Mindfulness meditation can ease stress

By Sara Rae Lancaster
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Editor’s note: Reprinted with permission from the October/November 2013 issue of She, a magazine for southeastern Wisconsin women. For more information, go to she-magazine.com

Donna Mosca had practiced yoga for several years and taught it for five. But it wasn’t until she took a mindfulness-based stress reduction course that she realized how much deeper her own yoga practice and teaching could become.

“We’re constantly pulled away by the stuff going on in our lives,” said Mosca, owner and teacher at Peace Tree Yoga in Burlington. “Adding in elements of mindfulness meditation made me look more closely at my choices, from the books I read and movies I watched to the people surrounding me and the foods I ate.”

Like yoga, mindfulness meditation has its roots in Buddhism but is not a religious practice. It focuses on non-judgmental awareness of feelings and thoughts, and it teaches people how to be present but not controlled by them.

Taming ‘monkey minds’

Mindfulness-based stress reduction was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979. Today these programs, like the one Mosca completed, are taught worldwide. Recent studies suggest techniques taught in mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness meditation could be the key to finally taming our “monkey minds” — a term Buddha used to describe the fear, doubt, worry and judgment that fill the mind and create mental stress.

In 2011, a team of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital published a study that reported participation in an eight-week mindfulness meditation program made measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, stress, sense of self and empathy. Such results have mindfulness meditation being incorporated in everything from yoga classes to mental health treatment programs.

Iman Khan, a psychotherapist and mindfulness meditation consultant at Johansen and Fleming in Kenosha, uses mindfulness meditation as a supplemental treatment to traditional cognitive-behavior therapy.

“For years people knew meditation made them feel good, but now we have the science and the studies backing up those claims,” she said, citing additional studies that showed mindfulness meditation benefited everything from anxiety and depression to physical ailments like heart disease, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal issues and chronic pain.

“Nine times out of 10, whether a person is struggling with a divorce, anxiety or depression, what is consistent throughout is this judgmental piece,” Khan said.

That judgment, she said, causes an emotional or mental attachment that then controls the person’s thoughts and actions.

“We tell ourselves stories like, ‘I should be doing this,’ or ‘I shouldn’t be doing this,’” she said. “Our brain was designed to make decisions and judge, but when we’re in a survival situation, not when we’re just walking down the street.”

Khan used her mindfulness-based stress reduction training to create the Train Your Brain curriculum, which she uses to help her patients incorporate mindfulness meditation techniques into their everyday lives.

“The key is to teach people to be an observer of their thoughts, not a participant,” Khan said.

Thoughts don’tdefine who we are

Making the transition from participant to observer is done by realizing our thoughts do not define us, said Venerable Bhikkhuni Vimala, a resident Buddhist nun at Blue Lotus Temple in Woodstock, Ill. (“Bhikkhuni” refers to a fully ordained female Buddhist monastic.)

“Life has difficulty and pain that is always there. But that doesn’t mean we have to make it worse with our thoughts,” she said. “The feeling or thought doesn’t define who we are.”

Vimala leads five meditation classes each week in Wisconsin and Illinois, including a Tuesday evening class in Lake Geneva at Holy Communion Episcopal Church, 320 Broad St., and a Thursday evening class in Elkhorn. Mosca is one of her students. As with any new habit, Vimala said developing a meditation practice takes time.

“Don’t try it once and say, ‘It’s not for me,’” she said. “Like exercise, it takes a determined effort to turn things around. It takes awhile before recognizing our thoughts without judgment becomes the automatic response.”

Though establishing a meditation practice takes time, meditation comes in many forms. That’s good news for new students, and something Vimala encourages.

“It’s really good for people to experience meditation in all the safe venues they can,” Vimala said.

Different techniques

Mosca tries to introduce her yoga students to a variety of meditation forms, from incorporating techniques into regular yoga classes to offering special meditation workshops. She also hosts special events like mala bead classes and an annual winter silent retreat. Other beginning mindfulness meditation forms include walking meditation, guided meditation (by a teacher or recording) and breathing meditation.

“Just because one technique doesn’t work doesn’t mean that meditation doesn’t work,” Mosca said. “You want to find a format that works for you and stick with it. If you do, you’ll begin to catch glimpses of what that deeper practice and deeper self-knowing looks like.”

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