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The Science of Stillness

It’s one of the strongest selling points of most philosophies: Life can be stressful, but finding a way to deal with it all is possible. A very old problem, with some very old solutions—some of which have aged better than others. One solution that has fared particularly well over the millennia and seen a resurgence in recent decades is mindfulness meditation. 

A more skeptical reader might balk at this, given both the perception by earlier generations of meditation as the pastime of flower children and the excess of misinformation that continues to thrive on the internet with respect to Eastern medicine. But, as it happens, in this particular case science has caught up with philosophy and has much to say of its validity and usefulness.

One of the worst things you can do with stress is ignore it. “In every aspect of life, stress is not going to go away,” says Sheila Griffin, program manager at Jupiter Medical Center’s Calcagnini Center for Mindfulness. “If we resist, it persists.” And through practices like mindfulness meditation, we can learn not to ignore or dismiss our worries but to observe and accept them by objectively and passively taking note of them—but not allowing ourselves to be perturbed by them. 

“Meditation is primarily a pathway to alleviate our suffering,” says Keith Cini, doctor of oriental medicine and acupuncturist who goes by Dr. Keith and cofounded the Agape Healing Arts Health & Wellness Center in Tequesta with his wife, Bella Cini (Dr. Bella). “We’re all suffering to some degree, and most of us who don’t have the tools [to combat our pain] are distracted by or addicted to different things. Meditation is the pathway out of that suffering.”

This ancient practice was recognized for its therapeutic potential decades ago by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, emeritus professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and founder of what is called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR). Explains Griffin: “Back in the 1970s, he was working with patients with chronic illness to help them with the pain and anxiety [of conditions such as] cancer, heart disease, asthma, GI issues, skin disorders, and fibromyalgia.” Kabat-Zinn’s patients reported reductions in stress in all of these categories, though their situations tended to be more acute and short-term. Modern life, on the other hand, brings stresses of a more chronic nature. “What has happened in the last 40 years is that stress is now in every part of our lives—our work, school, family, finances, aging… you name it,” Griffin continues. Keith concurs: “The modern world has caught up to everybody, especially with the advances in technology that we have.” He compares our minds to computers that won’t shut off, pointing out that although “they have the capacity of a computer, they need rest.”

So how exactly does mindfulness meditation address stress? “The two things we get out of meditation are equanimity and impermanence,” explains Keith. Generally speaking, that means balance in all things and a sense that the moment is more important than the flow of many moments. He continues: “People have this dual malady of depression and anxiety—
depression when we’re living in the past and anxiety when we’re living in the future. We can find the gift in the present moment and also establish equanimity so we’re not being pulled by those things that attract us. They say to not have aversion to anything, and not to have craving. So when you talk about the observer, you just get to witness these thoughts. You become the observer of your thoughts rather than the victim of your thoughts.” 

When we can achieve that balance and become observers of our thoughts, it can have positive effects on our mental health and overall well-being. “Mindfulness calms down the sympathetic nervous system—that ‘fight-or-flight’ feeling—so we end up spending more time in what is called the parasympathetic system,” says Griffin. Basically, this is the nervous system that counteracts that fight-or-flight tendency and returns the body to rest. As a result, she notes, “we become calmer and more grounded as we are coming to stillness.” 

“What has happened in our society is that we have so many ‘incomings,’ she continues. “We’re overstimulated.” This overstimulation leaves us with an ambient cognitive noise that can manifest as anxiety and produce, among other symptoms, panic attacks. One of the things doctors often advise when suffering a panic attack is to focus on your breathing. Bella explains how essentially being mindful of your core physical self brings you back to center. “When you get lost in a panic attack, ask yourself, ‘What is real?’” she says. “Feel your breath, put your hand on your heart, feel your heartbeat. Those two things [breath and heartbeat] are your anchor.” It’s a matter of once again focusing on the importance of equanimity and impermanence. “Everything else is in your mind,” she adds. “Coming back and telling yourself everything is okay in this moment—that’s what mindfulness is. It’s just being the observer and having a tool to stay present.” 

The benefits of mindfulness meditation have certainly found support in the scientific community. A wealth of peer-reviewed literature in publications such as JAMA (the Journal of American Medicine Association), the International Journal of Osteopathic Medicine and the Journal of Behavioral Medicine highlights the myriad benefits of mindfulness meditation and MSBR. In addition to the immediate physiological effects of lowering blood pressure and improving blood oxygenation, the practice also continues to show potential in the treatment of panic disorders, clinical depression, substance addiction, chronic pain, and sleep disorders, among others. 

Despite the many positives surrounding mindfulness meditation, Griffin says it is important to keep in mind it’s not a quick, one-time fix for all of life’s problems. Rather, it is an ongoing practice that should be adopted as part of your lifestyle if it is to be most effective. “This is a journey, not a destination,” she says. “[Meditating] isn’t going to get you to a mindset or a place where ‘everything is going to be fine,’ and nothing is ever going to trigger you. But how you respond to the stressors when they happen—that will change.”  

Finding Peace

Three places to explore the art (and science) of meditation:

Jacqueline Fiske Healing Garden: Located at Jupiter Medical Center, this oasis is open to the public and is the perfect outdoor locale to meditate. Soothing natural elements include a plethora of plant varieties and a 40-foot oak tree, plus design specifics like bronze crane sculptures and a tranquil, touchable pool of water support the healing process. Anyone can also take advantage of the Calcagnini Center for Mindfulness’ eight-week MSBR training program, offered during the summer, fall, and spring.

Agape Healing Arts Health & Wellness Center: At their Tequesta center, Keith and Bella Cini offer a variety of services, workshops, and classes to help restore clients to a place of health and harmony. “Mindful Meditation with Ho’oponopono” (a Hawaiian prayer of forgiveness) is offered weekly on Mondays.

Nature: Often, nature is the best medicine—and there is certainly no shortage of peaceful locales nearby where you can practice mindful meditation. Find your own favorite spot at havens like Jonathan Dickinson State Park and Frenchman’s Forest Natural Area. Or grab a paddleboard or kayak and explore the waters for a quiet slice of paradise.  —Michelle Ribeiro