I came to mindfulness only in recent years—first through a regular yoga practice and a handful of retreats, then through guided meditation, then through a mindfulness-based stress-reduction (MBSR) course and a few multi-day workshops, and now through a weekly mindfulness-teacher training group. It’s only slight hyperbole to say that these experiences have saved my life.
I started on this path to manage what you can safely describe as a “high level of stress.” Several years ago, as the responsibilities and expectations of being a full professor were starting to take their toll, a former student came to campus to kill me.* I looked for a place of calm and found it in a yoga studio, where I learned to experience an hour of quiet in body and mind, no matter the internal or external noise. Fast forward through a move to Nashville, a divorce from an 11-year marriage, a C. diff superbug infection followed by a raging introduction to Crohn’s disease and five months of attempting to get it under control, including liver toxicity from the medication, and now, just a few weeks ago, a breast cancer diagnosis,** and you now meet me at one of the most peaceful times in my life.
People often remind me that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” but I think more of the proven benefits of being – here – now.
Richard J. Davidson (one of the leading neuroscientists studying mindfulness) and colleagues monitored the brain activity in people who completed an eight-week MBSR program, comparing them with a wait-list control group. Those who completed the program demonstrated a significant increase in activity in the part of the brain associated with positive affect–both immediately after the program and then again four months later. They also reported significantly reduced anxiety, increased positive emotions, and faster recovery from negative provocation. Even more, both groups were given a flu vaccine immediately after the program ended, and the meditators showed more activity in the part of the brain associated with immune function and significantly greater increase in antibody response to the vaccine—in other words, greater immunity than those on the MBSR waiting list.
So what’s the “trick” at the heart of these MBSR programs? In a recent workshop, I learned about the importance of a two-minute-per-day practice. Just two minutes. Every day. The instructors gave us two options: “the Easy Way and the Easier Way” (Tan, 2012, p. 26). I share them below.
“The creatively named Easy Way is to simply bring gentle and consistent attention to your breath for two minutes. That’s it. Start by becoming aware that you are breathing, and then pay attention to the process of breathing. Every time your attention wanders away, just bring it back very gently.
The Easier Way is, as its name may subtly suggest, even easier. All you have to do is sit without agenda for two minutes. Life really cannot get much simpler than that. The idea here is to shift from ‘doing’ to ‘being,’ whatever that means to you, for just two minutes. Just be.”
Here’s a timer. Set it for 2:05—to give yourself time to shift from clicking your mouse to the practice. When you click “Start,” look down comfortably, or close your eyes. The timer will alert you at the end.
Repeat every day.
* I was on another campus that morning. No one was hurt. Restraining orders, broken restraining orders, a little jail time, multiple court appearances, and a plea agreement followed. I’m okay now. It does get better.
** Yes, I have indeed heard of Tig Notaro. If you haven’t, I recommend listening to the opening segment of “What Doesn’t Kill You,” This American Life‘s story about her.
Davidson Richard J., Kabat-Zinn Jon, Schumacher J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli S.F., Urbanowski, F., Harrington, A., Bonus, K., & Sheridan, J.F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine 65(4). 564-70.
Tan, Chade-Meng. (2012). Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace). New York: Harper-Collins.
Nancy, this is a real service, and I am so glad that you are at peace. Dan
Thank you for this! great way to start good habits with the academic New Year – will take some practice, and I have to say I actually find focusing on breathing easier than just being… (have had more practice with the former as I have used it to help deal with asthma for years). cheers. m
Hi, Marc. [Okay, how do I post this as a reply to your message and not just another comment?] The Tan book is good, but as a busy professor, you may not have time to read a book right now, especially since your semester just started! Something more applied and brief would be most helpful for you (in addition to this blog, of course!). In other words, this book and others are great to learn about mindfulness, but don’t delay. Get started! Here are two possibilities, and I’ll continue to share more:
* First, UCLA has some good podcasts you can listen to at your computer or via iTunes: http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22
* I love my Mindfulness app on my iPhone: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/the-mindfulness-app/id417071430?mt=8 Set reminders throughout the day, and it’ll pop up with “How do your shoulders feel right now?” “Take a deep breath,” “What’s going on around you right now?” Seriously, very simple but very effective. The Easy Way!
Good stuff. Do you recommend the Chade-Meng Tan book, or is there an easier way to get started? I don’t think we have any MBSR courses locally….
Thank you for sharing your story and reminding me that the only moment that can matter (if you let it) is the present one.