Mindfulness has been at the center of much conversation the past few years.
As a form of meditation, it’s a powerful tool that offers many health benefits—and it’s a proven way to lower stress.
And there’s really no wrong way to do it.
All mindfulness—as basic as taking a few deep breaths and noticing the sound of passing traffic, or a beautiful sunset—is good for you.
But even better: Inject a dose of self-compassion.
This can boost the stress-reducing benefits of any meditative practice, said Michael Finn, PhD, a psychologist at The Karl and Patricia Betz Congenital Heart Center at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
The idea is simple but effective.
While meditating, use deliberate thoughts of kindness and tenderness to counter negative self-talk.
Don’t criticize yourself if you’re not exercising as much as you think you should, or if you’re struggling with weight problems. Don’t criticize yourself for not being careful with money, or for less-than-perfect parenting.
Self-compassion is especially beneficial for people with chronic health issues, who deal with the additional inner scoldings about not following a treatment plan 110%, Dr. Finn said.
“There are so many reasons these patients get down on themselves,” he said. “Often, they compare themselves to people without the same health issues and feel bad when they come up short, by comparison.”
Dr. Finn recently co-authored research that links self-compassion to greater benefits while meditating, including improvements in stress reduction. He’s also a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics and human development at Michigan State University.
There are many types of meditation.
It has been practiced for thousands of years and it’s part of just about every religious tradition.
And, since the 1960s, it’s been the subject of reams of medical research linked to positive mental and physical health outcomes.
Today, mindfulness meditation has made its way into places as diverse as preschools, dentist offices and professional sports.
Much of Dr. Finn’s academic research and work at Spectrum Health focuses on mindfulness-based stress reduction, a widely used approach typically taught in eight sessions.
Alongside research in self-compassion, he has also worked on a study that shows how live meditation—meditating as part of a community, even online—often yields better results than meditating solo, using prerecorded sessions.
“I think that it’s about connection,” he said. “People are aware that they’re not just meditating on their own, with blinders on. They know they’re doing this all together.”
There’s nothing wrong with meditating on your own, he said. It can be as simple as sitting quietly and focusing on your breathing.
And there are many tools, including apps like Headspace and Insight Timer, to get started.
For many people, however, it’s better to begin in a class or with a group.
“Starting on your own can be hard,” Dr. Finn said. “And people get frustrated.”
Some might assume, for example, the goal of meditation is to empty the mind of thoughts.
Not true, Dr. Finn said.
In group settings, instructors explain how the idea is simply to notice thoughts as they arise. Don’t dwell on them.
“The focus is on the simplicity of the practice, which is concentrating on the breath, being aware and in the present moment and being kind to yourself when you lose that focus, or get caught up in some thought or story in your head,” Dr. Finn said.
Meditation is proven to help people deal with chronic disease. It can boost the immune system and reduce inflammation.
Dr. Finn works closely with patients in cardiology, as they can often benefit from reduced stress.
Meditation can even help people make fewer mistakes.
One recent study introduced 200 non-meditators to a single 20-minute session. The meditation altered the way their brains detected and responded to errors on a computerized task.
It’s all encouraging news.
But to Dr. Finn, perhaps the biggest benefit of regular meditation is how it reduces emotional upsets.
People who meditate deal with the same daily stressors and aggravations as people who don’t. But “they just become less reactive,” Dr. Finn said.
That means that when they’re tempted to reach for unhealthy food, for example, or snap at a spouse or lean on their car horn, “they’re able to take a beat,” he said. “And in that pause, they can choose a better response.”
Dr. Finn has been a meditator for years, trying to get in at least five minutes a day in seated morning practice.
He has a meditation bell on his desk, which helps him focus.
But he uses mindfulness throughout the day, walking from one building to another and talking with patients.
“I try and always pay attention to my breathing when I am walking, or in lapses in conversations,” he said. “It’s made me a much better listener.”
Yes, meditation helps your health. But it’s bigger than that, he said.
“It can fundamentally shift how people experience the world and make their lives easier. People think it’s a huge investment of their time—and it is a little tough at first.”
But relatively quickly, often in just a few weeks, it delivers results.
“It doesn’t feel like a drain on your time anymore,” he said. “Instead, it gives you time and a sense of freedom.”