Doctors diagnosed Janet Hales with adrenal fatigue almost five years ago.
Bedridden most of the time, she could walk very slowly on the treadmill for five minutes every day — but even that was a strenuous activity.
A doctor instructed the mother of eight to clear stress from her calendar, exercise and find a way to transition from feelings of “fight or flight” to “rest and digest.” He suggested meditation to accomplish the latter.
Hales talked to the leader of her Latter-day Saint congregation who said: “I wish everyone in the ward would learn how to meditate; they would learn to pray so much better.”
That comment struck Hales. She decided to give meditation a try.
She now describes the power of combining mindfulness and meditation as a “relaxed heightened awareness” of the current moment.
“This moment is the only moment I have to live,” she explained. “When I live in the past, most of the time it’s regret and self-hashing. … And when I live in the future, most of the time it’s anxiety and wild imaginings of things that probably aren’t going to happen. But when I live right now, it’s with a sense of gratitude and contentment.”
Mindfulness and meditation practices differ depending on religion and culture. Both beginners and experts agree slowing down helps the body and mind, though their techniques vary. Exploring their distinct meditation and mindfulness approaches may help you discover a new way to slow down.
Mindfulness vs. meditation
Dr. Annie Budhathoki, doctor of acupuncture and oriental medicine and licensed acupuncturist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, teaches her cancer patients both mindfulness and meditation practices.
She distinguished the two this way: “Mindfulness focuses the mind on one thought or object. … Meditation is about emptying the mind.” She said emptying the mind is harder for people in pain, whereas focusing the mind on something positive can be more effective.
Most people practice mindfulness all the time, she pointed out. “Whether you’re staring at a campfire, laying in a hammock, listening to your favorite music, … getting in the zone and really focusing on how that brings (you) peace or harmony — that’s actually mindfulness.”
Whether it’s meditation, mindfulness or a combination of both, those who practice them say the health benefits of slowing down are indisputable in their lives.
Are mindfulness and meditation effective?
Oxford University Press released a study in 2013 providing evidence that mindfulness meditation reduces anxiety. Hales believes anxiety is the chronic mismanagement of fear: “We’re constantly in fight or flight. … There’s no relaxation.”
A psychotherapist, researcher and New York Times bestselling author Dr. Kelly Turner researched what she called “radical remission” — when cancer goes away in severely ill patients inexplicably.
Among 75 healing factors in the more than 1,000 patients she studied, nine factors were common among all people. Interestingly, she found seven of the nine healing factors to be mental and/or emotional in nature, not physical.
- Radically changing your diet
- Taking control of your health
- Following your intuition
- Using herbs and supplements
- Releasing suppressed emotions
- Increasing positive emotions
- Embracing social support
- Deepening your spiritual connection
- Having strong reasons for living
‘Compassionate with myself’
Rachel Becker, a Buddhist who teaches yoga, said the purpose of meditation is to connect with oneself. Buddha’s teachings are “nondualistic,” meaning Buddhists involve the body and mind in meditation as a single entity rather than separate beings.
“I can honor and accept my feelings. I can be far more compassionate with myself,” she said. “I can see that suffering does not have a hierarchy — if I feel the pain of suffering, it is no worse or better than anyone else’s. From there, I can explore what I can do to mitigate it.”
The four types of Buddhist meditation include: concentrative, generative, receptive and reflective. According to a deep-dive BBC article about meditation, “A particular meditation practice usually includes elements of all four approaches but with the emphasis on one particular aspect.”
Becker meditates every day, sometimes alone and other times with fellow members of her Salt Lake Buddhist Fellowship. “There is no right or wrong,” she said. “Some Buddhists may only meditate once a month, some twice a day; it’s what feels right in your heart.”
‘One point of focus’
His Grace Govinda Bhakta Das started meditating at age 7. For almost 26 years, he has participated in the branch of Hinduism called Hare Krishna.
