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Meditation: Something to Think About
By Nick Jacobs

A few months ago, the magazine rack of the local grocery store displayed a veritable explosion of publications promoting the practice of Mindfulness. There, squished between Sports Illustrated and Birds & Blossoms were Mindfulness, The Power of Mindfulness, Time Magazine: The New Mindfulness, Travel & Culture Yoga Issue and The Essential Guide to Meditation.

There was even one devoted to Mindful Coloring!

Clearly there is a growing interest in this practice, which has been shown to have physical, psychological and social benefits. While there are many avenues to pursue Mindfulness, I have always had a particular interest in meditation.

Meditation was introduced to me at a young age through religious practice, when the nuns taught a class of seven- and eight-year-olds to pray the rosary. I was never sure what was going on in my young mind as I recited those prayers over and over again, but did know it gave me a feeling of inner peace. Not long after that, the Beatles arrived from Liverpool, bringing their unique sound and, eventually, a heightened interest in Transcendental Meditation. TM was a bit out of my reach, both financially and culturally—I was at the time an underpaid teacher with a rural, conservative Western, PA upbringing—so I left the chanting and colorful clothing to my more urbane and better paid peers.

It wasn’t until I turned 49 and had my first heart intervention that I was introduced formally to meditation as a means of focus, relaxation and even inner discovery. As a senior marketing executive for a local health system, I thought my constant stress-filled treadmill of appeasing, supporting and promoting about 150 different hospital departments and modalities might someday short-circuit my existence here on Planet Earth. So not long after my first step down “stent alley,” I decided to enter a newly promoted program in California run my Dr. Dean Ornish.

In one of the earliest sessions, one of Dr. Ornish’s instructors introduced us to meditation. It simply changed my life so much so that I vowed to bring Dr. Ornish’s program to the small hospital where I had just been named president, Windber Medical Center.

One problem: our little facility couldn’t afford the formal program. So I sought out legitimate meditation, yoga and exercise instructors, then found a local church willing to host, free of charge, our modified, unsanctioned version of a coronary artery disease reversal program in a little town in the middle of coal country. Six months later, Highmark Blue Cross legitimized our effort and we soon became one of the first, most active and successful hospital sites for the Ornish Program in Western Pennsylvania.

End of story? Well, not quite. Early into the program, a local minister notified me that a collection of conservative churches was planning to picket us for “attempting to take people’s souls away through teaching Eastern religions.” In response, we mounted an awareness campaign to inform the community that yoga was kind of like stretching and meditation could incorporate rosaries, prayer beads, or simple mental repetition of religious or nonreligious words of their choice.  

We finally convinced the skeptics we weren’t trying to convert anyone. Just help them learn how to better relax and focus. That’s really the point of introducing people to meditation, to help them reap the many benefits it has to offer.

 Dr. Barry Kerzin, a frequent visitor to Pittsburgh since 2016, is an American-born Buddhist monk and the personal physician to the 14th Dalai Lama. He is the founder and president of the altruism in Medicine Institute and the author of “No fear, No Death: The Transformative Power of Compassion.”

According to Dr. Kerzin, if someone is doing a regular, even five minutes a day meditation, it will be much easier for that person to stay in the present moment (Mindfulness) when needed. By concentrating on breathing, perhaps while also focusing on an object (a flame, a leaf flickering in the wind, even the tip of your nose), meditation teaches us to center our mind and our thoughts where we need them to be, in the here and now.

While meditation or Mindfulness is not a panacea, they are valuable items to have in our health toolbox. Americans generally live in a swirl of stress and distraction, which overtime can ruin our health and erase the simple joys of life.

Scientifically speaking, practicing Mindfulness decreases activity and the size of the amygdala—an area of the brain that determines our levels of stress. It also increases the activity in the prefrontal cortex, which regulates our emotions, decision-making, planning and abstract-thinking. It also can limit a host of stress-related illnesses, including heart disease, chronic pain, obesity, some infections, depression, anxiety and risks related to cancer.

Meditation and other forms of Mindfulness can be practiced on many levels, from the simple to the complex. It’s easy to get started: If you can breathe, you can meditate. Start by sitting quietly, paying attention only to your breath as it flows in and out of your body. If you wish, you can add to this by thinking of something pleasant—a song, a memory, a prayer—or focus on an object. Dr. Kerzin has often suggested simply looking at the tip of your nose. Doing this for just a few minutes a day will eventually provide positive results.

Of course, much more can be said and learned about Mindfulness and meditation. Countless books, website and, as I said before, magazines are available. But it need not be complicated or expensive.

As for my story, after Stent No. 7, I decided to re-engage more completely in meditation and I signed up for a TM course being taught locally. Meditation continues to help me focus better, it improves my creativity and it enables me to perceive life in ways I would not have thought possible. It might not be for everyone but, as the old saying goes, you never know until you try. I do know it has been life-changing for many people, me included.

Nick Jacobs is a partner with SMR, LLC, a senior leadership healthcare consulting firm. He is a founder of the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine, former board member and officer of the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine and served on the Executive Committee of the Integrative Health Policy Consortium. A former hospital CEO and founder of two genetic research institutes, Jacobs maintains a website, Healinghospitals.com.

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