December 10 Mindfulness and Lifestyle Medicine

This Monday, Miles will facilitate.

After finishing my medical training in public health and preventive medicine I became aware I had to apply what I had learned to my own life. I was a husband and father of young children with a demanding job, and I saw my blood pressure periodically spiking to disturbingly high levels.  Stress was an important contributor to this problem.  Even more stress was created when I ruminated intensely on whether I was on the way to repeating patterns within my family history including fatal heart attacks at young ages and severe & chronic anxiety and depression. Wanting to live healthily and also to see my children grow up, and even to see grandchildren someday, I began searching for an effective way to deal with my health challenges.

My training in public health and preventive medicine taught me that the leading causes of death in the United States, including heart disease & stroke, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and chronic lung diseases, are all related to the choices we make in our daily lives. When health care providers and educators teach about “lifestyle medicine” they can focus on six “buckets” or areas of concern: diet, exercise, sleep, social support, stress management and avoiding toxins. Below are some observations from my 25 years of personal experience.

Diet: inspired by a talk at a yoga retreat about 25 years ago I removed meat and poultry from my diet (but retained occasional fish/seafood.) This change was motivated by health concerns, by feelings of compassion for animals, and by memories of dissecting cadavers in gross anatomy class. (It also helped that a yoga teacher pointed out that gorillas are vegetarians and are really strong!) An additional dietary change was cutting way back on butter, cheese and other sources of saturated fat and trans fats (which are only now, 25 years later, being removed from our food supply by the Food and Drug Administration).  It took a couple of decades, but now my wife and adult son are pretty much on the same program—maybe someday my daughters too!

Exercise: For many years I have been exercising, usually for a half hour, six days a week.  If I am anxious about something, exercise helps takes the edge off and maybe even allows time and space for some new insight into coping with the source of stress.  Hiking in the woods, or even just walking on a quiet tree-lined street, is not only enjoyable exercise for me but also an opportunity to “bathe” in nature.  I love the upbeat mood that always follows exercise!

Sleep: Although a good night’s sleep is key to recharging my batteries, sometimes I will awaken in the middle of the night and not easily fall back to sleep due to worry, something I ate, some unresolved issue or who knows why?   When this happens, one natural sleep aid that I like is to lie in bed under the covers and do a gentle version of yogic breathing called ujjayi.  Although there is some technique involved, essentially this is just following regular breathing like we commonly do in meditation.  The last few years, I have also noticed that alcohol (especially red wine) can lead to more sleep interruptions, so the solution for that is clear!

Social support: At the end of my daily yoga practice, I often seal it by dedicating its merits in concentric circles to my wife, children, extended family, friends, neighbors, the “difficult people” and everyone else.   The closer to the center of the circle, the more contact, trust, intimacy and mutual support there is.  For me now, sangha falls into the important friends-neighbors circle. TOMAIL NEWSLETTER


Stress management: Six days a week practice of yoga postures (asana) with meditation/savasana toward the end is a key anchor for my riding out not just the daily stresses but also the big ones like when my sister (who was single, with no parents alive or other siblings) passed away 3 years ago.  No matter what happens I always feel better physically, mentally and spiritually during and after yoga, so the practice simply reinforces itself.  If I miss more than a day, I just don’t feel right.  Sometimes I wonder what would happen if, because of some accident or illness, I could not practice asana.  It is reassuring to know, though, that as long as I am around, at least my breath will be around too and can be followed!



Avoiding toxins:  Although there are numerous serious and important environmental toxins to be concerned about, sometimes the toxins are of our own creation.  A couple of days ago, my wife had a skin biopsy performed by a physician who, a few days later, left a 6PM telephone message asking for a return call to obtain the biopsy results.  Too late to contact the physician the same day, the overnight uncertainty about the results opened the door to me (which I did not have to proceed through) to creating elaborate scenarios centered on devastating disease progression.   This imaginative exercise was, fortunately, restricted to my body-mind-spirit and had some paradoxical benefits (from the swamp’s mud grows the lotus!)  I tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to accept not knowing the biopsy results and to wait with equanimity.  Occasionally, though, I would return to my breath and grow enough compassion to prevent my sharing verbally with my wife the unhelpful catastrophic scenarios I was fabricating.  The next day, the results were obtained and were mainly reassuring.   So, chalk up another time-limited anxiety “hijacking”, with a bit of skillful means embedded in the event that can be built upon!


Monday evening together in our Dharma sharing we may reflect on and share about these three questions:

– What are some of the wholesome lifestyle choices we have made or are making?

– What are some of the less wholesome choices that we are still making?

– In what ways does (or might) mindfulness practice help us make more skillful choices?

You are invited to join us.  Below is the text of Thich Nhat Hanh’s fifth mindfulness training, Nourishment and Healing:

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth.

* thanks to Mitchell Ratner for his catalytic and supportive involvement in some of the above text