How to Start Practicing Mindfulness

Turns out, there are many ways to reduce stress and anxiety and to become more self-aware. Here are some options for training your brain, either alone or in a group.

I reach out to the next name on my list: Dr. Ellen Flynn, a psychiatrist by training who is a teacher of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the Women’s Medicine Collaborative at Miriam Hospital. MBSR is a program developed in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts that promotes mindfulness in patients.

“It’s eight weeks, which includes a Saturday whole-day retreat. Homework runs between forty-five minutes to one hour, with six days of practice per week. It’s a very intensive silent guided meditation retreat,” says Flynn. “But the intensity of practice is designed so that you’re learning how you’re relating to the stressors in your life.”

These stressors range from anxiety and depression to cancer, gastrointestinal pain, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Wait, I think: Meditation can be used for physical well-being in addition to mental?

“Take people with asthma for example,” Flynn explains. “After an eight-week MBSR program promoting greater awareness, maybe they will be attentive and more responsive to their breathing and if they’re more attentive and aware, then maybe that will allow them to stay out of the hospital.”

But even though meditation can be used to help people deal with these various illnesses, Flynn is still aware that mindfulness meditation isn’t something to be used lightly.

“It isn’t for everyone,” Flynn says. “We have to think about what the limitations are, just like with anything in medicine. You need to have a sense of that to be able to prescribe it wisely.”

Even used within the confines of a medically approved program, Flynn has seen her share of distressed patients.

“I expect discomfort when I start teaching a class. I say this to people who sign up: Look, we’re so used to being distracted, that’s when we start looking inwards. I expect that the topography of what’s uncomfortable, what’s difficult, what’s physically or emotionally painful, that may start to feel more intense because you’re actually paying attention to it,” she says. “And that’s healthy, rather than continually running away and distracting ourselves. In the moment it might feel good to run away, but in the long run, it may be feeding the very thing that’s causing the stress.”

But once mindfulness is inserted into the equation, you learn to look at these thoughts and feelings and non-judgmentally examine them.

Flynn concludes with this: “Normally we spend our lives here looking out, and spend very little time looking inwards at what’s going on in the body and how we are attending to it. What mindfulness promotes is an awareness of ‘what’s the wisest way I can take care of myself.’ ”

My own story of mindfulness meditation is one of taking care of myself, and while I’m not cured of my anxiety, it’s helped me to become more centered, more aware of why I think the way I do. To round out my research, to finish where I began, I decide it’s time for one more meditation.

The bare trees shake in the wide windows facing the scrubby forest behind All That Matters in East Greenwich. I sit on a few bolsters and a mat, wishing I had worn a stretchy shirt rather than a crisp, after-this-I-have-work button down. Four people filter in, set up yoga mats and cross their legs.

Debbie Knight, our meditation leader, tells us to get comfortable and to be compassionate towards ourselves. “This is the hardest thing,” she says, referring to meditation.

“We try not to judge ourselves for having thoughts, rather see the thoughts like clouds floating by.”

It’s a fifteen-minute meditation, a full five minutes longer than my on and off again at-home practice, but in the quiet space, a salt lamp glowing warmly in front of me, I think, this won’t be so bad.

And it isn’t.

Each breath rises then falls like a tide coming in and out, and the silence is punctuated by the rumbling of the heater coming to life, the sound of breathing from my fellow meditators, and a grumble from my own stomach as if it’s asking, “why do you sit so still, we need food!”

But they don’t distract me from my task. Rather, they ground me in this wide world that my body inhabits.

The small gong that started our meditation session sounds again, ending it. I open my eyes, surprised the fifteen minutes is already over, and feel content.