Aging Today: Being mindful of mindfulness

By Bob Roth

Managing Partner of Cypress Homecare Solutions

Recently, my daughter called me after the first exam of the semester to report her frustration. She arrived 10 minutes early to the testing site and planned to review her notes. The proctor instructed the students to put their notes away in preparation for some guided meditation. “Yes, this is mandatory,” the proctor told my daughter in response to her prodding.

Fingers crossed, with 85 percent certainty there was no eye-rolling that followed, but I can picture a cartoon version of my daughter with the caption, “Hurry up, inner peace, I have an exam to take!”

If you are like me, you may be thinking, “Don’t you have to bend yourself into a pretzel, wear Birkenstocks, eat trees and granola and eschew underarm deodorant to meditate?” Actually, a mindful revolution is on the horizon, stepping into pop culture with impressive bravado.

To be honest, when I heard about my daughter’s experience, the first thing I thought was, “Why would you ask students to clear their mind before an exam?” While there are some meditative styles that ask you to clear your mind, mindfulness asks you to fill your mind with focus.

Concentrating on your breathing is a popular first exercise, or focusing on certain sensations, such as letting a raisin linger in your mouth. Mindfulness training is practiced by taking time out of the day to be present at that very moment without judgment. Just let the full impact of this statement wash over you. How often are we ever in the moment? We are usually thinking about the past and projecting into the future.

If you are having a difficult time with the concept of mindfulness, consider the exact opposite, mindlessness. Haven’t we all been so lost in thought that we barely remember our drive to work? Or maybe we are taking a shower and think, did I already shampoo my hair? Focusing on a steamy shower and its effect on our senses seems like the perfect time to be present without judgment.

Mindfulness promotes savoring the richness of the moment, which is an important component to well-being. It can help us get along with others, dismissing judgments. If you are bracing for me to break into a chorus of “Kumbaya,” I will bring it all home with a popular refrain. Enter our inner caveman.

That’s right, we are going back to the design specs. The evolution of the human brain, which occurred over millions of years, is not equipped to sift through the information overload of modernity, especially the digital age. We must learn how to find focus in a stressed-out multi-tasking culture.

Remember: Mother Nature is a tinkerer. Our brains evolved in response to changes over millions of years. Shifting attention to focus on the present is what kept our Pleistocene progenitors from being a saber-toothed tiger’s taco.

Looks like a dose of mindfulness is just what the doctor is ordering. According to Ronald D. Siegel, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology for Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance, mindfulness practices are moving into the mainstream of psychology, neuroscience and medicine. Mindfulness practices keep important parts of our brain from withering with age. They also activate brain circuits associated with being happy, energized and enthusiastically engaged in life. They even lengthen telomeres, the ends of chromosomes that get worn down with stress, resulting in cell death associated with aging.

As I deeply examine the concept of mindfulness, I would explain it using this metaphor: It is the reciprocal of an insurance policy. We buy insurance due to the uncertainty of life, hoping that we never have to use it. If we can learn to practice mindfulness routinely, we are equipped to handle the inevitable peaks and valleys that define this journey we call life.