It’s not only a meditation; it can be cultivated through meditation, but it’s also a quality of attention we can bring to any moment in the day. We can bring mindfulness to when we’re driving, to when we’re walking, to when we’re waiting in line, to when we’re about to get in a fight with our spouse. We can take a mindful breath and come back to the present moment. So mindfulness is a kind of attention as well.
(laughter) Does this look familiar to anyone? Yeah, unfortunately, many of us sometimes feel like that. It’s a skill that we can train to reduce stress of the busy modern lives and promote wellbeing. By the way, how many people are stressed out? Raise your hand. A lot of you. Not everybody, and my hat is off to those of you who are not stressed out. How about busy? Who’s busy? Everybody’s busy. We’re very important people. We have a lot to do, don’t we? This woman’s a little over-stressed out.
Mindfulness is a way of counteracting that busyness with a kind of non-doing. There’s so much doing and producing and getting things done and accomplishing in our culture. Mindfulness invites us to just be. We’ve become these human doings instead of human beings. So how do we learn to come back into the present moment and not have to do all the time? When we learn that skill, when we learn to get quiet, when we learn to check into ourselves, it’s a huge antidote in the midst of our busy lives.
Here’s the opposite, maybe, perhaps. I’ll just say that mindfulness is not something that is far out of your experience. It’s something we’ve all had a taste of at various moments in our lives. I’ll just ask you this question: how many of you have spent some time in nature, and when you’re in the midst of nature you feel relaxed, at ease, connected, present? Raise your hand if you’ve had that experience. Yeah. This is it. This is mindfulness. Mindfulness connects us to ourselves. It makes us present here and now. We’ve all had it. It’s not some mystical thing.
How about any of you in the midst of athletic activity, where you’re really in the zone and you’re right there, present with your body? Who’s had that experience? Really connected and present. How about in the midst of artistic endeavor? Music or writing or you’re just with that creative flow. Or what about when you fall in love, if you remember? Being with that person for the first time, the real intensity in being present. You don’t have to raise your hand, but you know what I mean, right? (laughter) You know what I mean. This is a really, really authentic experience that we all have of mindfulness. I just wanted to show you that it’s something you already do and know.
Mindfulness has been brought into health settings and shown that it has a powerful effect on a number of mental and physical health issues. I just listed a few here: cancer, heart disease, arthritis, autoimmune disorders, chronic pain. And then more mental health concerns: depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a whole host of other things has been studied in the last decade or 15, 20 years.
The last 20 years, the scientific research has shown mindfulness to address various health concerns. Let me talk about these specifically. I’ll give you a couple of the studies, just so you get a sense of what the mindfulness studies are about. One is in the area of physical health, so I listed the conditions that are helped by mindfulness. Generally, stress-related conditions can be impacted by mindfulness, so things like high blood pressure – really helpful to meditate and practice mindfulness – boosting the immune system; increasing the healing response.
I mentioned a study here about psoriasis, what they did with the itchy skin condition that people have. The typical treatment for psoriasis is that people go into what we might think of as tanning booths, where you get UVB light rays projected onto the skin. What was done in one of the research studies was they had some people receive the typical treatment and other people receive the same treatment, but they listened to a mindfulness CD and they practiced along with it. Those people healed three times faster than the people who just received the typical treatment. So this was a very interesting study done a number of years ago, and it’s been replicated and shown to be that mindfulness is quite effective.
Someone was asking earlier about mindfulness and attention and focus. Well yes, it definitely can help with attention, and it has been known to do that. You’ll see. In fact, when we do the practice, which we’ll do in about five minutes or so, you’ll see that one of the aspects of mindfulness is about learning to focus.
We did a study at UCLA about six years ago where we took adolescents and adults and had them go through an eight-week mindfulness training program. These were people with ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or Attention Deficit Disorder. It was a small pilot study, but what we saw was significant improvement in the ability to pay attention.
There’s different ways to pay attention, but one main way to pay attention is called conflict attention. Conflict attention is when there’s many things competing for your attention, and your mind is being taken all over the place. If you have ADD, it’s really hard to stay focused. So if you’re here in this audience, you might be paying attention to the lights or looking at other things or maybe looking at your phone or something – I don’t know, actually. But with conflict attention, when it’s trained, we learn to stay on one thing.
The people in this study, that improved significantly. So significantly that when other researchers looked at the data, they said, “What kind of medication were people put on?” They said, “No, no – meditation, not medication.” (laughter)
Mindfulness and mental health. Mindfulness has also helped, as I mentioned earlier, with anxiety, depression – there’s been a lot of studies looking at that aspect of mindfulness, including studies that look at obsessive-compulsive disorder. It fosters wellbeing and creates less emotional reactivity.
There’s a very interesting study about happiness that was done just last year, and I love this study because I think it tells a lot about what mindfulness is. Keep in mind that there’s so many studies happening right now, but it’s still small. The area of research of mindfulness is still small. It’s not the cure-all for everything. You can imagine that there’s maybe 1,000 research studies on mindfulness, but if you were to look at heart disease and exercise, for example, there’s about 45,000 studies proving that. So mindfulness research is still in the young phase.