Peace of Mind

By SHANNON BURKE, Columbia Missourian, February 13, 2005

Mindfulness techniques help stressed-out people stay calm and focused

Columbia, Missouri, (USA) -- It is 4:45 p.m. on a Wednesday, and the floor of Benton-Bingham Ballroom in Memorial Union resembles naptime at a preschool. Forty stressed-out, shoeless MU students lay on their backs at varying angles, some wiggling their toes, others with their hands folded neatly on their bellies.

As Lynn Rossy sits cross-legged in a chair at the front of the room, her gentle, slow voice washes over the bodies lying on the floor. For the next 25 minutes, Rossy talks her students through ?body scan? meditation, which causes them to become fully aware of every part of their bodies, from the tips of their toes to each strand of their hair.

The students have one thing in common: They are seeking help in mindfulness.

?It?s the common human experience,? said Rossy, a clinical psychologist at the MU Student Health Center and director of MU?s Mindfulness Practice Center. ?I would challenge you to find anybody who doesn?t have that same experience of not being present for their life much of the time. We all have minds, and our minds are all made up the same way. They are conditioned instruments to think, and they think of all kinds of things. I haven?t met anybody yet that hasn?t said ?Oh yeah, that?s me.? ?

Rossy got the idea to start a campus network of people interested in mindfulness practices when she was a graduate student studying psychology in December 2002. Her personal interests in meditative practices intersected with her academic readings on Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Kabat-Zinn developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Relief program that Rossy and others teach. Rossy sent an e-mail about her idea and got 75 responses, and things grew from there. The center offers several programs for MU students and faculty, including classes, a mindful-eating group and a mindfulness-based cognitive-therapy group for individuals dealing with depression. The center also helps organize noontime sitting-meditation groups at the Women?s Center, MU School of Law and MU Student Health Center.

The center also sponsored Kabat-Zinn?s recent visit to Columbia, which filled the Missouri Theatre with an audience of about 1,100.

Rossy said she heard positive feedback from many community members who were excited to get more involved with mindfulness practices. She hopes that Kabat-Zinn?s visit will spur more mindfulness-based programs in Columbia.

?There are lots of areas where this could grow and benefit people, particularly in the way it was originally developed for patient populations,? Rossy said. ?There hasn?t been any of that here yet. There?s a real interest. Hopefully his visit will bring key people together that could make some programs happen that benefit people.?

Rossy said mindfulness is a way to help people live purposely focused on the present by being non-judgmental, non-reactive and open to all possibilities. It is meant to be a way for people to slow down and focus on the present, not to be a cure-all or a quick fix for a stressful life.

?It?s not a relaxation technique,? Rossy said. ?We call it a stress-reduction program, but I say that?s a misnomer because it isn?t going to reduce the stress in your life at all. You will have the same stress that you?ve always had, but you?ll have a different relationship to it. It doesn?t mean you won?t ever have pain or emotional pain. Life is full of ups and downs.?

Despite its groundings in the meditation practices of Buddhism and other Eastern religions, mindfulness is not a religious practice. The mindfulness center Web site, as well as other mindfulness resources, point out that mindfulness is a purely secular approach to life.

?Certainly Eastern traditions have done meditation, but, also, so has any religion if you look at their roots. They all have a contemplative aspect to them,? Rossy said. ?One cannot deny that those (Eastern religions) have influenced how we do the practice, but we certainly don?t practice Buddhism.?

Rossy said that many people buy into the misconception that mindfulness is religious, but that mindfulness does not conflict with any other beliefs a practitioner may have.

?I think mindfulness is about being fully human and really being a human being instead of a human doing. It?s about being present for your life and living it as consciously as you can,? Rossy said. ?I wouldn?t call that religious. I would call it a human being thing.?

Though the most important part of mindfulness is meditation, it is more than just meditating at a specified time, Rossy said. Mindfulness requires applying techniques, honed through formal practice, to everyday life.

?I do practices to help me develop the skill. It?s just like if I was a runner, I wouldn?t go out and run an Iron Man (triathlon) without practicing a lot,? Rossy said. ?It?s the same thing with mindfulness. If you practice it, you?re better at it. Sitting in formal meditation helps you develop the skill. Who cares if you do it when you?re sitting, not talking to anybody? What difference would that make? The difference is that when you go out into your life, you?re more mindful with everyone you meet.?

