HOLISTIC HEALTH Use science to soothe the mind
A program combines behavioral medicine with standard meditation.
By L. CROW
Back in 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., began doing research in molecular biology at The U. of Mass. Medical Center. He was interested in behavioral medicine and understanding emotions at the molecular level, and how he could use the information he gained to help people.
This well-known practitioner of Zen Buddhism and mindfulness meditation, and author of many books, created an eight-week program to continue his research at the clinical level, working with actual participants. He gradually developed The Stress Reduction Program at The Center For Mindfulness, a nonprofit organization and part of the medical school at U. of Mass.
Alma Garcia-Smith, M.D., of Youngstown, has been studying this program since 2002, and offers it in group sessions on a regular basis. Dr. Garcia-Smith graduated from medical school in Mexico City in 1983, where she met her husband, James Smith, M.D.
They moved to Youngstown where Dr. Garcia-Smith worked in primary care for 12 years. She is on sabbatical, and her husband is in general surgery at Northside Hospital.
Dr. Garcia-Smith studied the course at The Center in 2002, then went again for more training in 2003. At the time, they did not have certification available. "You can now become certified, but it takes many years," said Dr. Garcia-Smith. "They come out and see you practice before they will certify. There are about five different stages you move through. And they hold conferences every year. They are so committed to this program, they provide all kinds of resources for their practitioners."
Mindfulness over matter
"The main purpose is to bring mindfulness to society," said Dr. Garcia-Smith. "The program initially began for people with chronic illness, like cancer, fibromyalgia. Now it is being offered to everyone whether or not they have an illness." Each week follows a similar format, but may have a different focus. Much of the program depends on the needs of the individuals, and the wisdom of the practitioner to guide each person to focus on their particular needs. Each class lasts about two and a half hours.
"Each lesson begins with one of the four formats for mindfulness practice," said Dr. Garcia-Smith. "For instance, the first week would be a guided meditation for a body scan, focusing on the present moment, getting back in our bodies and out of our heads. This allows us to reclaim and inhabit our bodies, which informs us and brings us to the present. This is very gentle work, because many people with chronic pain might be uncomfortable in their bodies. But the body scan regains access to our bodies with an attitude of acceptance, patience and nonjudgment. It becomes a release, letting go. Feelings are forms of energy. Through the body scan we learn to recognize what we are holding on to."
A big part of the class also centers around getting to know each other. Dr. Garcia-Smith said her classes range from five to 15, but could hold as many as 25. Through discussion, the class members learn by each others' experiences.
Next, the class might learn about breathing and some basic mindfulness practice. There is always a cognitive or conceptual lesson, and homework is assigned. Each participant has a CD to work with during the week, and is expected to spend five additional days doing some work on the lessons.
The second week would also begin with a body scan. "By this time, people have more awareness," said Dr. Garcia-Smith. "We also practice 'Beginner's Mind' to be intentionally open and receptive, pretending it is the first time we are hearing the CD. We let go of the attitude of 'been there, done that,' then afterward, talk about obstacles or other things we experienced. For instance some might notice that their mind wanders, and others might notice there are certain parts of the body they don't feel at all. They may have drifted away from certain parts of their body."
"We are learning about ourselves," Dr. Garcia-Smith said. "We begin to recognize physical, emotional and spiritual trauma. Our bodies store all this wisdom. We then have a discussion, and it is an opportunity to learn what we can't read in books, but can only access by being attentive to our bodies. We learn to accept what is happening -- to recognize, acknowledge and hold with compassion. Everyone begins to learn to trust their intuition. As an instructor, I am merely a facilitator to help others find their path."
In this way, each class begins with a mindful meditation, then a cognitive practice and discussion, and ends with another short meditation, to get people back into their bodies.
Some of the cognitive or conceptual lessons might center around how our bodies respond to stress, and what happens chemically during the "fight or flight" response.
"This could be a rise in blood pressure, for instance," said Dr. Garcia-Smith. "We look at what parts of the body are stimulated, and how continued stress causes us to be in hyper-arousal -- always in a state of fight or flight. Whatever we cover in the conceptual part of the class is assigned as homework. The participants begin to see how it is affecting their lives. They may notice tightness in the neck, headaches, gastrointestinal problems. We let our bodies give us signals without judging, so we learn to recognize our response. Then we discuss what happened during the week at the next class. By the end of the eight weeks, we have built a strong support group of friends and have learned from each other."
The very last class ends with a sort of closure, and discussion of what has taken place over the eight weeks. "We set new goals and work with obstacles," said Dr. Garcia-Smith. "Most people are now working with being more authentic and genuine, curious about themselves."
In addition to the eight week sessions, Dr. Garcia-Smith also regularly holds all-day retreats. People who have taken or are taking the course may attend, and others may attend, provided they have had some experience with mindfulness, or similar meditation work.
XLaughing Crow is a practitioner of holistic healing. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.