What Would It Take for You to Be Still?
If this nondoing sounds easy, take 20 minutes and try the mountain exercise yourself. It won't be long before your mountain—which in my case was less Mount Everest and more like the label on an Evian bottle—drifts away and is replaced by a game of free association: A mountain reminds you of skiing, which reminds you of a family vacation, which reminds you of the weekend, which reminds you that a friend invited you to dinner on Saturday, which reminds you that you never got back to her and that maybe you should be writing her an e-mail instead of sitting on the floor pretending you're a mountain—which reminds you that you're supposed to be sitting on the floor pretending you're a mountain, which makes you mad at yourself for letting your mind wander. And then—bam. Not only are you no longer cultivating intimacy with the present moment, you're committing one of mindfulness's biggest faux pas: beating yourself up for getting distracted. (As soon as you start making judgments, you're out of the moment.) Kabat-Zinn didn't say this explicitly, but I'm pretty sure that mindfulness exercises should not include obscenities.
After a few days pretending to be a mountain (and, in a different exercise, a lake), it became clear that I am not a visual person. Unable to picture a mountain in the first place, let alone concentrate on it for 20 minutes, I compensated by imagining my breath flowing up my body and rushing out the top of my head—which worked better, until I realized I'd turned my calm snowy peak into a volcano. So with Kabat-Zinn's blessing, I moved on to a meditation that I hoped might come more naturally to me: the body scan. One of the key exercises in the MBSR course, it's 45 minutes of carefully guiding your attention up and down your body, trying to home in on the sensations in each isolated part. The exercise begins with your left big toe and, unfortunately in my case, it often ends there—as Kabat-Zinn likes to point out, while it's very difficult to learn to "fall awake" (become connected to the present moment), it's quite easy, when meditating, to fall asleep.
Still, I stuck with it. I liked the challenge of trying to harness my mind, and I was intrigued by studies showing that MBSR does even more than that. In 2003, for example, scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison examined a group that included alumni of Kabat-Zinn's eight-week course, and found that when they received flu shots, the meditators' immune systems produced more antibodies in response to the vaccine than did the nonmeditators'. In a 1998 University of Massachusetts study, patients with psoriasis who meditated while receiving ultraviolet treatments for their skin healed four times faster than the control group—regardless of whether they had any previous meditation training. Researchers don't yet understand all the details of why changes like these occur, but one possible explanation is that this type of meditation reduces stress and helps people develop a more positive outlook, both of which have been shown to strengthen the body's immune system.
What's more, according to researcher Norman Farb, who studies meditation and experimental psychology at the University of Toronto, such mindfulness-based meditation can actually change the way you use your brain. As Farb explains it, most of the time, we (by which I mean your average nonmeditating American) respond to new stimuli and experiences automatically, based on how we think they'll affect us. A traffic jam isn't just cars; it's a problem that will make us late for dinner—so when we see a red wall of taillights in front of us, we become stressed-out. A pair of sneakers strewn in the doorway aren't just discarded shoes; they're an annoying obstacle. So when we trip over them, we (by which I mean your average nonmeditating Catherine) get irritated with our husbands. In other words, we don't just experience, we evaluate—and then respond without thinking (clogged highway = extra minutes stuck in the car = misery).