Erin Tuttle is a student in Rossy?s Mindfulness-Based Stress Relief class. Tuttle, an MU senior, takes the class to help cope with depression.

?I was tired of relying on medication,? Tuttle said. ?I wanted to maybe find some other ways to learn more about myself so that I can deal with what stresses me out better. Maybe beat the depression before it gets to me.?

Tuttle said she felt more alert and energized when the class was over. Though formal classes are not necessary to practice mindfulness, Rossy said they are useful for beginners.

?It?s helpful to do it in a group. It motivates you to do it. It gives you some instruction,? Rossy said. ?It?s sometimes hard to start a meditation practice without some instruction because you can read about it, but just don?t quite get it. You have a lot of misconceptions about what it is and what it isn?t.?

The benefits of mindfulness vary from person to person, but during the past two decades, significant medical research has found that people who practice mindfulness techniques, like meditation or yoga, can better manage pain; better manage emotional conditions, such as depression; decrease overall stress levels, decrease anxiety; and increase immune system function.

Rossy emphasizes that many people may find the benefits of mindfulness in other activities.

?I don?t think that everyone needs to go through a (mindfulness) program, but it can be a helpful learning tool for many people. In my own life, I?ve found it invaluable, but other people do it in different ways,? she said. ?People might gravitate more toward athletics to find meaning in their lives, or they might go out in nature.?

Although mindfulness practices were initially developed to work in conjunction with traditional medical practices, mindfulness has found a place in a variety of fields. Phil Jackson, who coached the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers to nine NBA championships, has been known to use meditative techniques to motivate and encourage his players.

A program in St. Louis, The Enlightened Sentencing Project, consists of a network of criminal court judges who sentence probationers and parolees to a course that incorporates mindfulness, yoga and breathing exercises as a way to help them control anger, substance abuse and other destructive behaviors.

The MU School of Law has also adopted mindfulness as a teaching tool for its students. Leonard Riskin heads an Initiative on Mindfulness in Law and Dispute Resolution,which promotes the appropriate uses of mindfulness in law schools and the legal profession.

The mindfulness program in the law school incorporates two classes. Riskin developed Understanding Conflict, a class that teaches students how to use mindfulness as a way to understand and solve conflicts. The other class, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, is not for credit.

Riskin has been pushing the initiative since 1999, but he doubts there will ever be a mindfulness component required at the school, because mindfulness is not something everyone will want to try, he said.

Riskin has been studying mindfulness since 1990 and various meditative practices since 1974. Based on his legal experiences, he saw the need to develop a program to help law students and practicing lawyers cope with the immense stress they often face.

?There is a huge amount of emotional suffering among law students and among lawyers,? Riskin said. Research shows that law students have higher depression rates compared to other professions, and they tend to stay depressed longer, Riskin added.

Jay Hastings, a second-year law student, participated in the mindfulness program after his curiosity was piqued by a friend who took the class. He said stress is a big part of life as a law student, and part of that stress comes from the competitive system under which law schools and legal practices operate as well as from the nature of being a lawyer.

?You have this realization somewhere in law school that you have people?s lives in your hands,? Hastings said. ?Usually when a client comes to see you, it?s one of the most important things to ever happen to them. If you mess up, you could destroy someone?s life. That?s a lot of responsibility. The last thing you need when dealing with that responsibility is to be consumed with your fear that you?re going to miss something because then you?re more likely to actually miss something.?

Hastings said mindfulness has helped him improve his grades by allowing him to focus on being a more effective student as well as by helping him learn more about himself.

?A lot of what mindfulness does is allow you self-realization, which can occur over a lifetime,? Hastings said. ?But I?d hate to wait until I?m 60 to figure out what makes me respond to people in a certain way. To discover that now helps me a lot.?

Riskin believes applying mindfulness to law will help lawyers serve their clients in more constructive ways.

?Partly because of the stress, and partly because of the legal education, I think that lawyers miss a lot of opportunities for serving their clients better and for enjoying their work more,? Riskin said.

Hastings also said practicing mindfulness gives him the ability to be a calmer, more helpful law student.

?There?s just something about the process of doing it regularly that makes you a calmer person in general. Everyone wants to work with someone who is calmer and happy with their job and with someone who can sit and solve a problem rather than freak out the second something doesn?t work they way they want it to,? Hastings said.

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