published Thursday, April 17th, 2014

Cleaveland: Calm minds: Less stress, depression

By Dr. Clif Cleaveland

Among the happiest days of my early boyhood were visits with my Grandfather Reed to the train depot in Gainesville, Ga.

On late afternoons of summer, we would drive to the station to await trains heading north from Atlanta. As we relaxed while seated on a bench before the arrival of a train, we would chat. I would ask him lots of questions, which he would patiently answer.

The trains paused in Gainesville long enough to take on water and coal. We watched attentively. Sometimes we chatted with the engineer and fireman. “A good man doing a hard job.” That was his repeated description of workmen that we encountered in any setting.

I might count cars or keep track of the different rail lines represented by the rolling stock. If our timing was right, after the train departed, we could watch a flight of swifts circling, then swooping into a large chimney of a nearby building. I learned a lot about trains, birds, my grandfather and his times. I learned a lot about myself.

Without realizing it, I was practicing mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a well-established practice for dealing with life’s multiple, competing demands. The essentials of mindfulness involve a calm focus upon the moment and an understanding and appreciation for oneself and for others.

Our brains are configured for immediate action — fast thinking — and more deliberative, analytic thinking — slow thinking. The former is necessary when we are confronted with an urgent situation that requires immediate response. Too often, this is the mode of response that we employ routinely. Consequently, we act impulsively without thinking. Stereotypes, automatic responses and prejudices dictate our actions.

We further complicate our ability to think by multitasking, assuming that we can address simultaneous demands for our attention. Research by Stanford University professor Clifford Nass showed that people confronted regularly with multiple demands from phone, computer, television and other technologies performed poorly at any task that required orderly thinking. Attention spans and the ability to reason were diminished in persons subjected to heavy multitasking.

Mindfulness involves freeing our minds of disorder, of needless interruptions and of automatic patterns of response. Instead, we use our powers of reason and empathy to logically address each situation that we encounter. We can free our minds to find fresh insights and new approaches to the challenges at hand.

Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer, in her groundbreaking book, “Mindfulness,” summarizes research into mindful practices as they affect education, health, aging and business. For example, elderly residents of a care facility were less depressed, more engaged with their peers and lived longer when given creative tasks such as caring for personal plants.

At work, mindfulness allows us to consider a better, possibly more effective solution to a problem. We can counter a numbing routine with fresh thinking. Our health benefits when we take a moment to consider the factors that might cause us to feel depressed or anxious as we begin the day.

A recent segment on public television examined the benefits for inner-city elementary students who had an interval of guided meditation at the beginning of each school day. The time created a barrier between the school day and stresses that may have complicated their hours outside the school room.

Mindfulness does not simply happen. It needs to be cultivated by regular meditative practices such as yoga, walking, listening to or performing music, painting, woodcarving or any activity that frees our minds of competing stresses. Consider mindfulness as a timeout from hustle and bustle so that we can use the full analytic powers of our brains. Chattanooga’s Center for Mindful Living is a comprehensive resource for mindful skills.

On April 2 in Detroit, a man stopped to assist a child who had run in front of his pickup truck. An angry group of men quickly gathered, beating the driver severely. Would mindfulness change such mob behavior? Probably not, but it might lead over time to fewer people being caught up the violence of mob behavior.

In a volatile world, mindfulness offers the prospect of a reasoned, empathetic life.

Contact Clif Cleaveland at cleaveland1000@comcast.net.

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