Your mind is a master key to your health. Nutrition, exercise, hygiene, emotional balance, and stress management are all important, but your mental commitment to healthy living underlies all these factors. If you’re not committed to a healthy lifestyle, or if your commitment is half-hearted, your chances of enjoying the many benefits of long-term wellness are small.
James Atkinson, a top British trainer, puts a positive mind-set about healthy living ahead of diet and exercise as a priority to become fit and healthy. He says that it’s almost impossible to achieve outstanding fitness without strong mental commitment. He begins training clients to build a positive mindset before anything else.
Mindfulness is the practice of purposely focusing our attention on the present moment — and accepting it without judgment. When we’re not mindful, our minds wander aimlessly 90 percent of the time. Mindfulness helps us stay in the “now” of our daily experience. Being fully present and gaining greater awareness of all that we’re experiencing is an effective way of gaining deeper appreciation for life and health. This in turn favors a strong commitment to health.
Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction Clinic based on mindfulness principles at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. Because of its success, he developed the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course that has since become world famous. MBSR clinics have been opened and operated in hospitals and other settings in increasing numbers since the 1990s. Jon Kabat-Zinn says: “Ultimately, I see mindfulness as a love affair — with life, with reality and imagination, with the beauty of your own being, with your heart and body and mind — and with the world.”
The Mindful Vegan, a new book by Lani Muelrath, depicts the value of mindfulness, not only for good nutrition, but for all of life. Her subtitle is: A 30-Day Plan for Finding Health, Balance, Peace, and Happiness. The first 10 chapters are devoted entirely to introducing the reader to the practice of mindfulness, and the author does this very effectively. Every chapter is short and clear, making the book an easy read. The remaining 20-plus chapters are about the value of mindfulness in various life situations. Because of its clarity about mindfulness, this book carries value for all readers, even if they’re not vegan.
Mindfulness in Everyday Life
I first became aware of the value of mindfulness before I knew what it was. I took up tennis in my late 30s, and I quickly fell in love with it. Saturday-morning tennis with friends became a prized time in my week. Why did I value it so much? It was not that I was so good at it. I never had formal lessons, so my skill level was never that great. Yet, when I was playing, my attention was totally focused on tennis, and I lost all track of time. The tennis ball coming my way was all that mattered, and I put my all into it. I was in the “flow,” as we put it then, and the time flew by.
Much later, I realized that this was a form of mindfulness. I was completely in the “now” and totally wrapped up in the experience when I was playing tennis. That’s still true for me when I play tennis today, even though I’m now in my 80s. I don’t get to the ball as quickly as I used to, but when I’m playing tennis, it’s all that matters. The values to my health are simply by-products of the game, but I appreciate them also. In addition to the obvious value of exercise, there is the value of camaraderie with other players and the values of stress reduction and positive mental health that come with mindfulness.
Is mindfulness a factor in any other areas of my life? Yes. When I get into the flow of writing well, I’m totally into it and oblivious of time, just as in tennis. Another area of mindfulness for me is one I would never have predicted 20 years ago. I’ve always liked to eat, but I only began gaining any know-how in the kitchen in recent years. My cooking skills are still very basic, but the surprising thing is how much I enjoy my kitchen time. I get up early to cook breakfast and find myself fully focused on the preparation process and enjoying it almost as much as the food. That’s saying a lot because I love my golden oatmeal and fruit breakfast.
I also lose track of time when I’m gardening. I can get so wrapped up in what I’m doing that I’m oblivious to everything else. Chess is something else that grasps my total attention when I’m playing it. Examples of spontaneous mindfulness such as these are something that most of us experience from time to time. This can be called informal mindfulness. Mindful meditation is more formal in that it’s an intentional way of controlling the mind’s activity. Practicing mindful meditation is valuable as a way to reduce stress in one’s life, as Jon Kabat-Zinn has proven. It creates favorable changes in health and brain structure. Several recent articles summarize this evidence nicely:
- 7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change the Brain
- Neuroscience of Mindfulness: What Happens to Your Brain When You Meditate
- Benefits of Mindfulness: Practices for Improving Emotional and Physical Well-Being
All this evidence tells us that mindful meditation is a good way to reduce stress and promote good health. If you’re interested in learning more about mindful meditation, I recommend Lani Muelrath’s new book cited above. It is a good guide to developing a personal practice of mindful meditation.
Best wishes for this Christmas season. May you have abundant well-being in the coming year.
Ed Dodge, MD, MPH
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This post was published first in Dr. Ed Dodge’s Wellness Newsletter, Volume IX, No. 5 • December 9, 2017.