The Healing Power of Mindfulness

The Healing Power of Mindfulness

Barry Boyce convenes a distinguished panel to discuss the health benefits of mindfulness—what it does, how to do it, why it works.

By Barry Boyce | February 28, 2011

When we think of mindfulness or meditation, the words conjure images of a quiet, private time of tranquility and peace. When we think of hospitals and doctors’ offices, we think of the anxiety, pain, and chaos we might experience there, and presume that mindfulness meditation doesn’t have a place in health care. Because they’ve seen the evidence that mindfulness is profoundly healing, we brought together three of the world’s leading specialists on the healing power of mindfulness and the benefits of integrative medicine for a discussion of the present and future of mind–body medicine.

Barry Boyce: What are some of the benefits of mindfulness—both the practice and the state of mind—for our health and healing?

Jon Kabat-Zinn: To be in relationship to what you are going through, to hold it, and, in some sense, to befriend it—that is where the healing or transformative power of the practice of mindfulness lies. When we can actually be where we are, not trying to find another state of mind, we discover deep internal resources we can make use of. Coming to terms with things as they are is my definition of healing.

Appreciating this kind of awareness can have virtually immediate effects on health and well-being. As crazy as it sounds, it’s possible to befriend your pain or your fear—rather than feeling that you can’t get anywhere until this thing that bothers you is cut out or walled off or shut down. That’s a really profound realization for someone to come to. It’s very healing to realize, if only for a moment here and a moment there, that you can be in a wiser relationship with your interior experience than just being driven by liking it or hating it.

We say to our patients who come to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction that there’s more right with them than wrong with them, no matter what their diagnosis is. We’re going to pour energy into what’s right with them, and see what happens. It’s a great adventure and it’s very satisfying to be able to see people light up as they experience the knowledge that it’s okay to be where they are as they are.

Susan Bauer-Wu: It’s so very important for people who have any serious illness to be in tune with what they’re experiencing, rather than shut off from it, which can so often be the case. One of the most important benefits of mindfulness is attentiveness to what is happening in your body, your mind, and your environment—being present for what’s happening to you, with you, and around you at a particular moment in time. Mindfulness becomes a foundation to help patients make good decisions and navigate all they have to go through.

Another benefit of mindfulness is having less emotional reactivity and more stability of mind. Not overreacting emotionally brings greater mental clarity, which is healthy in and of itself. Having stability of mind makes you better able to cope with the experience of illness and all it involves. That is a very significant and positive outcome.

Jon Kabat-Zinn: I prefer to call mindfulness a way of being. That gives people much more latitude in what they’re actually experiencing, because it’s not about trying to be in a special state, and if you’re not in that state, then you’re doing something wrong. It’s rather that you can bring awareness to any state you happen to be in. There’s nothing wrong with being caught up in difficult, stressful, agitated, or confusing moments.

Daniel Siegel: In neuroscience, we do talk about a momentary set of brain firing patterns that we would call a brain state. If you want to jump from brain to mind, some people would call it a state of mind. You could make the argument that there is something we could call “awareness,” and within that general term there are many different ways of being aware.

For example, if I’m really angry, and I have a gun in my hand, I’m aware that the gun is in my hand. If I shoot someone, you could say I’m perfectly aware that I committed this act. But when we discuss what we might call “mindful awareness,” something more is going on. If I am mindfully aware, I will be imbued with all sorts of discernment about whether the action I’m about to take is a good action for the person in front of me and for me. I would have a broader sense than just being aware of the gun in my hand. I would have a larger picture of the moment-to-moment unfolding, not just the sensation. So I might put the gun down.

As the Buddhist teacher Joan Halifax pointed out in a recent retreat I took part in, there is a difference between being aware and being aware with wisdom.

Mindfulness practice can uncover dark and difficult thoughts, which people can find quite shocking. Is that beneficial in the middle of a health crisis?

Daniel Siegel: Much of what happens in the mind is not within consciousness, yet these non-conscious processes have an impact on our health. Bringing these negative thoughts, such as fear, hostility, betrayal, or sadness, to awareness is part of basic health, because those thoughts—what in my field are called unintegrated neural processes—are basically like black holes. They have so much gravity to them that they suck the energy out of life. They influence the health of the mind, its flexibility and fluidity, its sense of joy and gratitude. They impact relationships, leading to rigid ways of behaving or explosive ways of interacting. They also influence the body itself, including the nervous system and the immune system.

So an exploratory process like mindfulness that brings those fearful negative thoughts to awareness can be very beneficial. Sometimes you have to name it to tame it. A number of studies suggest that when you bring something into awareness, and describe it, you can move that previously negative energy—a draining thought or cognition—into a new form.

With mindfulness, what was not available to awareness becomes available. We need to support people in that journey, because bringing more of what’s going on in the mind to awareness can be a very helpful development in a person’s life.

Jon Kabat-Zinn: We often relate to our thoughts, whether they’re intensely negative or not, as a reliable statement of the truth. When you’re angry, everything can seem threatening or annoying or inadequate. You believe what your thoughts are telling you. Mindfulness of thoughts allows you to be aware of a thought or strong emotion as a kind of a storm in the mind or an event in awareness. Once you see it as an event or a storm, it no longer has the same power over you.

