You can’t turn around lately without encountering the words “mindfulness” and “meditation”. It seems like everyone wants you to get your quiet on! Does it have any value, though, beyond a (maybe) quieter mind? And if you’re one of those lucky people whose mind always seems to be on hyper drive, is it worth the time and effort?
“The Last Best Cure: My Quest to Awaken the Healing Parts of My Brain and Get Back My Body, My Joy, and My Life” would suggest it’s more than worth the effort. In fact, it may be the gentlest and simplest path to health that is available to you!
The author, Donna Jackson Nakazawa, was struggling with a host of difficult-to-diagnose (and even harder to live with) conditions that ruled her existence. She had become functional with mounds of medical intervention but it left her “perpetually worried, exhausted, and often in pain.”
Nakazawa was also a science journalist. She was aware of the growing body of knowledge about how our brain’s mental activity affects physical functioning. She became especially intrigued by the new field psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), which studies the interaction between our psychological state of mind and our immune function. PNI studies discovered that if you “engaged in practices that helped to redirect your mental state away from anxiety, fear, and pain and toward contentment and joy…your inflammatory and stress biomarkers went down. As your mental state shifted, you felt some sense of physical relief.”
Nakazawa decided to spend a year as her own guinea pig, devoting time to practices considered good candidates to reduce chronic pain, inflammation, and illness. She chose mindfulness meditation and yoga.
I’ll go ahead and flip to the end of the book for you and let you know how it worked out: yes, it makes a difference! Not quickly. Like massage, the effects accumulate over time slowly but doggedly. The more often you do it, the more rapidly you will see and feel the effects. You will find yourself with all kinds of internal resistance to the practices (which you already know if you’ve ever started – and dropped – an exercise regimen, New Year’s resolution, or any other self-improvement effort). The key is still endurance.
“ ‘Often when we have trouble meditating it’s not due to a lack of awareness,’ Trish [Magayari] says, 'but to a resistance to self-love.’ ” Which is a complicated issue, admittedly, but it’s one that can also be healed with meditation.
This can be especially useful if you are one of the thousands and thousands of us who suffered any kind of trauma in childhood (which doesn’t mean just physical trauma). It turns out that those experiences while we are still growing change our nervous system and make us even more prone to chronic illnesses, inflammation, and pain. But, as Nakazawa explains:
“…the practice of mindfulness retrains the brain toward a calmer place of wisdom and balance for those who’ve had a history of traumatic stress. This, in turn, allows deeper memories that are hard to deal with to arise for the first time. It becomes suddenly safe to deal with what we haven’t dealt with before.”
You don’t have to have a traumatic history, though, to experience stress in daily living. The odds are if you’re reading this you live in or near Washington DC, recently declared the most expensive place to live in the US and home to some awesomely frustrating traffic! However, mindfulness practices are available to you absolutely free (or inexpensively if you need a little group support to make this happen).
“No matter who you are – regardless of your experience or your genetics – it is quite possible to engage in regular practices that downshift the fight-or-flight response and grow new, healthier neural and chemical pathways, simply by adjusting your psychological state of mind. Meditation studies in posttraumatic stress patients and others tell us that anyone can get a better brain.”
The kind of meditation you do may matter. Dr. Charles Raison, the Barry and Janet Lang Associate Professor of Integrative Mental Health at the University of Arizona, is particularly interested in “the benefits of loving-kindness meditation [a Tibetan meditation tradition]; his growing body of research indicates that developing this heightened sense of compassion toward others shifts our immune system in stunningly protective ways.”
“ ‘ Stress activates cytokine activity and inflammation, taxing your immune system in a way that is not all that different from what happens when you’re infected by a virus or bacteria.’ “
In a large study with college students, Dr. Raison discovered that “those who practiced compassion meditation for a total of an hour and half to two hours over the course of each week ‘not only now saw stressful situations as less stressful, they also had lower levels of the inflammatory cytokine interleukin (IL-6), a chemical directly related to both inflammation and disease.’ “
Here’s some great news: you do not have to devote hours each day to meditation to reap the benefits (though if that really appeals to you, go for it!). As noted in the paragraph above, the study participants racked up anywhere from 90 – 120 minutes of meditation over the course of a week. That could be as little as 13 minutes every day (or 20 minutes 5 days a week or…well, you can do the math).
And you don’t need a special room, cushion, clothing, or other accoutrements. You don’t even have to close your eyes. You can do this on the bus, the metro, on your lunch break, in the waiting room at your doctor’s office or DMV or even while taking the dog for a walk. Where do you have 15-20 minutes where you can take your mind to a quieter place? You have meditation time.
If you want to read more, pick up The Last Best Cure by Donna Jackson Nakazawa.
If you want to explore meditation or yoga in a structured supported environment, the Teal Center offers classes in various forms of yoga and meditation.
We welcome you and your busy busy nervous system!