March 29, 2017

Serenity Now

Takeaways from a lecture on mindfulness, stress, and health

If you’ve done even a cursory look into meditation/mindfulness, you’ve come across the name of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. His second book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, currently holds the top spot in Amazon’s “Best Selling Buddhist Rituals and Practice” category—and it was published in 1994.

So when the doctor comes to town, people take notice. “It’s Jon Kabat-Zinn for gosh sakes!” proclaimed the woman behind me at last night’s event. Duly noted. He and Dr. Elissa Epel were at SMU’s McFarlin Auditorium to lecture on Love and Wisdom in a Time of Stress. (Epel, by the way, isn’t to be overshadowed. Her book about slowing the aging process, The Telomere Effect, is also a best-seller, but in Biochemistry.)

Throughout the evening, the two discussed stress, its effect on your body, and self-awareness. Here are our biggest takeaways.

Meditation isn’t just nice.
It’s a necessity. Stress’s negative effects on your long-term and short-term health have been so well documented, they’re undeniable. Epel’s particular field of study focuses on telomeres, the sequences at the ends of our chromosomes that protect them from deterioration. When we’re born, these telomere ends are nice and long. As we age, they shorten. Shortened telomeres are associated with dementia, cancer, heart disease, and mortality. And while this shorting process is natural, do you know what can speed it up?

What’s interesting (and perhaps most encouraging) about stress is that its effects on us aren’t determined by outside stressors, but by our relationship to them. That means a healthy mental state doesn’t require quitting your job, moving to the country, or tuning out NPR. “We don’t need to escape from stressful situations,” says Epel. “Rather, we need to take with us the skills to cope.”

So, where do we start?
Everything begins with mindfulness—Kabat-Zinn defines as “an awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Simply put, it’s knowing what’s on your mind, whether you’re in lotus pose or doing the dishes.

“By considering your thoughts and feelings without judgement, you can begin to see things as they are, not as you think they should be,” says Kabat-Zinn. Worrying about the future or ruminating over the past causes chronic stress and disengagement. Being in “the now” (the one everyone is always talking about) makes you more engaged and connected to yourself and your daily life. And those who are most engaged? Yep, long telomeres.