More than 20-million American adults report using some form of meditation, and that number is on the rise. At UCLA, experts in the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) train people to increase their attention and focus on present-moment experiences through meditation. Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at MARC and author of Fully Present, has been teaching mindfulness practices since 1993.
Most of the time, our minds are lost in the past or the future. Mindful awareness invites us to pay attention to present-moment experiences with openness, curiosity and a willingness to be with what is. Our lives are more stressful than they have ever been, and we must find ways to deal with that stress. By inviting us to stop, breathe, observe and connect with our inner experience, mindful awareness can be, for many people, an antidote to these stresses of our modern society.
Mindfulness can be cultivated through a meditation practice. The simplest way to practice is to find a relatively quiet place and time in your daily life, sit down and be comfortable, and focus your attention on your breathing. Usually people notice their breath in their abdomen, chest or nose. When your attention starts to wander — and everyone’s attention wanders — gently redirect your attention back to the sensations of breathing. Start with five minutes a day and gradually increase over time. Mindfulness is more than just a meditation practice. It is a quality of attention that you can bring to any moment in the day.
People who practice mindful awareness may reap significant health benefits. In the last 10 or so years, research has shown that mindfulness is beneficial to reduce stress, anxiety, depression and chronic physical pain, as well as improve attention, concentration, self-awareness and positive emotions. Some studies suggest meditation can help lower blood pressure and boost immune-system function. Mindfulness practices are a tool that people may not have considered using, but which can positively impact their brains and improve their happiness and general sense of well-being.
At MARC, we offer classes, workshops, retreats and online resources to teach mindfulness practices. We have a six-week program called Mindful Awareness Practices (MAPs) that is available to the public and lays the foundation for individuals to understand basic principles of mindfulness, develop a personal meditation practice and apply the principles in their daily life on an ongoing basis. We also offer free drop-in meditation classes — at the Hammer Museum, at UCLA Health - Santa Monica Medical Center and on the UCLA campus.
It starts with a meditation before breakfast followed, after the meal, by meditation instruction and a silent morning of sitting and walking meditation. There is more instruction after lunch, and an evening lecture on mindfulness and more practice. Some people are concerned that they cannot handle the prolonged periods of silence, but they are surprised by how the supportive environment with other students and ongoing teacher guidance enables them to sit for much longer periods.
I receive notes from people all over the world telling me how mindful awareness has helped them. People talk about improving their sleep, helping them be better parents or partners. I hear stories of less reactivity and more patience. Mindfulness can be a life changer for people.