Just about 10 years ago, I was fresh out of undergrad, and, like many of you, trying to figure out my place in the world. I was working for a cytogenetics company, but I knew that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life working in that field. While it had its interesting moments, it quickly became boring and uninspired.
I started to ask myself those age old questions: What would be my career path? What are my values? What’s important to me? Because I didn’t have a great way to answer that, I turned, once again, to higher education, and applied to graduate school. Well, little did I know at the time, I’d leave the program to which I was accepted during the first semester after realizing that it just wasn’t for me. Dropping out of grad school was literally, without a doubt, one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make.
Frustrated, confused, and STRESSED OUT, I needed to figure what my next move was going to be. In the midst of scrambling to apply for any job I could get, I came upon an advertisement for the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program at Duke Integrative Medicine. The words “stress reduction” jumped off the page. I had almost no knowledge of mindfulness or meditation, but I did have curiosity and time on my hands. I was skeptical that it would do anything to help me, but I was willing to at least give it a shot. So, I registered for their 8-week foundations program. It required a lot of time and effort, but it is still one of the single greatest set of skills that I’ve learned in my 32 years on this Earth. I still practice every single day. I’m not one to use these words lightly, but it changed my life in ways that I could not imagine at that time. Since that time, I have given a talk about mindfulness and its benefits to the Spina Bifida Association of the Carolinas, created a Youtube video, was a research coordinator for a study examining the biological, physiological, and psychological benefits of mindfulness meditation, and am even developing a mindfulness workshop for UNC undergraduate students over the summer in collaboration with Student Wellness.
You might be wondering at this point, “Mindfulness? What is this dude talking about?” Well, I’m glad you asked! Mindfulness is simply paying attention to the present moment with intention, without judgment, and with an attitude of acceptance of present moment experience. It could be something as simple as focusing on how your breath feels, noticing that you’re feeling tired, noticing how the warm sun feels on your skin. You don’t need to do anything about your experience, you just need notice it and then simply turn your attention to whatever comes next.
Even if it’s not a life altering experience for you, there is mounting evidence to suggest that mindfulness can be beneficial to physical health, like reducing blood pressure and enhancing our immune system. There are also mental health benefits like reducing anxiety, depression, and stress, and an increase in overall wellbeing. Here are just a few articles on the subject:
Brown University Health Education:
Helpguide.org (in collaboration with Harvard Medical School):
Greater Good – The Science of a Meaningful Life at UC Berkeley
So, you really want to increase your mindfulness and start enjoying all of these health benefits, but aren’t really sure about how to do that? Well, I’ll give you a hint, it starts with an “m” and ends with “-editation”. That’s right, meditation! You might be saying to yourself, “but I thought meditation were just for people who wear dreadlocks and play in drum circles or for monks?” The good news is that you do not have to be part of a special group to start a meditation practice. You can practice alone or with a group of friends. Here are a couple of simple meditation practices to get you started:
Despite what this picture might suggest, you don’t have to be near a lake or even have your legs in lotus position! Here are some simple steps to begin:
- Find a comfortable place to sit, whether it’s in a chair, on a mat, on the floor, just wherever works best for you.
- Make sure not to have your back too rigid and straight, but not so relaxed that you’re slouching. You should sit in a dignified manner.
- You can keep your eyes open or even half open. You can also close them if that’s comfortable, but this may encourage you to fall asleep.
- Now, bring your attention to the sensation of your breath. Notice how the cool air feels as it enters through your nostrils.
- Now move your attention down to your chest and belly. Notice how the chest and belly expand out with each inhalation, and contracts or flattens out on the exhalation. See if you can count at least 5 exhalations.
- If you notice that your focus starts to drift away from your breath and to your thoughts, for example, just notice that this has happened and slowly, without any judgment, bring your full attention and awareness back to the sensation of the breath. Just be sure that you don’t beat yourself because your mind wandered.
- Try and keep your attention on the breath for just 10 minutes. It’s not easy, but keep at it!
Another simple exercise that you can do is a walking meditation. You can do this as you’re walking between classes, or anywhere on campus, and no one has to know that you’re doing it (unless you want them to know):
- Bring your attention to your feet, and notice what it feels like to have them firmly on the ground. You may notice how your shoes and socks feel on your feet.
- While lifting each foot and leg off the ground, try to notice how it feels to lift your foot and leg into the air.
- While alternating each foot and leg, notice the experience of your weight shifting as you move forward.
- Bring your awareness to your upper body and pay attention to your arms as they swing and any other motion you feel in your upper body as you walk.
Use a wheelchair? No problem! You can do this too!
- Bring your attention to your arms and hands as they move back and you get ready to push your wheels.
- You may notice how the muscles in your back squeeze together or how your shoulder muscles stretch.
- Notice what your hands feel as they grip your wheels.
- Finally, see what you experience as you start to push your wheels. You may feel the muscles in your biceps and triceps flexing and stretching. Don’t worry if you don’t notice this. Just bring your full attention to what you do feel.
You’re now on your way to having your own mindfulness practice. Now, go out there and start giving your attention to each moment! You never know what you might discover.
Dennis Carmody is an MPH candidate in the Health Behavior department at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. He is currently enjoying his summer practicum with the great folks at UNC Student Wellness.