Life is like an ever-shifting kaleidoscope—a slight change, and all patterns alter.
–Sharon Salzberg, writer and Buddhist meditation teacher
What if there were a new treatment for your rheumatic condition that made you feel better, cost nothing, and only took 5 minutes per day? In fact, this “new” treatment is in your possession already and is actually quite old, grounded in centuries of tradition and spiritual practice. It’s mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation is the art of focusing the mind on the present moment without judgment or attachment. It means being aware of where your mind goes and bringing it back to this one moment.
If you’re not familiar with mindfulness, try this simple 3-step activity:
1. Stop what you are doing.
2. Take a deep breath.
Now observe what you’re thinking and feeling. Even if it was small, you probably experienced a noticeable shift. I first got exposed to mindfulness meditation at age 23 when I attended a Hatha Yoga class every Saturday morning in the attic of an old Victorian house on Dolores Street in San Francisco. I relished the time after the poses when we lay in stillness to just breathe while observing our thoughts and feelings. Then, for most of my adulthood, I did not practice at all—apart from the occasional session with assistance from a mobile meditation app, like buddhify. Recently, I took a two-day workshop on mindfulness where I got a deeper orientation to the practice. By the end of the weekend, I felt so much more adept at mindfulness practice that even mundane tasks like washing dishes became joyful experiences of meditation for me.
But one must practice to become good and other tasks and worries often clog my days instead. I have to keep reminding myself of something our instructor said: “Think of mindfulness practice like water in a creek. It’s a process that takes some period of time. You might not see change the next day, but over time you will see the rock smoothed out, changed.” Ultimately, the goal of mindfulness practice is simply mindfulness practice. Nevertheless, there is good evidence that mindfulness meditation has health benefits. It can increase one’s sense of control while reducing psychological distress.
More than 30 years ago, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School named Jon Kabat-Zinn brought mindfulness meditation into health intervention research. He invited people with depression and chronic pain to take part in a six-week meditation practice and observed changes in their health outcomes. He found that mindfulness meditation was effective at improving their symptoms. Today, the techniques found in Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s book, “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program,” are being used in hospitals and clinics across the country.
In an upcoming ArthritisPower research project, which is being conducted in solidarity with 20 other patient powered research networks that are part of PCORnet*, we plan to explore which of two doses of mindfulness is most effective at improving symptoms. The two types of mindfulness that will be compared are (1) a standard, 8-session web-based Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy and (2) a 3-session Mindfulness-light protocol. We will examine the relative effects of these doses of mindfulness on outcomes such as stress, depression, anxiety and overall well-being. In the coming months, more information about joining this study will be available to ArthritisPower participants. In the meantime, you can comment below or email me at [email protected] if you have questions about the project.
I’m curious to hear about your own mindfulness practice. Maybe you do it daily upon waking? Or immediately before bed each night? Or maybe you’ve never done it at all. Have you ever used time stuck in a waiting room or infusion center to do a mindfulness meditation? What are the health outcomes (e.g., pain, sleep, anxiety) you think are important to track in an assessment of the impact of mindfulness for someone with a rheumatic condition?
*PCORnet, the National Patient-Centered Clinical Research Network, is an innovative initiative of the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), which funds ArthritisPower, PCORnet is a large, highly representative, national network for conducting comparative effectiveness research. It fosters a range of observational and experimental research by establishing a resource of patient-reported outcomes and clinical data gathered in a variety of settings, including hospitals, doctors’ offices and the community.