Articles written by me on Self-care and Palliative Medicine
On Self-Care & Palliative Medicine

A Hearty Valentine’s Wish

Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it is spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.” Carl Sandburg

Another Valentine’s Day, our holiday that symbolizes love, is here again. Along with the kisses, candy, and sexy underwear that you might give to lovable folks in your life, I’d like for you to consider giving yourself a gift this year as well. If you can take even one small step to work on “living in the present”, it may ultimately be the greatest gift you can give yourself for good health and happy longevity. Let’s explore this idea further.

Being aware in the moment is a goal of meditation. This present moment in which we live is the only true reality we have. So much of the stress we generate in our lives is worrying about the past or the future. The “I should haves. . .” as well as the “Oh my God, what if so and so happens. . .?” can and do keep a great number of us perpetually anxious and unhappy. But, when one centers his/her thoughts in the present, in the moment, a number of practical benefits occur. When one lives mindfully in the moment, one is able to perceive the world with greater clarity. There’s a popular misconception that meditation withdraws us from our environment. In reality, in whatever tradition a person chooses (Buddhist, Christian,etc,) meditation generally allows better focus and leads to better concentration. Novelist Henry Miller observed, “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” Whether in the business world, school, or in relationships, people who focus and concentrate tend to perform better.

Are you one of those folks who feels that meditation requires special robes, the ability to sit cross-legged on a straw mat in an incense-filled room–preferably isolated in a dimly lit cave somewhere high in the Himalayas? If so, get over it! There are numerous scientifically-based, medically sound stress reduction programs all over the world now which teach mindfulness meditation as a powerful tool in maintaining good health. Modern programs geared at training people to de-stress and learn to live in the moment (i.e. meditate), generally teach people to integrate themselves more fully into the experiences of life, rather than to isolate. Participants learn to enjoy moments more by learning to focus on what we’re eating, the music we’re hearing, the person with whom we are conversing. Heightened attention makes experiences more sensual and more joyful; food is savored; visual beauty is seen through clearer eyes, and human touch is more intense. Jon Kabat-Zinn,PhD, who founded the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society in 1979 has taught over 12,000 medical patients the technique of Mindfulness-Based Stressed Reduction since that time. He is quoted as saying, “Next time you are in the shower, check and see if you really are in the shower. You may or may not be. You may be in a meeting, or you may have the whole meeting in the shower with you. You can do the same checking in virtually every situation you find yourself.”

A third aspect of meditating in the moment is that it allows the mind to quiet–to wind down from the frantic hustle and bustle we generate in “what next?” attitudes. With this quieting, tends to come a sense of peace. . .a sense of peace generated solely by the undisturbed moment! Such a realization can redefine notions of peace and joy for folks who have lived their lives wondering. . .”How can I get this or that to be happy and peaceful?” When a joyful peace comes from quietly embracing the moment, people tend to shift the questions to. . .”What am I doing that’s allowing my natural inner peace to be disturbed?”

Ultimately, the regular practice of meditation/quiet focus on the present does more than help us to manage stress. By learning to live in the moment and focus on current experience, we transcend the sense of ‘stressed-isolation’ that generates so many self-destructive behaviors,so much of our daily emotional turmoil, and ultimately perpetuates much of our mental and physical illness if it’s unchecked. Since Kabat-Zinn established his Massachusetts-based institute in 1979, over 240 similar programs have developed around the world, including medical centered based programs at Duke, Stanford, and the University of Wisconsin. Dean Ornish, MD, who espouses major changes in diet and lifestyle to reverse heart disease also embraces such a program in his treatment regimen. And, thankfully, over 2000 physicians have also been educated to be facilitators in Mindfulness Meditation training for patients. Such training encourages us to participate in promoting our own health and well-being; mindfulness is not a substitute for treatment, rather it’s a vital element of it–a vital element in being well. . .and staying well.

So on this day of love, I wish for you the ability to embrace this moment in time, and to give your heart a break in the process. Be well; be happy; be mindful and focused in the present. Remember, “This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere: the dew is never all dried at once: a shower is forever falling, vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls John Muir, naturalist, explorer, and writer (1838–1914) Happy Valentine’s Day one and all!

Stephen L. Hines, M.D.
February 2002

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