I learned to meditate over 20 years ago. It opened the doors to a lifelong practice of meditation techniques, including Vipassana and yoga, and spiritual exploration with wonderful teachers. As I practiced and practiced, I noticed that I was able to listen more deeply to both my patients and myself, and felt less stressed in my daily work as a medical doctor.
It wasn’t until 15 years ago when I began to work with The Center for Mind-Body Medicine that I learned the importance of teaching my patients these skills, too. Stress is a contributing factor for 80% of all chronic illness in our country, and numerous studies have shown the power of meditation and mind-body skills to reduce the effects of stress and even reverse illness. I talk at length about this in my book, The Immune System Recovery Plan, A Doctors 4-Step Program for Treating Autoimmune Disease. At Blum Center for Health we teach these skills in Mind-Body Groups, following the model developed by The Center for Mind-Body Medicine.
Introducing….Mindful. We’re already partial to being mindful, but now there’s a magazine all about it–the latest findings, the latest programs, the most wonderful stories–the juicy bits. The October edition features an interview with Center founder and director Dr. James Gordon called “A Journey to the Center of Yourself,” 8 pages of his sage perspectives with beautiful illustrations. As soon as we got our hands on copies, staff members were pouring over the interesting articles cover-to-cover, from “At NASA, Meditation is Rocket Science” to “To Pause and Protect”, the cover story about Oregon police officers learning mindfulness techniques, to “Children Helping Children”… oh, my! Do I need to say we are all hooked?
Every meeting at The Center for Mind-Body Medicine starts with a minute or so of Soft Belly Meditation, which is deep breathing with the simple mantra, “soft….belly”.
Most interns and guests look a little wide-eyed at the first meeting here when the meditation is announced. Perhaps they’re thinking “What have I gotten myself into?” or “Who are these people?!” I know I did, when I started working here. But after attending meetings at other companies and meetups, where you launch into business without the benefit of a meditation, I definitely notice a difference.
When did you begin meditating and why?
Which meditation practice(s) did you choose?
How has meditation affected your life?
I began meditating in 1974 right after medical school.
I was a psychology major in college and deeply influenced by Albert Schweitzer, who had doctorates in music and theology when he went to medical school as a path to lifelong service in Africa.
So, with this mind-body-spirit perspective, I was thrilled to read two groundbreaking articles that Herbert Benson and Keith Wallace published when I was in medical school. In both studies, practitioners of Transcendental Meditation (TM), silently repeating their word (‘mantra’), demonstrated physiological changes of deep rest while awake. Those changes were often even greater than those found during sleep. Benson called these changes the Relaxation Response, which has formed the basis for his work ever since.
Not long afterwards, I discovered that one of the pathology faculty members was meditating behind his closed door for 20 minutes each afternoon. He referred me to his TM teacher and I learned to meditate.
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As a frequent meditator, armed with new skills of awareness, I was recently struck by how noisy my Washington, DC surroundings actually are. Noticing my own internal reactions, I started to wonder if pervasive noise in the environment could cause me harm. Research is now saying that I am right to question.
To paraphrase a CMBM alum, “When I heard The Center for Mind-Body Medicine would be offering a seminar called ‘Mind, Mood & Food’ at Kripalu, I felt like the heavens were bringing all my favorite things together.” The “trifecta”, as I like to call it, was a beautiful blend of relevant material taught by engaging faculty in a setting where what was being taught could be practiced. Imagine learning about foods that support brain health and then going to Kripalu’s dining hall where those foods are waiting for you on an abundant buffet. Picture completing a moving meditation with Jim Gordon and then going to Yoga Dance during a seminar break. Kathie Swift spoke about the benefits of being in nature for brain health, and I’m convinced Mother Nature was a seminar participant as the weather was perfect for walks to the lake. It was seventy degrees in mid-March in the Berkshires!
Mark Pettus, Jay Lomard and Chuck Parker offered a wealth of knowledge and fantastic synergy as they fed off each other’s energy and complemented each other’s work. A big round of applause goes to the hard-working staff at Kripalu. They were wonderful to work with and jumped right in to run the program like a well-oiled machine. Mind, Mood & Food at Kripalu is definitely worth a repeat!
Hot off the presses: Center Founder and Director James S. Gordon, MD’s new Sounds True audiobook, Freedom from Depression: a Practical Guide for the Journey launches today!
