From the healthcare industry to the military, a growing number of sectors have embraced mindfulness as a means of alleviating stress, boosting production, and creating more productive environments in which to work and learn.
The practice of mindfulness has spread to some unusual places these days; just ask the U.S. military. Mindfulness, like yoga and meditation, has spread from Eastern religious philosophies to Western secular practices, and involves training one’s mind to let go of distracted thinking and focus on the present moment. Evidence is mounting that mindfulness can reduce stress and increase the mind’s resiliency—two benefits of vital interest to military leaders, who see it as a valuable tool to improve battlefield decision-making and combat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a service member returns home.
While it stretches the imagination to picture Marines “in full field uniforms sitting in the lotus position with rifles across their backs,” as an officer described the initial training at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia, participants later reported better sleep and improved athletic performance and higher scores on emotional and cognitive evaluations than those who did not participate in the training. Subsequent studies have borne out that pre-deployment mindfulness training helps service members think and react more effectively under duress.
The military is just the latest in a string of institutions that recognize the potential of mindfulness, including Fortune 500 businesses, healthcare companies, and schools. Nearly every week, an article or blog post pops up discussing the latest health benefit of mindfulness, from improving working memory to boosting insulin production. With modern medical research now establishing clear links between stress and chronic physical ailments, more people are looking into the ancient practice.
Mindfulness has its origins in Buddhist meditation, but it can be practiced separately from any religious teaching or philosophy. In the more secular sense, mindfulness meditation is about paying attention. By training to bring one’s full attention to the present moment, usually by focusing on breathing, one can let go of distractions and improve focus. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to calm what Buddhists call the “monkey mind,” thinking that leaps from branch to branch and can’t settle down. By stopping mental chatter, mindfulness is believed to help people stay healthier, heal faster, and enhance their acuity and creativity.
A growing number of researchers and leaders in many fields have come to the conclusion that mindfulness offers a powerful antidote to 21st-century physical and societal ills.
From the psychotherapist’s office to the doctor’s exam room, mindfulness is garnering widespread interest that is growing exponentially, thanks in large part to the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a medical school professor and practitioner of Buddhism, who popularized the concept of mindfulness. As an alternative or an adjunct to medical interventions, mindfulness has been shown to help patients facing an array of mental and physical ailments, from high blood pressure and insomnia to weight problems and anxiety disorders. As more is known about the cumulative effects of stress on the human body, medical practitioners are looking for interventions that bolster a patient’s ability to bounce back from stressful situations. Progressive medical schools, such as the University of Massachusetts and Duke University, are not only applying scientific research models to explore the positive effects of mindfulness on the body, but they are also teaching mindfulness meditation to their students. Weight loss clinics and mental health centers are also looking to incorporate mindfulness into their programs.
Companies, following the lead of trailblazers such as Google, General Mills, and Aetna are bringing mindfulness practices into their corporate headquarters. In Minneapolis, Janice Marturano, who was then general counsel and vice president for public responsibility at General Mills, started a mindfulness program with 13 people. Today, more than 450 employees have been trained. The concept was so successful that Marturano left General Mills in 2011 to found the New Jersey-based Institute for Mindful Leadership.
In the face of soaring healthcare costs, a number of large corporations have instituted employee wellness programs that feature mindfulness practices as a core component. Aetna, the nation’s third largest health insurer, has made two stress-reduction workplace programs, Mindfulness at Work (mindfulness meditation) and Viniyoga Stress Reduction (therapeutic yoga), available to its employees. Developed in collaboration with Duke Integrative Medicine, among others, these programs have helped participants significantly reduce their perceived stress levels while improving their ability to respond to stress. Aetna also began implementing the mind-body stress reduction programs with several corporate clients and has received strong interest from additional clients in a wide range of sectors, including financial services and healthcare.
“We have seen first-hand how these mind-body programs have helped our employees deal with stress more effectively and help them achieve better overall health,” says Elease Wright, head of Human Resources at Aetna.
CEOs recognize another benefit of mindfulness training: It enhances their powers of observation and concentration, making them better leaders. Steve Jobs reportedly credited his Zen meditation with improving his focus and creativity as he was developing products for Apple. An entirely new field of consultants and advisers is springing up to help business executives and supervisors harness the potential of mindfulness in their work.
As mentioned earlier, the U.S. military has taken a strong interest in mindfulness as a means of preventing, or reducing, the effects of PTSD and other combat-related disorders. Military officials also are seeing evidence that soldiers who meditate regularly are less reactive and more resilient, which enables them to make better split-second decisions that often have life or death consequences.
Mindfulness shows great promise in the world of education. Teachers find that mindfulness training helps them become more effective in the classroom, and schools that teach mindfulness techniques to students report that children experience lower levels of stress, anxiety, and conflict with peers while improving their concentration.
In Milton, Mass., even the youngest of the district’s students are learning about mindfulness. Andy Kelley, a Milton dad who started a program called Boston Buddha, teaches mindfulness techniques to kindergarten through fifth grade students as part of a before-school enrichment program. His young students practice a series of exercises that focus on the five senses to help them understand how the sound of a pencil tapping, the smell of pizza, or the sight of a classmate fidgeting can distract them. "The magic moment where they understand mindfulness is when they can catch themselves not paying attention; that's their chance to control their impulsivity. It helps them stop themselves from doing things like jumping on the couch or whacking their younger brother," Kelley told the Huffington Post.
Mindfulness is also of particular benefit to students with autism: Researchers found that the meditative process has the capacity to establish new patterns in areas of the brain that regulate mood and reduce overreactions to external sensations—two distinct difficulties faced by children with autism.
Programs have sprung up around the country to teach mindfulness to at-risk and incarcerated teenagers, and classrooms around the world are exploring mindfulness as an avenue for conflict resolution.
We’ve barely scratched the surface of the myriad ways that mindfulness impacts our world. Across the spectrum, individuals and organizations are recognizing the costs of stress in modern life and are desperate for solutions. In an era of escalating healthcare costs, mindfulness is seen as a holistic, practical, and cost effective approach to improving the quality of people’s lives. Those who are trained in mindfulness will continue to be in high demand everywhere from offices and clinics to classrooms and training camps. Just ask the U.S. military.
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View presentations, the keynote address, and a plenary discussion from the 2013 Mindfulness in Education Conference: Foundation for Teaching and Learning.
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