Depression, which is a major concern for patients, is to a very large degree a disease of disregulated thinking. There’s a lot of evidence that mindfulness can actually help you develop a whole different relationship with the stream of negative thoughts called depressive rumination. Mindfulness has profound health implications for depression and also for anxiety disorders.

Susan Bauer-Wu: It’s important to emphasize that noticing negative thoughts through mindfulness is not merely a passive process. Noticing the thoughts allows you to take action. You gain the insight and then you can do something about it.

Jon Kabat-Zinn: Yes. The real meditation practice is your life and how you conduct it from moment to moment. Mindfulness helps you to take wise and discerning action, which is vitally important if you want to participate in your own healing process.

What role can mindfulness play in prevention of illness?

Susan Bauer-Wu: I see three overarching areas where mindfulness aids in prevention: stress reduction, early diagnosis, and making healthy lifestyle choices.

We know there’s a clear association between stress and illness. Acute illness, such as an upper respiratory infection or gastrointestinal irritability, is often exacerbated or triggered by stress. We know that mindfulness and related interventions reduce stress reactivity and make one less prone to developing these acute illnesses and infections. There are many studies supporting this effect, including one that Jon was involved in that showed increased antibody levels after mindfulness practice.

In terms of chronic illnesses—ranging from cancer to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and autoimmune disease—all of them have an inflammatory component, and inflammation and stress are absolutely associated. We’re showing through studies that mindfulness practices have an impact on inflammatory processes in the body. Conceivably, if you begin these practices earlier, you may be able to prevent some serious chronic illnesses associated with inflammation.

In terms of early diagnosis, many people are not really in tune with their bodies, so they don’t notice when something’s wrong. Their body might be alerting them to something that needs to be checked out, but they’re not really paying attention to their way of being and what’s happening in their body. With mindfulness, they might notice it sooner, when it could be diagnosed at an earlier stage.

In terms of healthy lifestyle choices, we can think of Dan’s analogy of dropping the gun. The gun could be a cigarette, another piece of cake, or working to the point of fatigue. Mindfulness can help you notice what the body needs and help you make good lifestyle choices. So in all of these ways, mindfulness can help to prevent illnesses down the road.

Daniel Siegel: In addition to what it can do for the body, the mindful way of being supports a healthy mind and more empathic relationships. Those three—body, mind, and relationship—are the three major dimensions of the human experience that an integrated health care ought to be concerned with. Self-compassion and compassion for others are enhanced with a mindful way of being. These are very helpful for someone undergoing treatment, which is a process involving relationships with family members, friends, and colleagues, as well as caregivers and health administrators.

How can mindfulness help in the diagnosis and treatment phases of illness?

Susan Bauer-Wu: In the early phase, after someone is diagnosed with serious disease, there is an intense period of uncertainty. Of course, there is uncertainty throughout the whole trajectory from diagnosis through treatment and cure or palliative care, but at the beginning there are so many questions in people’s minds. It’s very common for the mind to jump to the worst-case scenario and spin a whole story of what’s going to happen. Mindfulness practice helps to ground people in what is true for them right now. It helps them break out of the story, to be more centered and less overwhelmed. It also increases their ability to communicate effectively with their caregivers, and helps the caregivers communicate better with them.

Daniel Siegel: It’s very easy to be in denial about a change in your body, whether it’s a change in intestinal functioning, a lump in the breast, or irregularity in breathing, all of which might indicate the onset of disease. Many people avoid going to the doctor even for a regular check-up for fear of what they might find out. When we operate on auto-pilot, we tend to avoid things that might be distressing.

With a mindful way of being, you’ve developed your skill to stay present for what you might otherwise try to escape. From that point of view, diagnosis would be enhanced, because denial would be overcome. If you think about it, this is the mind doing what is most helpful for mind and body. Ignoring is maladaptive.

Jon Kabat-Zinn: We did a study on people with psoriasis, a skin disease that is an uncontrolled cell proliferation in the epidermis. We demonstrated that the skin of people who meditate while they’re receiving ultraviolet light therapy clears four times faster than in people who were getting the ultraviolet light by itself. That’s one example of a study suggesting how present-moment awareness can make a profound difference in the healing process. There is now more than thirty-one years of evidence that the program can make a remarkable difference in people’s relationship to their illness and how it unfolds.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., is the founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and creator of the famed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. He is the author of several bestselling books, including Full Catastrophe Living; Wherever You Go, There You Are; and most recently, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World through Mindfulness.

Susan Bauer-Wu, Ph.D., is an associate professor of nursing and Georgia Cancer Coalition Distinguished Scholar at Emory University in Atlanta. She is a researcher, clinician, and educator whose work focuses on the clinical application of meditation and its effects on health and quality of life in individuals living with serious illness, especially cancer.

Daniel Siegel, M.D., is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine. He is director of the Mindsight Institute and co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. He is the author of The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, and Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation.

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