It sounds like a simple concept: the idea that we can actually stop our busy, racing minds (“monkey minds,” as they’re called in Buddhism) for short periods of time and actually pay attention to the present moment. In reality, though—at least in our high-pressure, go-go-go culture—so-called mindfulness is a skill that eludes most of us.
There are many different definitions of “mindfulness,” but at its core each embraces some form of the following, as described by psychologist Jon Kabat Zinn: paying attention in a particular way—on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.
This month, in the throes of the holiday rush, 15 first-year Einstein med students are venturing into the world of quiet reflection at a time when most students are chest-deep in anatomy and biochemistry.
The six-week session is part of our Einstein student wellness program offerings. Now in its sixth year, the program has taken off.
Led by Rachel Glickstein, R.N., a nurse and meditation instructor, students spend one night a week for six weeks learning breathing techniques and other skills to help them calm their minds and reduce stress. This is the fifth year Rachel has taught this class, and every year it fills up as soon as it’s announced. And there is evidence to support the benefits: two recent studies have shown that teaching mindfulness to medical students significantly reduces depression and anxiety. There is even some evidence, from a group at the University of Rochester, that mindfulness may lead to fewer errors among practicing physicians, by preventing them from making decisions too quickly before they have considered all the possible causes of a given illness and all the treatments that might be available.
The program’s goals at Einstein are twofold: first, to help students develop skills to manage the stresses and challenges of medical training, and second—but equally important—to familiarize and personalize a practice that is still outside the mainstream of conventional medicine but that can potentially provide great benefits to their future patients. Meditation, and mindfulness in particular, has now been shown to help patients in a wide variety of situations. For example, in a randomized, controlled trial of older people with chronic pain, mindfulness training has been shown to lead to increased pain acceptance, improved physical function and reduction in the use of medications for pain and sleep even three months after the end of the intervention. Another recent study, of patients with diabetes, showed that mindful eating—something that almost all of us could certainly benefit from—led to weight loss and improved glycemic control.
You don’t have to be suffering from chronic pain or diabetes—or be in medical school—to benefit. Stop reading this for just one minute. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths, and observe the race of thoughts and emotions running through your mind. With practice, you will learn to recognize this jumble but not be controlled by it. Yes, you are under pressure and you have a lot to handle, but recognizing and acknowledging your reality can provide you with the clarity and resolve to operate more effectively. And this simple discovery can lead to better health; increased satisfaction in your work and life; and inner peace.