Mindfulness Meditation: Key to a Longer, Stress-Free Life?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

During my first year of pharmacy school, I attended an alternative medicine Saturday elective where Dr. Dean Ornish spoke about the benefits of meditation and the effect it has on lengthening our chromosomal telomeres.

Telomeres are portions of repetitive DNA at the ends of our chromosomes that protect our chromosomes from deteriorating. 

Meditation was the focus of research at UC Davis and UCSF by Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, and others as part of the Shamatha project.

The 2011 study found that meditation increased activity of telomerase — enzymes that can rebuild and lengthen our chromosomal telomeres — when meditation was conducted twice a week for three months.  It is currently believed by some researchers that telomere lengthening can increase the lifespan. 

In my second year of pharmacy school, I turned to meditation as an outlet from the stress of school. Neesha Patel, who worked for Student Health at the time, was conducting mindfulness meditation sessions at the library. While I never considered myself the “meditation type,” I was so stressed out I was willing to try anything. Patel had also promised to have snacks.

The mindfulness meditation was a simple, but eye-opening experience. Patel turned off the lights in the room and encouraged us to get into a comfortable position. There was no need to do any kind of lotus position or anything like that. I just emptied my pockets, sat on a chair and took my shoes off to be more comfortable.

As she spoke to us, we closed our eyes and she guided us to focus on our breathing (the anchor, or recurring focus), she then asked us to focus on the room temperature, on sounds we heard, and then back to the breathing. One of the great things about mindfulness meditation was that there was no expectation that we must have a blank mind.   

“If you find yourself thinking about something, it’s OK,” Patel would say. “Think about it and why it came to mind, study it and when possible, get back to focusing on the breathing.”  

It was then that I realized I didn’t need to be a master of blocking out preoccupying thoughts. I just needed to try my best to focus on the present.  At one point, she directed us to imagine we were at a train station, but we were not going anywhere. We were just there looking at trains come and go.

Usually mass transit can be a stressful experience, but it was nice to be there and not worry about traveling. She finished the meditation session with a soft gong that lingered as we opened our eyes again. Patel shared a meditation website from UCLA ‘s MARC, or Mindfulness Awareness Research Center.

I made it a point to learn more about this topic because it had made me feel so relaxed — not sleepy or tired — just simply relaxed.

Diana Winston, a former Buddhist nun, and presently the MARC’s director, conducts free weekly mindfulness meditation sessions at the Hammer Museum, and she podcasts the sessions.

If you have iTunes, go to the App store, type in UCLA Meditation, and the podcasts come up right away. If you have an iPod or mp3 player, I recommend downloading these podcasts (http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22).

They are different lengths — ranging from 3 to 19 minutes. Meditation can be tailored to the available time and can be taken on the go. If there is any waiting time or travel time, it can be time used to meditate.

A mindfulness clock app can also be downloaded from that site, and it can be set to gong at whatever time you wish to end your meditation. One of my favorite audio files is “Body Scan for Sleep.” After I have spent many hours going over class notes and my mind is racing, I have a hard time winding down to fall asleep. Listening to “Body Scan” relaxes me to the point that I fall asleep before I know it.

Student Health and Campus Services conduct the “Know Your Numbers” workshops every quarter, and I remember that my blood pressure was measured at 133/80.  It had never been that high before. 

After I went to a couple of mindfulness meditations sessions, I rechecked my blood pressure, and it was 117/79. I checked again after following UCLA’s guided meditations by Diana Winston, about once or twice a week, for several weeks, and I saw my blood pressure drop to 108/79

I emailed Diana Winston because I felt that my very short personal meditation experience was remarkable, and I wanted to thank her and ask her to tell me about her views on meditation.

"Mindfulness has scientific support to reduce stress and emotional reactivity, and promote mental health and emotional well-being,” she wrote. “It can be done by anyone of any background, and it's free! Mindfulness is an incredible way to create more connection and joy in life."

In “Meditation for Dummies,” Stephan Bodian and Dean Ornish, MD, say:

“Meditation is an age-old practice that can help relieve a host of ills brought on by the fast pace of modern life. All you need to meditate is a quiet place to sit, the ability to direct your attention, and a simple meditation technique. As long as you give it a well-intentioned try, you can’t go wrong.”

Neesha Patel now works for the Dean of Diversity, but she has been volunteering her time to conduct meditations every Wednesday in February.  She recently took more workshops with Diana Winston, and will be glad to help anyone interested in learning more about the practice. She can be reached at Neesha.Patel@ucsf.edu starting on April 3.

I know many of us are stressed out about school, about our patients, our families and daily lives. I know that mindfulness meditation is a way to overcome anxiety, stress and other issues that affect our health. Give it a try. 

Mindfulness Meditation podcasts: http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22
Diana Winston TED talk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oMlaSCxZPN4