Calif. ó The day starts off with a rundown of the rules: No
talking. No eye contact. Keep your gaze cast downward, save
for an occasional glance at the teacher.
isnít Saturday high school detention. Quite the contrary,
this should shape up to be a day of rewards, not punishment.
An opportunity to clear oneís mind of stress and worry ó
and practice being aware of the present moment. Itís a
silent retreat teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, a
secular integrative medicine technique thatís gaining
popularity as a way to relieve stress and boost concentration.
amalgamation of ancient Eastern practices, MBSR is
increasingly being taught in public schools, hospitals, the
military ó even prisons. Physicians are referring patients
to MBSR programs as an alternative to anti-depressants.
meditation retreats have long drawn well-heeled bliss-seekers
who spend top dollar for teachings held at forested, secluded
compounds in Marin County or upper New York.
Sacramento, Calif., area, prices for an eight-week course can
range from $250 (El Dorado County) to $450 (Davis).
one recent Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction silent retreat,
a group gathered on a Saturday in December in a nondescript
donated office space in an industrial office park in El Dorado
Hills, Calif. And the people sitting in straight-backed chairs
arranged in a circle (to feel safe) were patients referred by
doctors, not the benefactors of Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue.
participants, including teacher Gayle Wilson, prepared to
immerse themselves in the practice of mindfulness, through
concentrated breathing, yoga, Qigong (an Eastern-based
practice involving slow, contemplative movements), and several
types of meditation, all designed to ease their pain, whether
mental or physical. Among the techniques was something called
a body scan, during which practitioners lie down on yoga mats
while a teacher gently guides them through a mental inventory
of their body parts.
speaking or looking one another in the eye? Because, Wilson
says, "these ground rules allow us to go more deeply into
the meditation practice and to conserve our energy for the
work of mindfulness."
mindfulness means being fully aware of living life in the
moment, rather than ruminating about past troubles or
anticipating future events. The program was developed by Jon
Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts School of
Medicine in 1979, and is used in more than 250 medical centers
across the nation, including Harvard Medical School, Stanford
University, the American Red Cross and the Mayo Clinic. Even
Google has adopted the program for its employees.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program has stood up to
peer-reviewed research for 30 years, says Wilson, who calls it
"the gold standard" for helping relieve all manner
of stress-induced health problems.
published this month in the Journal of the American Medical
Association examined 47 studies on meditative techniques,
concluding that mastering mindfulness makes people better able
to cope with lifeís everyday challenges, as well as stress,
depression, anxiety and pain. The positive effects, which
outperformed mantra meditation, were seen across multiple
Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School
of Medicine, agrees. "Studies of MBSR have consistently
demonstrated its effectiveness as a health promotion
activity," he said. "It can help to disentangle our
minds from ruminative thoughts, repetitive destructive
emotions and impulsive and addictive behaviors."
meditation takes advantage of the brainís neuroplasticity,
or its ability to adopt new thought processes after being
exposed to them again and again. To put it simply, MBSR
behaves a little like Mr. Clean of the brain, scrubbing out
those stubborn negative or what-if thoughts and leaving the
practitioner alert and unencumbered. Stress-related repetitive
thinking can contribute to depression, high blood pressure and
other medical conditions.
warn that taming the wandering mind is challenging and takes
practice. Some people struggle with whatís sometimes called
"monkey brain," which the online Urban Dictionary
describes using this anecdote: "When you begin reading a
page, and blank out thinking about other things. You finally
come to, realizing that you read the whole page without
ingesting a single word."
MBSR participant Bob Relei, 65, of Folsom, Calif., says:
"Itís my mind. Itís just working all the time. It is
very hard for me to shut it off."
retired from the San Francisco Fire Department, where for more
than 30 years he thrived in a fast-paced, adrenaline-based
environment. "I miss it," he says. "Back then
it was like everything was go, go, go. Get things done."
adjustment to retirement was difficult, and after he suffered
a hernia ó "I tried to lift something I shouldnít
have" ó and botched surgery, he was left in constant
pain for six months. It didnít take long before depression
set in, he said. Eschewing antidepressants, he was referred by
a psychiatrist to Wilsonís program.
