At Mathews Elementary School in Austin, Texas, 10 fifth grade girls are sitting cross-legged on the music room floor with closed eyes and hands folded in their laps, waiting for the egg timer to go off. Jeanne Demers, 47, a campus coordinator for GENaustin—the Girls Empowerment Network—is overseeing this “mindfulness” exercise, which is intended to give today’s text-crazy, over-stimulated, media-saturated kids a quiet, still moment in their hectic days. One girl swings her hair around, another peeks at her friends, but most of them look peaceful. When the egg timer goes off, they journal about what went through their minds during the three-minute “mindful listening” exercise.
Demers, a pretty, bright-eyed woman who looks a bit like Annette Bening, reports that this peacefulness did not come right away. “It was a hard sell at first, suggesting quiet and stillness to some of the girls I work with.”
Demers is trained in something called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a technique developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The Mathews girls took to mindful practice with interest and openness, but when instructing girls in some of her schools to “put on their quiet, still bodies and sit like queens,” they made every possible excuse why they couldn’t sit quietly with their eyes closed, alone with their own thoughts, for even one minute. They claimed it was “really awkward” and tried escaping to the bathroom, which showed Demers “how much they actually needed this!” Today, when she comes once a week with her Tibetan bowl (“the girls jockey for who gets to ring it this week”) and egg timer, “they won’t let me not do it.” Besides a bit of quiet time, what mindfulness really gives them, she has learned, is the ability to self-regulate their feelings and behavior by giving them a relationship with their own minds. “That,” says Jeanne Demers, “is social intelligence.”
When our Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they did not declare that all men are created equal and mindful, but they might well have in light of this growing phenomenon. “Mindfulness” in the form of meditation, yoga, centering prayer, and other mind-body practices, is sweeping across our stressed-out land like a great breath of fresh air. In addition to a growing number of public school districts, major corporations, prison systems, healthcare organizations, arms of the U.S. military—even our representatives on Capitol Hill—are turning to mindfulness practices to help meet the demands of our hyperkinetic world.
According to the World Health Organization, the yearly cost of stress to American businesses is as high as $300 billion. Over the past 30 years, self-reported levels of stress have increased 18 percent for women and 25 percent for men. By all accounts, we have never been more maxed out or deficiently attentive in our nation’s history. Fortunately, help is on the way. “Mindfulness is the next great movement in the United States,” I’m told by Congressman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio). The author of A Mindful Nation, Ryan has become the foremost crusader for higher consciousness on Capitol Hill. When I ask the congressman whether mindfulness practice isn’t a bit, well, esoteric, for mainstream America, Ryan, a good-old-boy type with an easy manner, lets out a good laugh. “Go tell that to the Marines,” he says. “Go tell that to corporations like Proctor and Gamble, Target, General Mills. There is nothing esoteric about it. Mindfulness is completely simple. We’re talking about watching the breath here. There’s nothing un-American about that!”
Last year, Ryan founded what’s known as the Quiet Time Caucus on Capitol Hill. Once a week, 30 minutes of quiet time is made available in the speaker’s chapel just off the rotunda for anyone who wants it. The caucus has been a great success among members of both parties. Ryan explains, “There are no rules. You can meditate, you can pray, or stare into space. The only rule is you can’t talk.” He hopes that learning to be quiet together will help members of our gridlocked government to reconnect and find solutions to the nation’s problems. “There’s a great deal of frustration in Washington right now,” Ryan reminds me. “When our lawmakers can come together, and approach their jobs with a touch of mindfulness, everyone is bound to benefit.”
A mindfulness movement on Capitol Hill? What’s going on here? Something long overdue but not out of the ordinary, if you listen to advocates of the practice. “Mindfulness is an inherent human ability—something that we all have—to be fully attentive to where we are and what we are doing at any given moment,” says Barry Boyce, editor-in-chief of Mindful magazine.
