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Health: Retreating to mindfulness

Mindfulness meditation helps us focus on the present moment
With the deepening of practice, mindfulness becomes the approach with which we can live every moment
With the deepening of practice, mindfulness becomes the approach with which we can live every moment of our lives.

If you were on the University of B.C. campus last weekend, you may have seen more than 100 people streaming out of the Asian Centre walking extremely slowly. This was not the early arrival of zombies for Halloween.

I know because I was among them, and I’m very much alive and mindful of that.

We were all there for a weekend meditation retreat led by Diana Winston, director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. The book, Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness, which she co-authored with Susan L. Smalley, outlines the scientific evidence and practical application of mindfulness meditation.

At our retreat, organized by the Westcoast Dharma Society, we practised meditation while standing, walking, eating and sitting (on a chair, meditation bench or meditation cushion called a zafu).

Meditation is the practice of focused attention or concentration. Depending on your practice, you can meditate upon an idea, an image or a mantra, such as the sound, “Om.”

In mindfulness meditation, we focus on what arises in the present moment. When we first learn to meditate while sitting, we focus our concentration on each breath in and each breath out, noting the sound and sensations in different parts of the body. We can then shift our attention to other physical sensations: heat or cold, pressure, tension or pain.

With further practice, we become aware of thoughts and emotions as they arise. We train our minds to remain in the present moment — rather than getting stuck in the past or projected into the future. We recognize when our minds are carried away in a train of associations or our thoughts snowball out of control, and with practice we remain in the present.

A strong foundation of mindfulness can serve as a safe anchor from which we can experience and manage challenging emotions and physical pain. For example, we can move our awareness and focus back and forth from the anchor of mindful breathing to an area of pain or a difficult emotion, such as sadness, anger or fear.

In walking meditation, we first learned to attend to the sensations in our feet and legs as we took deliberately slow, controlled steps. As we sped up, we noted the subtle changes in our sensations.

In standing meditation – a good alternate to sitting when you think you might fall asleep, we recognized we are in constant motion even as we try to stand still.

In a mindful eating exercise, I shared lunch with my friend and med school classmate John, but we couldn’t talk according to the rules of the retreat. By remaining conscious of each bite of my sandwich, apple and pear and every grape,

I noted sensations and subtleties of taste I normally would have missed. It took me 40 minutes to eat a lunch I would usually wolf down in 10, but my appetite was satisfied with less food. I’ll be recommending slow, mindful eating to all of my patients who are challenged by their hearty appetites.

Though many people think of meditation as something that is done only in solitude while seated on a zafu, mindfulness is meditation in motion. With the deepening of practice, mindfulness becomes the approach with which we can live every moment of our lives as we learn and work, talk and relate to others, experience being alive and have thoughts and feel emotions.

An insight arises in the practice of mindfulness where the focus of our attention is whatever arises in the present — a moving target. Everything changes and everything is in motion — everything in our world, everything in our selves, including our thoughts, emotions and bodies.

My favourite place for walking meditation was the Nitobe Memorial Garden, a gem of a Japanese garden hidden behind the Asian Centre. It reminded me of the beauty that is all around us every day that we may miss if we are not mindful.

Dr. Davidicus Wong is a family physician and his Healthwise columns appear regularly in this paper. For more on achieving your positive potential in health, see his website at