Nearly everyone has heard the term "mindfulness," but even during the most stressful of circumstances, most people have only a vague idea of how it might benefit them or what they might do to be mindful.
Science began to take note of the possible health benefits of contemplative practices in the 1970s, as they began to make their way out of the monastery and into mainstream American culture. Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn, a molecular biologist, became interested enough in its benefits to found the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts at Worcester in 1979.
In the years since its founding, Zinn has shown how simple mindfulness techniques can aid in stress reduction, and he has successfully used such techniques in the treatment of chronic pain as well.
Around the same time, biologist Dr. Joan Borysenko researched the benefits of basic breath meditation on stress reduction and overall health. Zinn’s “Full Catastrophe Living” and Borysenko’s “Minding the Body, Mending the Mind” were seminal works that introduced millions to a non-sectarian, non-religious approach to mindfulness, although Zinn himself is a practicing Buddhist.
The relaxation response is a simple technique that can help reduce stress levels, lower blood pressure and relieve anxiety. Here are the basic steps:
Choose a quiet spot where you will not be disturbed.
Sit in a comfortable, upright position — alert, but not rigid.
Eyes may be open or closed — whatever is most natural.
Focus your attention several feet in front of you.
Find a comfortable position for your hands.
Begin with a “body scan,” by relaxing your muscles sequentially, from toes to head up the front side and down the back.
Become aware of your breathing. Don’t try to control it, just be attentive as you breathe in and out. Some people find a simple counting method helpful, in which they count from one to 10 with each exhalation.
Do not worry about how well you are doing.
Practice at least once a day. Morning is usually best. Evening is second-best.
Start small — five minutes. You can do more if you want, but set yourself up for success. If five minutes is too long, start with three minutes — or even one.
Five minutes once a day is more effective than an hour once a week.
Adapted from “Minding the Body, Mending the Mind,” by Joan Borysenko, PhD.