textbook, Wilson relies on Kabat-Zinnís "Full
Catastrophe Living ó Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind
to Face Stress, Pain and Illness," first published in
1990 and updated last year. Kabat-Zinn likens mindfulness to
Buddhist meditation without the religious teachings, and
Wilson completed years of training in his methods. Over the
eight-week course of 27 hours of instruction, she meets with
the group once a week to go over the meditations and readings,
to share exercises and encouragement.
silent retreat held in late December opened with Wilson
instructing the group on mindful breathing or focusing only on
the breath as it goes in and out.
everyone did a mental body scan, paying attention to every
part and relaxing any stress-related tension.
the group moved outdoors and practiced under an unseasonably
warm sun, with a light breeze tickling the leaves still
clinging to their tree branches. Wilson coached the group
through a series of Qigong exercises involving sweeping,
stretching motions that invited the sunís energy into the
body, honored the fluidity of the sea and evoked an encounter
with a dragon.
walking meditation followed, during which participants focused
their minds on the heel-toe, heel-toe rhythm of placing one
foot carefully in front of the other.
was next, and everyone was sent to a quiet place outdoors to
contemplate each bite as they brought it up to their mouths.
Mindful eating, as itís known, is one secret to slowing down
mealtime, potentially resulting in eating less and losing
weight. Focusing on the texture, smell, taste and consistency
of food takes time and allows your digestive system to signal
to the brain that you are full so you donít overeat.
then led the group back to their chairs for the "mountain
meditation," a 20-minute sitting during which she
use the image of a mountain to help us remember what the
sitting meditation is all about. The image is uplifting,
suggesting as it does that we sit like mountains, feeling
rooted, massive and unmoving in our posture. Our arms are the
sloping sides of the mountain, our head the lofty peak, the
whole body majestic and magnificent. We are sitting in
stillness, just being what we are ó just as a mountain Ďsits
there,í unmoved by the changing of day into night and the
changes of the weather and of the seasons."
mountain is always grounded, rooted in the earth, always
still, always beautiful. It is beautiful just being what it
is, seen or unseen, snow-covered or green, rained on or
wrapped in clouds. This image sometimes helps us to remember
our own strength and intentionality. We might look upon some
of the changes we are observing in our own minds and bodies as
internal Ďweather.í The mountain reminds us that we can
remain stable and balanced in our sitting in the face of the
storms of our own minds and bodies. We can anchor ourselves in
our sitting practice and deepen our calmness and equanimity by
using the image of the mountain."
exercises follow: Another walking meditation in which the
participants go outdoors in search of a found object that
represents their stress or pain: a twig, a leaf, a stone,
flower, weed, piece of metal, whatever. This object is brought
inside and placed in the middle of the circle to be discussed
in open conversation at dayís end.
"loving-kindness" mediation comes next. It involves
good thoughts concentrically dedicated to oneself, oneís
loved ones, acquaintances, someone to be forgiven and finally
the Earth and all its living components.
end of the dayís session, the group gets to speak and share
impressions of the day, their struggles and challenges ó and
the meaning of the found object placed in the circle.
Relei, that was a small white stone. "I saw that rock a
couple of feet from the other rocks and said, ĎThatís me.
Itís me here and everyone else over there.í"
says heís determined to work hard to nurture "the glass
half full" side of his brain. "The answer to stress
is you have to get your mind straight, and now I see that
Tyler, 58, of Placerville, Calif., enrolled at the advice of
El Dorado Hills, Calif., physician Dr. Mark Holthouse, whose
holistic n1Health Center for Functional Medicine donates space
for the program.
yoga, walking and other meditations help in finding a
balance," Tyler says. "Gayleís voice is so soft,
very calming. The meditations give you different ways of
focusing on things to take your mind off whatever it is you
donít want to think about."
retired dental hygienist, suffered severe back pain from 35
years of bending over to work on patients. She survived a
confrontational relationship with an ex, and struggles with
anxiety, particularly over air travel.
mindfulness is really a good thing to reboot your
thoughts," she says.
idea of mindfulness is growing," Wilson says. "This
is what happens when major events or ideas reach a tipping
point. I think MBSR and mindfulness will reach a critical mass
soon and then will tip into mainstream culture."