Bob Stahl helped El Camino Hospital’s Howard Nudelman, M.D., fulfill his dying wish: establish a mindfulness-based stress reduction class at the hospital.
That was in 1993 – 25 years later, Nudelman’s vision is still thriving.
Mindfulness, which has its roots in Buddhist meditation, is the practice of learning how to be more present in your day-to-day life.
“At times, because of our habitual conditioning we’re often thinking about the future, or remembering the past,” said Stahl, founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction programs. “Mindfulness is really about paying close attention to what’s actually happening physically in the body (and) what’s happening mentally in the mind.”
Since the class began over two decades ago, Stahl said they’ve offered more than 300 programs and served thousands of people living with stress, chronic pain and illness – the class’s core demographic.
The eight-week program helps participants develop a more positive relationship with their stress, chronic pain or illness. Stahl said it’s all about becoming a more “active participant” in your health.
“We can’t eliminate stress, but what we can do is respond to it in a much wiser way,” he said.
Stahl’s “wiser way” can be accomplished through a series of mindfulness meditations that are taught in the class. One of these is the body scan.
The body scan is a guided meditation practice that begins with the left foot and proceeds body part by body part, until they reach their head. The intention of this practice is to help people become more aware of their bodies and acknowldge any physical sensations, thoughts and emotions.
Stahl noted other practices like awareness of the breath, which encourages the individual to become fully focused on the in-and-out pattern of breathing, as well as sitting meditation.
“Sitting meditation is a thematic practice,” he said. “We bring awareness to five different objects. … Ultimately this open awareness is just sitting in the now with our own body and mind and just being present to whatever is arising.”
The five parts of this practice, Stahl said, are mindfulness of breath, physical sensations, sound, different states of mind (thoughts and emotions) and finally choiceless awareness – the practice of being mindful to whatever is arising in the body or mind that is prominent in the moment.
When these mindfulness meditations are practiced in class, they can become easier to incorporate into everyday life.
Ginger Oros of Portola Valley is currently taking a second lap in Stahl’s class. The marriage and family therapist enrolled in his class five years ago after developing an interest in mindfulness. Years later, Oros said she’s still living with the sense of calm the first class left her with.
She said the class has particularly helped her deal with uncomfortable anxiety and fear that for most people can lead to a “knee-jerk reaction” to avoid the thoughts.
“What’s interesting is that when you really start to peel it apart … you realize you can’t run away from it,” Oros said. “Mindfulness teaches you to kind of be with that and how to allow that to be. I think there’s something that’s very transformative in allowing yourself to experience your emotions and allowing them to be in the body.”
For those skeptical that mindfulness meditation is an effective healing method, or those classifying it as religious-based teaching, Stahl assures that evidence-based research reveals the validity of mindfulness-based stress reduction.
“In the hospital setting, this is a very secular approach,” he said. “It’s part of mind-body medicine. This is not a covert Buddhist operation.”
Stahl pointed to a study conducted by the American Journal of Psychiatry showing that people living with panic and anxiety disorders who had gone through the program three years prior had reported that their response to panic and anxiety had improved.
Research on mindfulness has also been done in the area of neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change and adapt over the course of one’s life. Richard Davidson, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, has been one of the developers in a new area of neuroscience called affective neuroscience, which shows how the affect of the mind can influence the structure of the brain.
“There’s a colloquial saying that the neurons that fire together begin to wire together,” Stahl said. “Through repetition and through practice (of mindfulness), we can actually change certain architectures of the brain.”
The mindfulness-based stress reduction class is taught by Stahl and other instructors at El Camino Hospital, 2500 Grant Road, Mountain View. For more information visit mindfulnessprograms.com.