Learning to Relax by Paying Attention

Tuning in to the world around you actually relieves stress better than getting lost in your thoughts.

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Last week, while trying to get downtown to a conference on integrating stress-reduction techniques into mainstream medicine, I felt my blood pressure rising. I was stuck in traffic, made several wrong turns that took me to the opposite side of the city, and entered a parking garage that turned out to be full—all causing me to miss a much-anticipated keynote speaker. When I finally got to the conference, I couldn't get beyond my disappointment over missing the opening speaker and sat in the large lecture hall, halfheartedly taking notes and checking my BlackBerry every few minutes. Let's just say I wasn't fully present in the moment.

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A young woman meditating

At lunch, I decided to head to a roundtable discussion given by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a psychologist famous for developing a stress-reduction technique called mindfulness, which he's described in several bestselling books. Can't hurt, I figured, hoping that he'd begin the session with a little meditation. (You can meditate with him on this YouTube video.) While he did not, in fact, lull me into meditative relaxation, he did very much get me to a mindful state of awareness. "I know you all have questions you'd like to ask or statements you'd like to make," he said before opening the room up for discussion, "but while you're waiting your turn, really listen to the other people speaking instead of framing the perfect sentence in your head."

Of course, I thought, I always do that. Then I recalled a roundtable discussion that I'd attended the day before when I was distracted the entire time by trying to get my own question answered. Why isn't the moderator calling on me? I silently seethed and even went so far as to interrupt another participant asking a question to try to piggyback my query onto his. This time, I resolved, I wasn't going to ask any questions and was simply going to listen. I also wasn't going to check my BlackBerry or my watch. I wasn't going to think about missing the morning speaker or what the traffic would be like heading to my kids' school for the carpool later that afternoon. I was simply going to, well, be.

I was rewarded with an insider's look at what healthcare providers discuss among themselves. Many are struggling to help patients make real lifestyle changes. A New Jersey doctor, for example, asked how to deal with a workaholic CEO (a heart attack waiting to happen) who was convinced that cutting back his 70-hour workweek would sacrifice his career. "Most of my best ideas have come out of meditation," responded Bill George, a Harvard Business School professor and the former chairman and CEO of the healthcare firm Medtronic. "I found that constant interruptions throughout my workday at Medtronic [which has 38,000 employees] left me with incomplete thoughts. Meditation every night gave me that clarity." So, the solution lies in convincing masters of the universe that less work is actually more—not an easy task.

"I feel like I'm always mopping up problems," complained another physician, who heads an integrative medicine unit at a university hospital. "I wish my patients would come to me before they're sick to learn how to stay well." Kabat-Zinn told him it lies within his power to make his practice what he wants it to be.

Some practitioners shared their own personal stories. A nurse stood up and asked how to get her teenage kids to meditate, something she thought could help them cope with their father's terminal illness. "I wouldn't push them," advised Kabat-Zinn. "That could actually repel them from ever doing it. I'd just keep meditating yourself and spend time with them appreciating the moments, and perhaps they'll come to it on their own."

At the end of the session, I felt the same sort of relaxed, euphoric feelings that I generally experience after a workout. It was only after I exited the session that I remembered to check my BlackBerry. Then I shut it off and headed out into the sun of an unexpectedly warm winter day. On my walk back to the parking garage, I made a point of observing sidewalk repairs, guards laughing together by a security station in front of the State Department, and the statue of an ancient Greek posed with a discus at a small park that I passed. I even marveled at the ingenuity of an inner spiral ramp that led me out of the garage. I don't know why, but those experiences left me calm and at peace with the world, a feeling that lasted until my mind became distracted, once again, by the responsibilities of everyday life.

Here are 5 simple ways to live more mindfully