Guest Column: Becoming a community that is more mindful

Published 10:50 pm Friday, September 7, 2018

Live United by Lana Howe

Lana Howe


What would you do if I said that one simple thing could reduce stress, boost your working memory, help you witness rather than react, and stop that mind chatter ruminating in your head? What if I said that this practice could improve your physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual state?

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I’ll give you a hint. It has to do with brain science even though it has been around a lot longer than brain science.

I have been a confessed brain science nerd for some time, and even more so as I have taken on my new role in the community as Statewide Health Improvement Partnership coordinator, learning how our mind impacts the behaviors we make — so much of a nerd I am beginning my thesis work for my master’s in community health around the “mind,” more specifically on how adverse childhood experiences and the effects of childhood trauma play a role into our biology.

Brain science has been showing more and more that by being mindful instead of mind full, we can change the chemistry in our bodies for the better. Mere minutes a day can change the way you think, react, even the way the genes in your cells express positive or negative characteristics.

There are many books on the topic of mindfulness, and even people within our community can share stories, examples and tools. Being mindful can create the feeling of space, empathy and peace. It helps us overcome feelings of irritation, agitation and lack of control.

Considering how many illnesses are connected to stress, this seems like a no-brainer. Calm the mind, relax the body and everything will be fine. Unfortunately, that isn’t always so easy. Who has time to meditate? Who knows how to completely shut off their brain?

Through my research and professional work, I’ve learned some hints. For one thing, a moment of mindfulness doesn’t have to look like a monk sitting cross-legged meditating for hours. It can be as simple as sitting in your chair at work and noticing your breath going in and going out 10 times. Even just 10 times is enough to change physiology. Through SHIP, I now have the privilege to dig in and practice some of these strategies with schools, worksites and community groups — and they work!

Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, defined mindfulness simply as “paying attention on purpose, in the moment and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” The more we focus our mind like that, the easier it becomes.

I admit that mindfulness practices have never been part of my mainstream. I’ve heard of almost all of them — meditation, yoga — but, I grew up thinking that it was for monks and nuns, or something for elderly to practice balance. So I didn’t fully begin to pay attention until all the brain science started coming out and I learned more about mental well-being and resiliency.

It is interesting to me. Think about how the spiritual community (of all traditions) have known about the strength in mindfulness long before science stumbled upon it. It is what keeps a pastor calm and empathetic with stressed parishioners, keeps a monk peaceful and rational amid violence and keeps a nun rational and thoughtful while treating the sick.

When it comes to our community as a whole, I can only dream that we all could tap into such peace. What better gift could you give anyone than the gift of peace of mind?

But you can’t get mindfulness in a box or a pill. It takes practice, just like any exercise. This is brain exercise. Dr. Rick Hanson, author of “Hardwiring the Brain,” points out that neurons that fire together wire together. This means that the more you exercise your focus, your mindfulness, the more your brain will be wired for it.

So you can actually hardwire happiness, gratefulness and compassion into your daily experience. Could anything be better for creating a caring community? The work I’ve had the privilege of being a part of for the past five years working for Freeborn County Family Services Collaborative and now as SHIP coordinator is a culture of community leaders and organizations who are all working towards community health, but it often comes down to what individuals can do for themselves.

So, practice. Once you are so good at focusing on 10 breaths that your mind doesn’t wander during that focus, then go higher. Try for 10 minutes. Just 10 minutes. You will start noticing life changes. More patience, less stress. Just 10 minutes.

It may sound decadent to sit quietly for 10 minutes during a busy day. But remember, there is a reason we talk about mindfulness as health educators. It’s about health. This is not just for me or for you; it is for your family, our children, the community and, ultimately, for the next generation.

Lana Howe is the Freeborn County Statewide Health Improvement Partnership coordinator.