Correction: In the original version of this article, Diana Winston was misquoted. She said mindfulness could be used in combination with other medical practices when people are suffering from challenging conditions like anxiety.
The metaphor Susan Smalley uses to define well-being is the image of a coin rolling along the inside of a spiral-shaped funnel.
Like a constantly moving coin, people ideally spiral upwards. With mindfulness practices like meditation, they can travel up the funnel, and their attention can become much wider instead of narrow and constricted. When the coin falls on heads or tails while it rolls, we become stuck in life, said Smalley, the director and founder of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.
Mindfulness is paying attention to present experiences with openness and curiosity, said Diana Winston, the director of mindfulness education at the center. Winston added that practices like breathing meditations can be beneficial for many different problems.
“What (breathing) allows our mind to do is to calm down and settle, to get more concentrated and focused and to allow for moments of peace to emerge that we usually don’t get in the midst of our crazy, busy lives,” Winston said.
The UCLA Semel Institute’s Mindful Awareness Research Center will offer a three-week introductory class titled “The Art and Science of Well-being” beginning May 11. Smalley will instruct the course, which will examine the latest science on mindfulness and its role in health and well-being, like in the reduction of aging hazards, bolstered immunity and the promotion of happiness.
Mindfulness can reduce stress, improve attention and reduce emotional reactivity, said Marvin Belzer, the associate director of the center.
Scientific studies have suggested that mindfulness can also be effective for resolving chronic pain issues like rheumatoid arthritis and headaches, Smalley said.
Mindfulness meditation is called a practice because people have to work at it to see results, Smalley said. Those who believe mindfulness is a cure-all sometimes criticize it when they fail to see immediate results.
Mindfulness could also be used in combination with other medical practices when people are suffering from challenging conditions like anxiety, Winston said. Part of the difficulty for most people is accepting how simple meditation can be.
“When you’re in a difficult situation, take a breath. No one will notice,” Belzer said. “We’re breathing all the time. Just notice how it feels and notice how your emotions are, feel them and continue. You don’t have to make a big deal of it.”
Belzer will teach a mindfulness meditation practice and theory course during summer session A. Designed for beginners, the course will introduce students to the basics of sitting and walking meditations and will explore practices for cultivating positive emotions. People have more freedom in their responses to stress, anxiety or anger when they notice the effects that negative emotions have on their bodies, Belzer said.
Smalley was a skeptic of these alternative practices before she realized her own sense of self was a necessary element to her well-being.
Before delving into mindfulness practices, she had been a long-time researcher in behavioral genetics. When she was diagnosed with early-stage melanoma about nine years ago, Smalley said she realized she was living on a very straight and narrow path. She turned to Eastern mind-body practices when the fear of dying directed her to heavy meditation.
“I suddenly felt this really strong interconnectedness of humankind and saw that I was part of this whole thing,” she said. “I felt … part of an integral whole instead of this independent entity running around in competition with everything else.”
Smalley said she has not run into many critics of her mindfulness research because of her strong background as a researcher.
There are only about 1,500 studies on mindfulness, but many more studies examining the benefits of mindfulness are emerging, Smalley said. Some studies have looked at stress biomarkers like cortisol levels, which decrease with mindfulness practice. Studies at UCLA have examined patients with compromised immune functioning, like HIV patients and cancer patients, and how mindfulness normalizes or even boosts immune response, she added.
There have been certain disorders, such as anxiety disorder, for which mindfulness alone has not been very beneficial. For some people, their anxiety disorder is so impairing that they must have treatment, and mindfulness practices will not be as effective as psychotherapeutic intervention or medication, Smalley said.
Other people have found mindfulness practices effective for everyday well-being.