RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Mindfulness. For those looking for a solid introduction to the basic concepts, one course, developed nearly three decades ago, has become a hit in hospitals and clinics as a way to manage the pain and stress that goes along with it.
NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY: Back in 1979, a young biologist at the University of Massachusetts named Jon Kabat-Zinn had an idea. He was way into Buddhist meditation and he had a hunch that if you pared down the technique, it could help patients at the University's medical center.
Dr. JON KABAT-ZINN (Biologist, University of Massachusetts): The idea was to actually train these medical patients in Buddhist meditative practices, but without the Buddhism, so to speak.
AUBREY: Back then, the idea of mind-body health was not well explored. So Kabat-Zinn approached physicians and pain specialists at the university and asked them to refer their patients to his new clinic, which happened to be set up in a windowless, underground office in the medical building.
Mr. KABAT-ZINN: It was in the basement. But I wasn't objecting to that, even with no air and no light and my wife saying, how can you work under these conditions?
AUBREY: Much less tried to help sick people feel better. But Kabat-Zinn says the space did not deter patients who were struggling to cope with anything from the pain of arthritis the pain of cancer.
Mr. KABAT-ZINN: The heart of Buddhist meditation is actually called mindfulness. And mindfulness, our operational definition of it is paying attention in the only moment we're ever live, which is this one, the present moment.
AUBREY: Which is easier said than done, particularly for people living in pain. Who wants to be in the moment, if at the moment your joints are aching, your head's throbbing or you're living with a scary diagnosis. No wonder our first impulse is to run away. Bill Mies tries that.
Mr. BILL MIES (Yacht Broker): I am a stressed out guy but I've working on it for a long time.
AUBREY: Mies is a yacht broker from Annapolis, Maryland with a full white beard, and about a year ago he started having shoulder and neck problems. He saw doctors who gave him injections and a physical therapist who prescribed some exercises, but he still wasn't completely better. He eventually found his way to a mindfulness class in Baltimore, modeled on Kabat-Zinn's teaching.
The course is now offered in dozens of hospitals and medical centers around the county. And studies suggest it does help people cope with the psychological distress of diseases including arthritis, psoriasis and cancer. During one recent class, Bill Mies and seven other students practiced a technique called the body scan. Their instructor, Trish Magyari, walks them through a sort of mental tour.
Ms. TRISH MAGYARI (Mindfulness Instructor): We'll travel down through the body, bringing our awareness, now, into our left foot.
AUBREY: This may sound boring or passive, but Magyari says when you learn to stay with the scan through the whole 20 minutes, it becomes a useful trick, a tool to control or shift your focus whenever you need to.
Ms. MAGYARI: The point of it is to train our mind to go where we want it to go.
AUBREY: Instead of the mind wander into worry or be held hostage by the panic if pain. Bill Mies says he finds the body scan a very helpful technique, when it works. But today he acknowledged he really was struggling.
Mr. MIES: I found my mind drifting, yeah. I have these reservations like, oh, this is wasting time. I should be doing something more productive, instead of just paying attention to the sensation in my left leg.
AUBREY: Quieting these thoughts is always a challenge for people just starting out. But the question is, does mindfulness training really help if you can stick with it?
Ms. MAGYARI: I think the concept of who does it work for depends on what exactly we're measuring.
AUBREY: Take for example a small research study that Trish Magyari was involved with. There were 63 patients with rheumatoid arthritis. After two months of mindfulness training, the patients' physical symptoms did not disappear. But here's the thing - they reported feeling better. Scores of psychological distress dropped an average of 30 percent.
Ms. MAGYARI: It's true that in rheumatoid arthritis not everyone's arthritis status changed. They may, however, feel like they're coping with their arthritis and their illness much better than they were before.
AUBREY: So that must be what this is, in essence - a coping mechanism?
Ms. MAGYARI: Once you feel the power that comes from having the ability to bring yourself back in the moment, no matter what life is dishing to you, whether it's chronic illness, whether it's pain in your body, whether it's loved ones dying. Then you feel that, once you have it, it's really like you can't ever go back.
AUBREY: But that power is not a gift. As Bill Mies is learning, it takes a lot of practice to get the benefits.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: You can get a crash course on how to do the body scan meditation, including audio instructions from Trish Magyari at NPR.org/YourHealth.
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