I live a very busy life. I am involved in a lot of projects and work with many people around the world, which means that time zones have no limits for me. Last year, one of my colleagues asked me to collaborate with him on a mindfulness paper. To my big surprise I was not overjoyed by the idea and, with a heavy heart, I decided to decline our collaboration. My main reason for it was because I was already behind on my own work and was afraid that taking on this project would set me back even further. Another reason, however, was way more complex than this, and I only realised it after some reflection.
I began my mindfulness meditation practice over a decade ago following from a college project I had to do. Soon, I was hooked on it and wanted to experience it more, which is why I signed up to a two-week meditation retreat that allowed me to fine-tune my practice. I continued to meditate for approximately 7 years, on and off, and then, gradually, it faded away from my daily life.
I have always wondered why that happened and couldn’t really pin point the reasons for it. The only reason I could think of is that my life became so busy that I prioritised other activities over this one. Meditation practice takes commitment, which I did not have to continue. This is why, when last year my colleague invited me to collaborate with him, he also reminded me that I had not done it for a long time and the guilt of not doing my own practice prevented me from engaging in his project. Today, however, I feel differently.
I have recently attended a conference, in which a few talks were devoted to the latest research on mindfulness. One study, in particular, made me realise that it is high time for me to return to my practice.
Dr Elissa Epel specialises in our body’s cellular response to stress. She measures it by identifying the length of telomerase in our chromosomes. Telomerase is a repeated sequence at the end of our chromosomes, which is sensitive to bio-chemical info. Apparently, every thought we have, every physical activity, or food we eat has an effect on our chromosomes. Therefore, healthy people who are optimistic, exercise frequently, eat nutritious food (especially Mediterranean diet) have abundant telomerase, which in turn predicts many healthy years of life ahead. The shorter the telomerase, the shorter the number of years we have that is free from cardiovascular disease, dementia and other illnesses. In other words, we need to do everything we can in order to lengthen our telomerase.
The researcher shared with us a study she carried out with mothers of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). As you can imagine, their days are often unpredictable, increasing the amount of stress they experience. As a result, caregivers’ telomerase are shorter than the telomerase of an average person. However, an exposure to mindfulness retreat had a miraculous effect, specifically among those who experienced their own childhood trauma, and now had to deal with the daily stressors of looking after their child on autism spectrum.
Therefore, mindfulness is not only a vehicle for improving our well-being, helping us become more concentrated, calmer, and think more clearly. But it can also extend the number of healthy years we have ahead of us, which is worth every effort.
This is why, this morning, for the first time in years, I sat down on a local beach, closed my eyes and began my first mindfulness meditation. As I got out of practice, it was difficult for me to focus my “monkey” mind, but I know that things will only get better from here on in. I remember one researcher saying that it takes at least 10 hours of practice to start appreciating the benefits of meditation. I have 9 hours to go and until then all I have left is the compassion for my imperfect mind-less mind. Wish me luck!