Calming the mind's chatter

The Baltimore Sun

MIAMI - Our worries.

They're crescendoing like the finale of Beethoven's "Ninth": Bailouts, buyouts. Recession, depression.

Enter the meditative practice of mindfulness. Born of Buddhist roots, it's increasingly recognized as a measure to calm the mind's chatter and elevate the brain's thinking and organizational processes.

Mindfulness seminars. Mindfulness books. Even the medical mainstream is taking note - the Sept. 17 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association had a piece titled "Mindfulness in Medicine."

"The uncertainty of tomorrow creates a lot of the angst or discomfort," says Scott Rogers, director of the Institute for Mindfulness Studies in Miami Beach. "People are looking more and more to bring a little bit of 'ahhh ...' Not just stress reduction, but allowance and acceptance."

Mindfulness is built around the premise of disengaging from overly emotional responses and extraneous thoughts that clutter the mind's ability to think clearly. By using techniques such as breathing, visual imagery and meditation to slow down and focus on the present, the theory goes, a person can tap into a higher level of awareness. The more acute awareness is the byproduct of more active brain waves brought on by meditation, studies have shown.

Simply put, it's going from worrier to warrior, says Rogers, 45, a lawyer who conducts seminars for other lawyers and school groups.

"We want to move into a place where the outside world will do whatever it's going to do without us going through the roller coaster of emotions," Rogers says. "We want to maintain this more alive, vigilant, present way of being that is somewhat independent of how things are going."

Dr. Patricia Isis runs a mindfulness seminar at South Miami Hospital and says her weekly classes fill immediately. "People are stressed to the max," she says.

The mindfulness practice has ties to sports psychology, says Dr. Janet Konefal, the assistant dean for complementary integrative medicine at the University of Miami.

"Most of the research about this self-talk comes from coaches and psychologists involved in sports," she says. "They're interested in how athletes talk to themselves and how that can make the difference and be cutting-edge."

Olympics swimmer Michael Phelps, for one, is renowned for envisioning every race before he dives into the water. He focuses on the time he wants to achieve - down to the hundredth of a second - and the exact stroke count per lap he needs to achieve his goal. He credits this focus with winning a gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly at the Beijing Olympics last month, despite a problem with his goggles that impaired his vision.

There is a growing body of evidence that this type of mental discipline and meditative practice can carve new pathways in the brain. It's a concept called neuroplasticity, and it's just the opposite of what scientists had believed for years - that the brain's nerve cells were set in childhood and didn't change.

Research has shown otherwise. A 2005 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences measured the brain waves in a group of Tibetan monks schooled in Buddhist meditative practices from centuries ago. The researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that when the monks meditated - especially the ones most skilled in meditative practices - their brain waves, as measured by brain-scanning machines, recorded much greater and more powerful activity than previous standards of healthy people. The Dalai Lama sent the monks to the Wisconsin lab.

Howard Cohen writes for McClatchy Newspapers.


Scott Rogers, director of the Institute for Mindfulness Studies in Miami Beach, offers these techniques to help reduce stress and stay centered:

4-7-8 Hand-breathing exercise

* Inhale and open your hands to count of four.

* Hold breath and stretch fingers to count of seven.

* Exhale and close your hands to count of eight.

Hand washing

Focus on every aspect of the activity. Allow yourself to experience the sensation of turning on the tap, feeling the water temperature, the silkiness of the soap, the aroma. This relaxes and centers you.

Every step my heart beats

Slow down and feel the foot as it presses the ground, getting in touch with your heartbeat on each stride. Next, incorporate the thought of a loved one's heartbeat beating in time with your pace. It can be a child, pet, partner. "This brings us a connectedness to the moment," Rogers says.

Accept your thoughts as natural

"There is a myth about meditation that you are quieting your mind. The mind's job is to be all over the place. It's about accepting wherever your mind is and bringing it back to the moment," says Dr. Patricia Isis, mental health counselor with South Miami Hospital. "The reality is our minds are fairly active most of the time and that's why people think they can't meditate."

Adds Rogers, "It's said we have about 50,000 to 60,000 thoughts a day and most of those are thoughts that we had yesterday and the day before.

"Just a small number are really relevant to what's taking place. If we can tone down the chatter, we get rid of the static," Rogers says.

"Mindfulness is catching the mind as it wanders. That's perfectly OK. We have a mind that wanders and is likened to a puppy dog. 'Stay here.' It walks off. 'There you are, you wandered.' " Just bring it back to the moment.

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