Learn about mindfulness from Diana Winston

Learn about mindfulness from Diana Winston

Matt Flesock | May 8, 2023

In March 2021, UCLA Health Sound Body Sound Mind partnered with the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) to launch a mindfulness pilot in their schools. Once a relatively unknown form of meditation in the U.S., mindfulness today is now extremely popular and practiced by many.  For this article, we sat down with Diana Winston at MARC to learn more about mindfulness, explore its benefits, and much more.

Diana Winston

Matt: Hi Diana, thanks for taking the time to share your expertise and insight with our readers. Can you tell us your role at UCLA, how long you've been there, and your background as it relates to mindfulness?

Diana: I'm the director of mindfulness education at the Mindful Awareness Research Center in the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. I've been there for nearly 17 years and I run our programs and help run the center. We offer programs, events, classes to the general public within the health system, and also widely throughout the campus, and now, we're global thanks to the pandemic. We run teacher trainings and we do all sorts of collaborations, both within UCLA and outside of UCLA. For my background, I started meditating in the monasteries of Asia at the end of the 1980s. I went there after college and got very interested in Buddhist meditation. I spent the next 10 years of my life in and out of retreat centers both in the US and in Asia and then I lived as a Buddhist nun in a monastery in Myanmar for a year. I shaved my head and gave away my possessions. As a young person, I did a very deep dive into meditative practices. When I came back I was trained as a teacher in that tradition.

Matt: Wow! That is so incredible! To help set context for our readers, what is your definition of mindfulness?

Diana: I define mindfulness as paying attention to our present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with that experience. It's really about how do we bring our attention to the present moment? Much of the day, most of our life we're lost in the past or the future planning, remembering, obsessing, thinking about what we did, worrying about it, or worrying about what's to come. Our minds are going back and forth between the past and the future, and that's often what leads to anxiety, depression, and mental health challenges. So with mindfulness, it's a training, learning how to come into the present moment, letting go of the past and the future.

Matt: What are some of the key benefits to practicing mindfulness?

Diana: There are a lot of benefits! Research shows how it's helpful for the healing response, for example, boosting the immune system. It's helpful with stress reduction and stress-related conditions like blood pressure. It can also help with inflammation related conditions. There are a lot of physical benefits when we think about stress reduction too. And then there's mindfulness that's related to mood and mental health. Some of the most robust research is around anxiety and depression. There are other benefits, such as emotional regulation, attention improvements, and cultivating positive emotions as well. There are endless other iterations for benefits. As an example there's research on mindfulness and altruism, where studies show that people who practice it are kinder. Having taught thousands and thousands of people for twenty years, yes, I have definitely seen these results. And I have also seen how mindfulness helps people dive more deeply into themselves and understand who they are, and connect with themselves in a culture where everything is so outward focused and people are so hyper connected, and hyper driven. Mindfulness is like a doorway into yourself, and that's something I love to see.

Matt: What an incredible list! Mindfulness sounds like a perfect practice where all you have are benefits. With all of the benefits you’ve described, are there any negatives or risks associated with mindfulness?

Diana:. Mindfulness is not a panacea. What I always say to educators is it's not going to save our ailing school systems. The drawbacks are, number one, you have to do it, and it's not easy to do, even though the idea behind it is easy. There has also been a glut of mindfulness teachings now available through the internet and through apps and there's not a lot of quality control. Mindfulness is typically not going to harm someone, but it could not do anything at all. Or it could turn people off if it's not delivered by a qualified person. And for people working with populations that have trauma, they need to have a trauma-informed mindfulness approach.

Matt: A trauma informed approach is extremely important, especially in schools. There has been a rise in bringing a trauma informed approach to education and schools, which is really great to see. To dive into schools a bit, you mentioned the belief that mindfulness alone won’t save our school systems, but with its many benefits, there of course has to be value to mindfulness in schools. Can you talk about mindfulness with youth and in schools and what you have seen? What are your thoughts on bringing mindfulness to teachers or to students or how mindfulness should be brought into schools?

Diana: I've been in this field for 30 plus years, and I've observed at some point the education world got very interested in mindfulness. And that’s why I say it's not a panacea, because there was a time when it became the darling of school systems. It took some time for educators to realize, one, it’s not going to solve all the problems in schools, and two, to really benefit from mindfulness, schools need to have a multi-pronged systemic approach. It can't just be a teacher gets trained, they teach it for a few years and then they leave. The schools that have been most successful in implementing mindfulness are the ones that are multi-pronged. They share mindfulness with the administrators, the teachers, the children, the parents, and the school board. Those have been the most successful programs. And mindfulness has been extremely helpful for the teachers themselves, whether or not they bring it to the students. There has been some significant research looking at how mindfulness impacts teachers, and some of it has to do with emotional regulation of the teacher themselves and their own reduction of stress. For schools, five years ago, I would have given you a little pat answer: I want to see mindfulness in every single school in America just as common and well known as PE. We would have M.E., Mental Education, and every kid would routinely learn that. Now I feel differently. I'm not crazy about teaching mindfulness to kids who don't want to learn it. And the mindfulness taught in schools has to be really high quality. I think basically, it'd be great if it could be systemically brought into schools with a big opt out clause for the parents and the children who felt like it was not serving them.

Matt: It’s very tough to work with people that don’t want to work with you. But for an interested reader here who is inspired to get started or wants to bring mindfulness into their own life, where would you point them?

Diana: We have lots of resources through our center at UCLA. We also have an app called UCLA Mindful. Our website and the app has five-minute meditations, three-minute meditations, longer ones, and more and includes meditations in 16 different languages. If you just wanted to get started, that's a good place. We also offer lots of classes and we've had many teachers take classes over the years. You can learn the basics of mindfulness. We have a six-week program, which has been researched about 15 different times, called MAPs (Mindful Awareness Practices) available for any teacher. And we do give scholarship and discounts.

Matt: Any other thoughts for those that are new to mindfulness?

Diana: I really want to be clear that mindfulness is not for everyone just like no medication is for everyone. We need as many stress reduction tools and practices as we can. It's so important that everyone finds what's going to work for them. With mindfulness, some people really love it and it's really been life transforming for many, many individuals. But it's not everybody's cup of tea. Sometimes for people, it's hard. One of the big things that beginning meditators run into is when they start to meditate and their mind is wandering all over the place and they can't corral their mind back to the present moment, they think something is wrong. I want to say that's totally normal. There is nothing wrong. We keep practicing with it, and over time it gets easier. So for someone who is feeling discouraged, but who is curious and wants to do it, I want to encourage them to keep it up. And if it isn’t for you, there might be other types of meditation that will work. But we need to take care of ourselves, especially in these times, where things are just so fraught, especially for teachers. Teachers have an incredible and important role. I want to see them take care of themselves.

Matt: I couldn’t agree more! We need to support our teachers and finding self-care practices that work is so important. I sure hope that some of our readers have had their curiosity sparked to take a look at mindfulness themselves. Thank you so much for sharing your insights and wisdom with us today, Diana.