Mindfulness 101 Stressed out? In chronic pain? Distracted? Try this.

"Shhhh . . .  ,"

urges a gold sign posted in a wide hallway. “Research in progress.”

There are actually five big research projects—backed by more than $24 million in grant funding—presently under way at the University of Utah’s year-old, interdisciplinary Center on Mindfulness and Integrative Health Intervention Development (C-MIIND). Most of the center’s current studies focus on finding ways to safely address two issues that impact millions of Americans: chronic pain and the opioid medications often used to manage it.

Eric Garland, director of the center and associate dean for research at the College of Social Work, notes one promising solution: Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE), a research-based therapeutic intervention that Garland developed more than a decade ago, and a key centerpiece of C-MIIND’s research efforts.

At the heart of MORE is the use of mindfulness training to change the way the brain processes pain, stress, and the need for medication. Garland explains that study participants learn to use mindfulness and related practices to cope with life’s challenges and increase their sense of well-being. “An awful lot of people from all walks of life have to cope with serious pain every minute of every day. We have to have better ways to manage that pain,” he says.“ The research happening at C-MIIND has the potential to do that and literally save lives.” He invites anyone who is suffering from chronic pain, currently taking prescription pain medication, and interested in participating in a C-MIND study to find out more.

But mindfulness isn’t just for those in chronic pain; it’s a practice that can benefit just about anyone willing to give it a try. To find out more, we consulted another campus expert, Trinh Mai, associate professor and director of MSW field education at the College of Social Work. She teaches a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course and was willing to share some guidance for readers who might be interested in starting their own mindful meditative practice.


Why meditate?

We know that physical exercise is good for our health. And now research has verified what spiritual practitioners in many contemplative traditions have experienced for thousands of years: meditation—an exercise focused on qualities of the mind and heart—is also beneficial for our health. Meditation allows the nervous system to rest and revitalize, while reducing stress, improving focus and attention, and developing positive relationships with ourselves and others. In doing these things, regular practice of meditation leads us to improved health and well-being.

So how do we meditate?

Meditation is the practice of bringing calm, nonjudgmental attention to a point of focus in the present moment, such as attending to the breath, physical sensations, sounds, a candle flame, a word, or a phrase/mantra.

It is an exercise in letting go of distractions and returning again and again to an object of focus. Finding this calm focus is a simple concept, and yet so hard to do. Our attention often tends to be divided and hurried, with limited awareness of what we are attending to. But mindfulness is the awareness that results from a regular meditation practice.

1. Choose a place and time

In the beginning, it is helpful to create some structure for yourself, setting a time and a place. Many people like to practice first thing in the morning or last thing at night, when it is easier to find a quiet space with few distractions. Some also find it helpful to practice with the support of an app, a teacher, or a group.

On your own, setting a timer can also help. When first starting, try five to ten minutes, and then, as you’re ready, increase that time.

2. Find your seat and settle in

Take a comfortable seat on a chair or cushion. If sitting on a chair, allow both feet to be on the floor; if sitting on a cushion, allow legs to cross, knees lower than your hips. Your spine and neck are straight, but not stiff. Your head is held in a balanced position over your neck, chin lowered a bit. Arms rest softly by your sides, and hands can be placed on your legs.

Settle into your grounded posture, feeling the support of the cushion/chair, the points of contact between it and different parts of your body.

Now check in with yourself and see what is in your field of awareness. Are there thoughts, bodily sensations, emotions that are occupying your attention? Acknowledge what is present for you without judgment, then gently and firmly direct your attention to your breathing.

3. Breathe

See if you can feel the entire cycle of the breath, escorting the air as it moves into the nostrils, through the body, and back out. Be with each breath, not needing to control or change it in any way.

The mind will wander from your breathing, because that’s what minds do. When you notice the mind wander off, acknowledge where it has wandered to and then gently and firmly redirect your attention back to the breath. Each time you bring your mind back to the breath, you are cultivating awareness and presence.

Your breath is your anchor to the present moment. Each inhale is a new beginning. Each exhale is a letting go. When the mind wanders, bring it back. Again and again. This is the practice.

4. Transition with awareness

When the timer rings, practice maintaining awareness as you transition to the next activity. Check in with yourself to see how you feel after the meditation and intentionally proceed to the next moment.

5. Be present and accepting

Often, people equate meditation with relaxation, and this can indeed be a benefit of the practice. However, the purpose of meditation is not just to relax, but rather to be with your experiences as they unfold in the present moment. So let go of any expectations of how you think you are supposed to feel.

In befriending your breath, you are also getting to know yourself more intimately and learning to be with yourself, whether you find calmness and ease or a racing mind and a fearful heart. Allow yourself to be in the moment as you are—this is what is ultimately relaxing. This self-acceptance also yields clear and accurate data about yourself and cultivates skillful and wise responses to life’s situations.

web exclusive video

Let professor Trinh Mai guide you step by step through a 15-minute meditation.

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