“It’s a methodology that anyone can use,” adds Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. “You don’t have to have a belief system. It requires no faith or ideology. Mindfulness is as simple as watching your breath.” When she and her colleagues Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein returned from their travels in Asia 35 years ago and began informally sharing meditation practices learned from Buddhist teachers (“just because it was helping us so much”), mindfulness was a movement catering to the chosen few. Today, Salzberg’s nonstop travel schedule takes her to public schools, domestic violence shelters, hospitals, financial institutions, programs to help international humanitarian aid workers, and more. “I never thought I’d live to see the day,” Salzberg admits. “It’s amazing to see what’s happening.”
At Google, Chade-Meng Tan, one of the company’s earliest engineers (and founder of their Search Inside Yourself Program) compares this mainstreaming of “mind fitness” to the early days of the physical fitness movement in the U.S. “In the beginning, fitness was just for ‘nuts,’” says Meng (as Tan likes to be called). “Then in the 1920s, after it was studied, it became an established field. People knew it was good for them and learned how to do it. This revolution will happen in the same way. Mindfulness is ‘meta-fitness.’”
Hundreds of studies conclude that when we spend regular intervals being quiet, emptying our minds, relaxing our nervous systems, and raising awareness of what’s going on between our ears, we are, indeed, happier, healthier, more competent, helpful, empathic, and creative-minded people. Research suggests that mindfulness practices are useful in the treatment of pain, stress, anxiety, depressive relapse, disordered eating, and addiction.
Using the fMRI machine, neuroscientists have deduced that engagement in mindful thinking causes what they call a “left shift” in the brain. This results in increased activation of the brain’s left frontal regions, a process associated with more positive emotional states. Richard Davidson, a Harvard-educated psychiatrist and researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has studied the effects of meditation on the brain for 30 years. “Mindfulness practices can actually change the function and structure of the brain,” Davidson explains. “We have the ability to regulate both attention and emotion, both of which are more flexible and plastic than we had previously considered. In other words, our behavior can literally help shape the structure and functioning of our own brains.”
Proponents of mindfulness hope that practice will ultimately lead to paradigmatic shifts in how we do business. According to Meng, mindfulness is perfectly compatible with a more enlightened approach to capitalism. Yes, it’ll always be a dog-eat-dog world, but “people play sports among friends,” he points out. “It’s competitive but not in a negative way. The key is to compete in ways that consciously create the greater good. We must remember that the human mind can be fundamentally upgraded in a way that’s good for the individual, good for business, and good for the world all at once.”
“Finding the win-win-win is the way,” agrees Janice Marturano, a vice-president at General Mills and now head of the Institute for Mindful Leadership. “People today are double-booked and living on auto pilot. What I hear over and over again from leaders around the world, when they’re asked what the one thing is that they most need to be the kind of leader they want to be, they all say space. When we begin to transform our organizations and communities, we also transform the way in which we meet our lives.” Marturano suggests that we begin by taking what she calls “purposeful pauses” during the day. “Purposeful pauses don’t add time to your day,” Marturano is quick to acknowledge, “but they do encourage us to find those moments in the day when we can reset. The body gets rest, the mind gets rest, and this space makes a big difference in how exhausted we are at the end of the day.”
Facing a record suicide rate and thousands of veterans seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress, the U.S. military has begun testing a series of brain calming exercises called Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training (or M-Fit). “The data support it,” retired Major General Melvin Spiese told NBC news. Spiese was convinced after looking at the scientific research and taking M-Fit himself. “While teaching troops to shoot makes them a better warfighter, teaching mindfulness makes them a better person by helping them to decompress, which could have lasting effects,” he went on to say. Such as performing more effectively on the battlefield. Such as improving cognitive function. “It’s like doing pushups for the brain,” Major Spiese has said.
Back in Austin, Jeanne Demers is inspired about going even further with mindfulness practice with her clubGEN girls next year. “It’s exciting,” she says, “because they get it. They’re like little scientists, these girls, observing and noticing what they’re giving their attention to. That ability allows for so much—in every aspect of their lives. It’s a total game changer.”