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Mindfulness Over Matter (Part 1)

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“It’s not the events of our lives that stress us, but rather the interpretation of those events.”


New age mumbo jumbo? Hardly. The above quote is from Epictetus, 50 A.D. Through meditation we learn mindfulness, which focuses on self-empowerment through increasing awareness of being in the present moment. This enables us, as the article title suggests, in overcoming matters that stress us.


Meditation, nearly as old as humanity, has always been part of Eastern religions. Now the West is rediscovering its own meditative past. I, for one, am living proof of that. And I’m not the only one, judging by the newfound bliss of my fellow students in an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course offered at the Princeton Center for Yoga & Health.


This is news, folks.


Not so long ago, I was, so to speak, a hot mess. My husband and I had lost our jobs. I’d been ill and receive a serious prognosis. Both my daughter and my mother were battling disease. My mother-in-law died. My daughter, my mother, and I each had hospitalizations and surgeries. There were financial problems, arguments … and more. I was mired in past thinking (depression) or future thinking (anxiety).


I’m not someone who owns crystals, travels to an Ashram, or even reads New Age magazines. But when therapy and anti-depressants failed to enable me to deal powerfully with the overwhelming stress I’d experienced from those events, and unexpectedly the gift of MBSR was presented to me, I decided to test the waters. Later, this would prove to be a turning point.


Meditation is practiced by more than 10 million American adults, many of them mainstream upwardly mobile professionals such as me who don’t practice under a bearded guru in the mountains. As clinical study has followed clinical study indicating that complementary therapies have a measurable influence on a wide range of health issues—chronic pain, migraine headaches, high blood pressure, tolerance of cancer therapies, sleep disorders, anxiety and depression, post-operative recovery—attitudes have changed.


Since Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, first introduced the benefits of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction thirty years ago, there has been an expansion of mindfulness-based therapy programs to include anxiety, depression, addiction, eating disorders, behavioral problems, pain, high blood pressure, etc. What’s more, scientists have proven that meditation strengthens the immune system, increases heart health, reduces stress, slows biological aging, strengthens coping skills, even changes brain chemistry—and can be instrumental in helping us create positive behavior changes.


In fact, Princeton Center for Yoga & Health, an independent yoga studio with an excellent reputation, has joined other forward-looking medical centers throughout the country by establishing such complementary approaches to health and healing as meditation, yoga practice, massage therapy, and an 8-week MBSR for stress and 8-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for Depression. For my money, that’s a whole lot more wellness than a gym membership.


While MBSR is offered at some 350 sites across the country, mostly hospitals, PCYH is the only yoga center in the area to offer it. Pat Vroom, PhD, a licensed psychologist who previously established the mind-body program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in NYC, co-leads the course with PCYH founder and director, Deborah Metzger, LSW, who studied with Jon Kabat-Zinn. Each of them brings a complementary perspective to the program while honoring Kabat-Zinn’s scientifically-proven, gold standard format.


“Zinn’s program is very powerful,” remarks Metzger, whose eight-week program includes weekly two-hour classes and one full-day retreat. “We don’t dilute the time-tested evidence-based results of the methods developed at UMass. The curriculum follows a rational and purposeful progression. There is a process that happens and I see a real shift in students about halfway through the program.”


A study by Davidson and Kabat-Zinn et al showed that after training in mindfulness meditation (MBSR) for eight weeks, study participants process information in a more positive way, using more optimistic sides of their frontal cortex rather than negative sides. “You don’t get that with a 2–3 week mini-program or by reading the book because you don’t have the benefit or progression of the process,” Metzger explains.


My Experience
In January, when I walked into PCYH for the first time, I discovered an oasis of calm, healing, and fun. Two months have passed since I took MBSR and along my journey I’ve learned a way of being fully in my life, recognizing the richness and possibility within daily routines, times of difficulty and pain, and times of joy and ease.


This first became evident one day while I was in the basement mindfully folding laundry. Ordinarily a chore that I dread to the extreme, I’ve purchased new clothes so as to avoid laundering those in my hamper. Yes, it’s that bad. But this time was different. I felt at peace as I mindfully folded clothes, and in that moment I knew everything was as it should be. My mind was at ease and that usually chatty committee in my head was silent. I was in a place where I was beyond thoughts—where I could hear each breath and feel each heartbeat; and where I became present to the awareness that someone was watching me.


As I turned and looked over my shoulder, I saw my three beloved dogs from outside the window, their eyes intently and quizzically fixed upon me. The expressions on their adorable faces were priceless and immediately filled me with joy, so that I began to laugh out loud. This precious moment would have been missed had I not been present to it. Right then and there I had an introspective insight into life: What is my life but a series of moments, strung together between birth and death? With this awareness my whole world changed. Now that I have found it, I carry this same joy and ease within me wherever I go.


I applied my newly acquired skill of being mindfully aware to manage a situation that in the past would have created significant distress. It was a snowy night and my husband and I had retired to bed. We lay there discussing the events of the day, when suddenly we heard a collision outside. We rose to the window to see that a van had crashed into my husband’s parked car. As I rushed to the front door, my mind filled with a flurry of thoughts and the prattle of conversation began: “Should I scream and curse this person out?” He damaged my property. “Should I be reasonable?” The roads are slippery.


I felt the tension building. And when I got to the front door, I realized the man in the van had fled the scene—a hit and run. In that moment, I was furious. “How dare he? How dare he!”


In the next moments, I was able to catch myself in the midst of a crescendoing conniption fit and shift my thoughts to the present. The awareness came over me that there was no point in exploding as it would not resolve the situation and only make matters worse. Even more important was that by quieting my mind, I was able to gain perspective on the importance of the event. “We were not hurt. We have insurance,” I realized.


The Princeton Center for Yoga & Health will introduce a new Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program beginning September 21st. Their Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression (MBCT) program will begin September 30th. These programs also are offered throughout the year. For more information or to register, call (609) 924-7294 or visit www.princetonyoga.com. 

Part 1 | (Part 2)


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