindfulness reduces tension, anxiety and stress. It helps people think more clearly and focus more. It helps decrease pain by stimulating the relaxation response in the body.
Mindfulness also fights obesity by helping people choose to eat better.
“By eating mindfully, instead of on autopilot, we eat less and feel more satisfied,” Kieffer says.
Studies show that mindfulness gives people a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. It even helps kids learn better in school by promoting reflection, self-regulation and caring for others.
“Cultivating mindfulness can benefit anyone, at any stage of life, in any situation,” says Kieffer. “It’s a way of living, of being that naturally leads to better choices.”
How to begin
“At first, mindfulness takes guidance and practice,” Kieffer explains. “Once you get used to getting there, then you kind of build stamina around it, so that you can go there more frequently.”
To get started, she recommends signing up for the eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program in the fall at Water’s Edge. She also offers free mindfulness presentations each month in the evenings. (See WellAware calendar for details).
Mindfulness is also a core component of Healthy Weight Solutions, an eight-week program at Water’s Edge that helps people take charge of their eating habits. Students learn to “make small changes they can breathe with,” says Kieffer.
Paying attention to the breath plays a key role in cultivating mindfulness, no matter what the context, she explains.
“Once we pause and take a breath, we can then reflect and become aware of what’s happening and choose how to respond to a situation,” she says.
As people begin practicing mindfulness, they learn to get back in touch with their bodies, says Kieffer.
“Basically, the body is a barometer of the mind,” she says. “We learn to listen to the body—to build confidence in trusting our bodies.”
“The body doesn’t lie,” she says. “The mind is very clever. And it can be a rascal. Once you start observing your mind, you can see how tricky it is. The body is simpler. If there’s tension, there’s tension. If there’s pain there’s pain. If there’s ease, you’re on the right path.”