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By Lisa Autz

Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.

When the lights of a concert hall dim low and the guitar begins to blare out of the speakers, pouring through the whole venue, it’s understood that there is a journey about to be taken. It is one of the few activities in life that isn’t about reaching a certain finishing point, but rather about the experience of the actual moment.

The same goes for meditation. It’s a discovery of the immediate moment as the only true reality and its recent scientific backing has allowed for our rapid, time-splitting culture to begin taking it seriously.

Rooted in the teachings of Buddhism that date back to around 6th century BC, the practice of mindfulness is beginning to take a stronger hold in Western culture. Neurological research has convinced a growing population of the health benefits that was known by ancient monks for centuries.

Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a program developed in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT-educated molecular biologist. The research-friendly program statistically reduces stress in the body by using the basic principles of Buddhist meditation, yoga, and mindfulness.

MBSR began as an experiment on how mindfulness could improve the mental and physiological conditions of patients with chronic pain at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. It has since grown into a popular method of exercising awareness to improve every gradation of stress throughout the US and in more than 30 other countries.

Elaine Retholtz, an acupuncturist and certified MBSR teacher in New York City since 2005, recently spoke with BTR about the program.

“Acute stress is ‘I’m going to die, I have to do something’” says Retholtz. “What we live with in New York, most of the time, is chronic stress…But our bodies don’t know, our bodies still react the same way.”

New Yorkers seem to be the most strung out in comparison to the rest of the nation. Based on a study released in 2012 by the American Psychological Association, New Yorkers were reported to have scored an average of 5.2 on a scale of 1 to 10, when 4.9 is the national average. Out of the participants, 22 percent reported experiencing extreme stress (an 8, 9, or 10 on the scale) or increased stress in the past year.

Retholtz explains that MBSR is about learning how stress effects the body and the maladaptive techniques we use to cope with it. Within a specific eight week program of two and a half hour classes once a week, the MBSR model of scientific meditation is taught by either a certified teacher or someone who has undergone a mindfulness teacher development intensive.

“The tools of mindfulness are so we can put some space between the reactivity [to stress] and choose a response,” says Retholtz.

Just like it is difficult to speak with your mouth filled with food, it is difficult to think properly with a head filled with stressful thoughts. Our gadgets and gizmos keep us hyper-connected, making even our recreational moments still based on an “I share, therefore I am” philosophy.

We never take the time to retract because there’s simply never enough time to do so, that is, time you’re willing to give up for the idea of doing absolutely nothing. We just have too many errands to run, too many emails to answer, and too many people to please. And this pressure, by our self-induced expectations, is one of New Yorkers’ greatest fuels and greatest sources of stress.

Yet the same study at the American Psychological Association reported a slight increase in New Yorkers saying that managing stress is extremely or very important: 69 percent in 2012 versus 67 percent in 2011. These statistics coincide with the study by National Institute of Health reported in Time magazine that found Americans spent some $4 billion on mindfulness-related alternative medicine in 2007, which includes MBSR.

Joan Vega, a MBSR teacher for 12 years, recently spoke to BTR about the program and how meditation has become increasingly prevalent in the US.

“If you look at vegetarianism in our culture, originally it was marginal, only certain people got involved with it. Then it sort of entered the culture and now the concern about the food we eat is dominant,” says Vega. “Meditation has reached that kind of tipping point.”

Vega works with caregivers to help treat dementia patients at Mount Sinai in Manhattan, as well as students ranging from age 30 to 88 who all express a gratitude for what MBSR has brought back into their lives; some return for the fulfilling connections with other people.

“By introducing mindfulness and principles of stress reduction, they are able to provide greater compassion for themselves and then greater compassion for the person they are care-giving for,” Vega explains. “Some people, especially if they live near by Mount Sinai, will come back for a second time because they like community.”

Another aspect of MBSR’s success is the program’s ability to expand and cross disciplines; it is now integrated into education, hospitals, senior care, corporations, Silicon Valley, and the military.

The Mind Fitness Training Institute is an organization that serves a range of clients including intelligence analysts, firefighters, and military service-members. The founder Elizabeth A. Stanley served as a US army intelligence officer and hopes that the institute helps prevent and treat the occurrence of PTSD in soldiers.

A benefit of MBSR, in comparison to other forms of meditation, is the neurological reports of neuroplasticity or actual structural changes in the brain. Sara W. Lazar, an assistant professor of Psychology at Harvard University, spoke to BTR about a study released in 2011.

Conducted alongside fellow researches, the study found mindfulness leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density, specifically areas that involve learning, memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.

“Right now we are looking to understand [the findings] better, we are doing the same study but with different tasks,” says Lazar. “We are not looking to prove anything, we just want to understand better.”

Whether it’s finding peace or finding how the brain functions, MBSR, and mindfulness in general, glistens with potential for a side-effect free alternative to treating and understanding ourselves as human beings.

The program steers clear of any spiritual association as it is presented as a scientific and research-driven endeavor, however underneath the numbers and statistics lies a raw connection with ourselves and the people around us. MBSR gives people the tools to escape stress so as to live in the moment.