Mindfulness for Seniors

MINDFULNESS AND INNER BEAUTY

A mindfulness student recently experienced her body as beautiful during a body scan in class.  You may already have a positive self-image and feel good about your body. You may consider your body to be “the temple of the Holy Spirit.” Or you may have a negative body image, even hating your body. Whether you love your body or hate it, you can benefit from the body scan, a foundational practice from mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).

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MINDFUL SELF-COMPASSION

Your compassionate human desire to take good care of others is critical to the well-being of your family, friends, co-workers and community – and taking good care of yourself is the foundation for your care of everyone else.  However, it is sadly true that we often take better care of others than we do of ourselves. It’s as if we need a new Golden Rule: Do unto yourself as you do unto others. We would never say or do to someone else some of the things we say and do to ourselves.

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MINDFULNESS FOR SENIORS

You and I have two primary modes of mental activity: the doing mode and the being mode. Although we are called human beings, we spend the majority of our time in the doing mode rather than the being mode.  Your “doing” mode is highly prized in our culture for schooling, work and career. It demonstrates your mastery and command of detail, data, thinking, intellect and your goal-oriented ability to get things done. We depend heavily on the doing mode to take care of all our daily affairs at home and work,….

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MINDFULNESS FOR SENIORS

“It’s also helpful to realize that this very body that we have, that’s sitting right here right now… with its aches and its pleasures… is exactly what we need to be fully human, fully awake, fully alive.” – Pema Chodron


You and I have two primary modes of mental activity: the doing mode and the being mode. Although we are called human beings, we spend the majority of our time in the doing mode rather than the being mode.


Your “doing” mode is highly prized in our culture for schooling, work and career. It demonstrates your mastery and command of detail, data, thinking, intellect and your goal-oriented ability to get things done. We depend heavily on the doing mode to take care of all our daily affairs at home and work, to keep up the house and yard and keep ourselves cleaned and groomed, to balance the checkbook, buy groceries, prepare meals, drive cars, remember our medication and appointments, keep up with the news and care for the needs of pets, friends and family – the endless to-do list of our lives. As we age, we tend to become less dominated by the driven nature of so much doing. We tend to naturally settle down and shift more toward our being mode.


The “being” mode is your natural internal resource that complements your doing mode. Your being mode is not about achievement, competition or goal-oriented activity. It is less about approval from others and more about contentment, letting things just be and accepting things just as they are. This does not mean complacency. We can still fight for social causes and work to make our world more compassionate. We just aren’t as driven, not as angry, not as resentful – and not in such a hurry. Your being mode is less demanding of yourself and other people and is more about taking things easy, relaxing with no agenda and smelling the flowers along life’s highway. We tend to shift toward this c’est la vie (that’s life) philosophy as we age.


Mindfulness practice helps you naturally integrate these two complementary modes of doing and being. What is mindfulness? At its most basic level, mindfulness is paying attention, whether we are engaged with our goal-oriented doing mode or our reflective, accepting being mode. Mindfulness is about being fully in the present moment, this moment, the only time you ever truly have to live your life. We spend so much time replaying, regretting or longing for the past or anticipating and worrying about the future. Mindfulness invites us to dwell fully in the eternal now, moment to moment. It is about being here, in this place, even though our mind may be far away in some other place.


In mindfulness practice, we use the body and the breath as the two main objects for training our mind to pay attention, moment-to-moment, in the here and now.


Mindfulness of the body is the foundation of mindfulness practice. Even though your mind may be somewhere else, your body is always here. Even though your mind may be in the past or future, your body is always in this present moment. So we practice the Body Scan meditation to cultivate skillful awareness of the tactile sensations in the physical body, training the mind to pay attention in the here and now, bringing attention back to the sensations in the body when we notice our attention has wandered.