Based on Dr Gordon’s enormously popular book Unstuck: Your 7 Stage Journey Out of Depression, the audiobook contains new experiential and didactic material. Quoting the Sounds True website:
The true source of healing from depression comes from within—not from doctors or medications. Yet when depression drains away our vitality and will, how can we find the energy to help ourselves? With Freedom from Depression, Dr. James S. Gordon reveals a new and empowering approach for dealing with this misunderstood condition—a way out of the darkness that helps you restore balance and joy to your life.
By the second day there are actually 135 participants-almost 180 of us altogether. The ones who didn’t come to the opening are present and others from the waiting list have found a way. There are thirteen in most of our small groups.
One of the remarkable things about our trainings is how often people who at first seem utterly closed down—walled off with indifference and suspicion, sunken beneath sorrow—suddenly come alive, sharing what they have not spoken of before; discovering new worlds of feelings, possibilities, hope.
The soft belly meditation invites calm and acceptance. The drawings play to the imagination, sometimes revealing solutions to problems that have seemed intractable. Shaking and dancing loosens most of us up. And the experiences that follow in the large and small groups provoke wonder.
Regine tells me about one of the leaders of the regional police. He came to early morning yoga and scoffed, “I thought we were talking about taking care of people. This is sports.” The drawings seemed, at first, ridiculous. “This is child’s play.” He stays and later in the day she sees him sitting quietly in meditation, laughing as he shakes and dances. He’s back the next day and the day after.
The drawings of a young woman whose face is filled with rage evolve from cramped stick figures–she is fighting with her parents–to a full bodied woman standing apart from them looking at the horizon. When she does the safe place imagery she sees herself “playing hide and seek with my friends having fun as I did when I was a girl.” And then–and a smile cracks her stern face–“flying free.”
I do Mindful Eating in the large group: a third of a banana for each participant. Almost two hundred people feel, smell, taste, and slowly chew. A fit man in his 50’s comes to the front of the room. “I have tended banana trees since I was a child. I know everything about the fruit and the tree and the soil and the bugs that come around. I sell bananas and give them away to the poor and have done so for many years. I eat them every day. And yet, I have to tell you, this is the first time I have truly eaten a banana.” The room swells with laughter as everyone gets the message: It really is possible to come to any experience, including eating an everyday banana, with an open mind and an open heart, as if for the first time.
James S. Gordon MD, a psychiatrist, is the author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven Stage Journey Out of Depression and the Founder, Director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, DC, and Dean of the College of Mind-Body Medicine with Saybrook University.
This is the pre-program staff meeting yesterday in Jacmel, Haiti, where the Center is training 120 care providers in our Initial Mind-Body Medicine program. Initial and advanced trainings have been held previously in Port-au-Prince, and some of those trained are now part of a Haiti Leadership Team serving as interns in this training. Dr. Gordon and Center faculty are guiding the deep process of learning that begins today. The trainees will learn the science and practice of self-care, in a supportive small-group setting. They need this support themselves, and will learn to share it with their families and their communities in Jacmel.
Blessings on the work!
We spend the morning at the Cardinal Leger Hospital, destroyed in the earthquake and quickly rebuilt. Haiti’s lepers come here, older people without legs , or with fingers and toes amputated by the disease; brothers 8 and 12 years old whose noses have collapsed and whose faces and hands already bear the scars of the condition.
The kindly and concerned Sisters and lay nurses who are in charge have been overwhelmed by the suffering around them—staff, friends and family killed in the earthquake, as well as by the weight of sadness their patients bring. Out in the country, living with people whose illness has wasted them, meeting acute care needs, they are clearly stretched thin.
Little by little, they brighten during our workshop, appreciating the relaxation of Soft Belly, laughing with the shaking and dancing—“The first time laughing since last January 12th,” notes one sister.
Here’s a quick video we took of participants dancing at a Port-au-Prince workshop—
Sharing their drawings, One sister notes how rigid her body is in the drawing of her “biggest problem”, and how the flower that she draws in the third picture (“the solution to the problem”), bending gracefully toward the sun, is a “lesson to remember.” Before we close, JJ teaches us all to stretch in our chairs.
Afterwards, outside, the Sisters show us the bushes blooming red, yellow, white, and orange, and reach up with a net to fetch us mangos for the road. “We will use what you have taught us, ourselves,” says Sister Yolande, the Director, “and we will teach our patients too.”