For many, it was a wacky, or at least unconventional, idea — departing from the wisdom of the day that the brain was more or less fully formed by the time a child hit kindergarten.
The growing body of research showing the brain has the capacity to change throughout life is bringing mental fitness onto the same plane as physical fitness, said Georgetown University associate professor Elizabeth Stanley.
Stanley, who runs MMFT and conducts research for the Army and Marines, said mindfulness meditation "isn't touchy-feely at all" in its new uses.
"There's something very empowering about learning how and why the body and mind respond under stress," she said.
Stanley said studies involving subjects engaged in repeated mindfulness have shown that it changes the way blood and oxygen flow through the brain, leading over time to structural changes. The practice can shrink the amygdala, which controls our fear response; enlarge the hippocampus, which controls memory; and make the insular cortex that regulates the body's internal environment more efficient, according to recent peer-reviewed studies by Stanley and others.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are touting several recent studies that have found the technique can reduce the severity of irritable bowel syndrome symptoms in women and reduce stress and pain in chronic sufferers of fibromyalgia and depression.
Google spokeswoman Katelin Todhunter-Gerberg says the company's "Search Inside Yourself" mindfulness class is among its most popular. It enhances awareness and performance, which improves productivity and morale, she said.
One Google lawyer, she said, was able to use her training to stop taking things so personally, reduce the irritability sometimes evident in her emails, and elicit immediate kudos from customers.
Not everyone is sold. In her self-help website Mindful Construct, psychology master's student Melissa Karnaze worries that mindfulness runs the risk of encouraging participants to suppress valid emotions.
"To imply that typical forms of human judgment are somehow inferior to a particular type of attention referred to as mindfulness — with regard to mental health and well-being in general — is a broad sweep," she said in an email. "We rely on various types of judgment for survival, and context matters."
Ryan wants to see fellow politicians embrace mindfulness and abandon the aggressive, around-the-clock grind.
"Nobody enjoys it; nobody likes it. It's become a mess," Ryan said. "Look at the approval ratings from the American people, look at how the people who are inside these institutions feel about the gridlock and the inability to get things done, and the constant campaigning, and the amount of money that's involved. We're not going to solve the problem by doing more of it."
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