Currently a Hare Krishna preacher in Millcreek, Utah, Bhakta Das said meditation is “the repeated continuation of one point of focus.” It is the seventh of eight steps on the Path of Yoga.
The eight steps include: self-regulation or restraint (yamas), observances or practices of self-training (niyamas), postures (asana), expansion of breath and prana (pranayama), withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and perfected concentration (samadhi).
“Meditation is an art through which you can control your mind,” said Bhakta Das, who meditates at least two hours a day. “Meditation means engaging your mind positively, which then gives you happiness you can’t express in words.”
Impulse vs. stimulus
Yoga practitioner Lyndsey Holm begins and ends every day with an awareness of her emotions and thoughts.
“My relationship with meditation is about God.” But she emphasized that for many, “meditation does not equate to God.”
Holm, who found meditation as a sixth-grader, considers herself “spiritual” rather than religious. “Meditation allows for my mind, who thinks it’s in the driver’s seat, to slow down and make God my co-pilot.”
Holm believes the mind makes meaning of everything, and meditation “cultivates a pause between impulse and stimuli.” Instead of immediately reacting to every feeling and emotion, she tries to pause and be mindful of what the body really wants.
As a result, we ruin fewer relationships, spend less money, eat less food and “find ourselves engaged in things that are more aligned with our values than with our impulsivity.”
‘Breath of life’
Brooke Snow, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is a published author, podcaster and certified optimize coach. Just hours after having a baby in 2014, Snow experienced a pulmonary embolism, which resulted in nine blood clots to her lungs. Doctors flew her to another hospital.
Even as she wore an oxygen mask in the helicopter, she struggled to breathe. When the oxygen reserve ran out, she focused solely on trying to breathe in and out.
Suddenly, the phrase, “Christ is the breath of life,” came into her mind. With every inhale and exhale, she repeated that phrase. Miraculously, she began to stabilize.
In the ensuing months, Snow experienced debilitating anxiety, flashbacks and panic attacks. Her sister recommended meditation as a coping mechanism. Snow signed up for a meditation class, and “the results were amazing.”
“Instantly, I began to feel more present, calm and control over the anxiety in my life,” Snow said in a recent LDS Living podcast. She now facilitates online meditation classes and podcasts.
In her free online mini-course, Snow outlines three guidelines for beginning meditators:
- Breathe — in and out, in and out.
- Shift your posture — she suggests opening palms to the sky and tilting the head toward heaven.
- Forgive yourself when your mind drifts — it’s normal.
Can prayer and meditation be mutually supportive?
Said Hales, the mother of eight: “When I meditate, I sit down, open myself up, and begin to breathe and go deep. When I pray, I open myself up, and I begin to approach the throne of God.”
Praying is a very interactive, rewarding, refreshing experience, she said. “I didn’t know how to do that before I meditated.” Hales and Snow also suggest sometimes praying with images instead of words.
Shelly Wilkinson, a family nurse practitioner in Utah, has meditated regularly for almost two years.
“Regular meditation has had a greater positive impact on my mood, my feeling of connectedness to Light/God and my intuition, my mental capacity and my physical well-being — including being in tune with my body — than any other practice I’ve ever undertaken,” she said, adding she’s seen similar results in her clients.
Some seasons in life may call for meditation, mindfulness or a combination of both. While the practices may seem strange to the Western world now, Hales encouraged intrigued individuals to “just start!”
“Shoot for consistency and effort,” she said.
Speaking of mindfulness, Hales said, “Learning how to focus your brain takes time.” The practice is meant to be gentle and loving, not self-condemning when the mind drifts.
“If COVID has taught us anything, (it’s that) there are advantages to slowing down,” she said.
Whether it’s mindfulness — focusing the brain on something positive, or meditation — “emptying” or quieting the left side of the brain, the human body benefits from slowing down.
After a year and a few months of prayer, priesthood blessings and meditation, Hales went from walking slowly to running in just one day. Though still recovering, she attributes that healing power to Jesus Christ’s Atonement: “It’s all been God’s light and love within me.”