Mindfulness meditation is a particular way of paying attention to the present moment. It is one of two major forms of meditation out of the Buddhist traditions in Asia, which are at least 2,500 years old. Mindfulness meditation was developed to help cultivate greater awareness and to help people live fully each moment of their lives, even the painful ones. In the United States, mindfulness is associated with a particular approach to stress management created by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Techniques of Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness is sometimes referred to as insight meditation, or vipassana. Sitting comfortably, spine should be upright, supported and the head should balanced naturally, looking forward with gently closing the eyes and the breath be natural and gentle. This meditation is begun by focusing attention on one sound or observing the breath. Breathing should be through the nose, letting the belly rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale. The body must become still. The second part of the process involves allowing the mind to observe any thoughts or feelings that arise and maintaining a nonjudgmental attitude toward whatever occurs, moment by moment. Attempt should not be made to control your thoughts. The more you try to control thoughts, the stronger they become. This process allows the meditator to learn about the workings of his or her mind at the present moment and to gain insight into the spending of time and energy. Equal acceptance of the good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant is the goal. The quality of awareness, not the content of the thoughts and feelings, is what is valued. This technique can be practiced in a sitting position or while eating, walking, or doing yoga postures.
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In 1992, Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. The core training program is an 8-week intensive course to which medical patients with a variety of illnesses and symptoms have been referred. Some have had little or no response to allopathic treatments, and others wish to try a “natural” approach to augment their care.
The training requires a commitment to daily meditative practice. In addition to being offered at the medical center, individually tailored programs have been created for specific groups and presented in prisons, inner city community health centers, and in Spanish as well as English. A training program was instituted to teach health professionals the basic mindfulness meditation techniques and how to teach it to patients.
Benefits of mindfulness meditation
The mindfulness meditation program aims to help people mobilize their own inner resources to better understand and care for themselves and complement any medical care they are receiving. The focus is on better coping with the stresses of everyday life, as well as living with a chronic or life-threatening illness. While no promises of symptom relief or illness remission are given, mindfulness meditation, when practiced regularly, can induce deep relaxation, improve symptoms, and help people live more satisfying lives. It is believed that accepting uncomfortable thoughts or feelings is the first step of transforming that reality and one’s relationship to it.
Given the positive experience of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center with patients with cardiac and respiratory conditions, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), diabetes, panic attacks, and other forms of anxiety, it is not yet apparent what kinds of patients or problems cannot benefit from this intensive training. However, high motivation is a critical element because of the daily level of participation required.