A natural extension of mindfulness of the body is mindfulness of the breath. Just as you pay attention to the physical sensations in the body in the Body Scan, you pay attention to the physical sensations of breathing in Sitting Practice – Awareness of Breathing. You train in the development of steady attention on the tactile, physical sensations of the breath: feeling the breath at the nostrils, the back of the throat, the chest and the abdomen. Again, you gently bring the attention back to the breath when you notice it has wandered.

What about thinking? The cerebral cortex of the human brain is both a blessing and a curse. Our thoughts can be extremely helpful and useful. They can also be unhelpful, harmful – even destructive. As we train in mindfulness, we become increasingly skillful at bringing a non-judgmental curiosity, openness and acceptance to our thoughts. Without intentionally creating thoughts, we allow them to come and we allow them to go. As we practice mindfulness of the body or the breath, we notice when our attention has wandered off and we gently escort the attention back to the physical sensations in the body and the breath. Thoughts are not a barrier to mindfulness or your being mode, but they do require compassionate, skillful management.


What can mindfulness do for you? Research on mindfulness has accelerated over the past 40 years. People with anxiety, depression and always in this present moment. So we practice the Body Scan meditation to cultivate skillful awareness of the tactile sensations in the physical body, training the mind to pay attention in the here and now, bringing attention back to the sensations in the body when we notice our attention has wandered.


A natural extension of mindfulness of the body is mindfulness of the breath. Just as you pay attention to the physical sensations in the body in the Body Scan, you pay attention to the physical sensations of breathing in Sitting Practice – Awareness of Breathing. You train in the development of steady attention on the tactile, physical sensations of the breath: feeling the breath at the nostrils, the back of the throat, the chest and the abdomen. Again, you gently bring the attention back to the breath when you notice it has wandered.


What about thinking? The cerebral cortex of the human brain is both a blessing and a curse. Our thoughts can be extremely helpful and useful. They can also be unhelpful, harmful – even destructive. As we train in mindfulness, we become increasingly skillful at bringing a non-judgmental curiosity, openness and acceptance to our thoughts. Without intentionally creating thoughts, we allow them to come and we allow them to go. As we practice mindfulness of the body or the breath, we notice when our attention has wandered off and we gently escort the attention back to the physical sensations in the body and the breath. Thoughts are not a barrier to mindfulness or your being mode, but they do require compassionate, skillful management.


What can mindfulness do for you? Research on mindfulness has accelerated over the past 40 years. People with anxiety, depression and chronic pain often report benefitting from dedicated and intensive mindfulness training. Sometimes this is because the anxiety, depression and chronic pain actually improve. But, interestingly, many people report an overall improvement in quality of life despite continued anxiety, depression and chronic pain. They often report better sleep and fewer symptoms of other stress-related chronic conditions, physical, mental and emotional. They often feel happier, calmer and more relaxed, energetic, tolerant, forgiving and kinder to themselves and others.


What about seniors? Formal mindfulness practice can be done at any age, in a chair, a recliner, lying down and walking. Eyes can be open or closed. Regularly practicing formal mindfulness creates the foundation for living your entire life more mindfully, even meditatively. Over time, you perform ordinary daily activities more mindfully. Washing the dishes, bathing, taking out the trash, shopping, cooking, eating, driving, being with family and friends, talking on the phone, typing on the keyboard – all these become opportunities for the informal practice of intentional awareness and mindful living.


Research also suggests regular mindfulness practice improves mood and overall health, reduces doctor visits and health care costs, decreases loneliness, slows the progression of dementia and even increases longevity.


Since some medication can be reduced with regular mindfulness practice, always discuss your interest in mindfulness with your medical provider.


Resources:


I have recorded several guided mindfulness practices you can access at the Mind Body Studio Web site: http://www.mindbodystudio.org/

DR. JOHN PATTERSON

Dr. John Patterson is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians and is board certified in family medicine and integrative holistic medicine. He is on the family practice faculty at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and the University of Louisville School of Medicine, Saybrook University’s School of Mind Body Medicine (San Francisco) and the Center for Mind Body Medicine (Washington, D.C.). He operates the Mind Body Studio in Lexington, where he offers integrative medicine consultations

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