The Medicine Cabinet: Ask the Harvard Experts
By Howard LeWine, M.D.
Q: I have been hearing a lot more about mindfulness recently. Given my hectic life, it sounds like I might benefit. But I am not sure how to start. Any suggestions?
A: Mindfulness is the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment — and accepting it without judgment.
Mindfulness meditation is an excellent way to get started. In mindfulness meditation, you learn to establish concentration. You observe the flow of inner thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations without judging them as good or bad. The challenge is to avoid latching on to a particular idea, emotion or sensation, or getting caught in thinking about the past or the future.
There is more than one way to practice mindfulness, but the goal of any mindfulness technique is to achieve a state of alert, focused relaxation by deliberately paying attention to thoughts and sensations without judgment. This allows the mind to refocus on the present moment.
Here is a simple mindfulness meditation exercise you can try on your own.
1. Sit on a straight-backed chair or cross-legged on the floor.
2. Focus on an aspect of your breathing, such as the sensations of air flowing into your nostrils and out of your mouth, or your belly rising and falling as you inhale and exhale.
3. Once you’ve narrowed your concentration in this way, begin to widen your focus. Become aware of sounds, sensations and ideas.
4. Embrace and consider each thought or sensation without judging it good or bad. If your mind starts to race, return your focus to your breathing. Then expand your awareness again.
The benefits of mindfulness meditation tend to be related to the duration and frequency of your practice — the more you do, the greater the effect it usually has. Most people find that it takes at least 20 minutes for the mind to begin to settle, so this is a reasonable way to start.
Above all, mindfulness practice involves accepting whatever arises in your awareness at each moment. It involves being kind and forgiving toward yourself. If your mind wanders into planning, daydreaming or criticism, notice where it has gone and gently redirect it to sensations in the present.
If you miss your intended meditation session, you simply start again. With mindfulness practice during your meditation sessions, it becomes easier to accept whatever comes your way during the rest of your day.
(Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)