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Meditation is not just for yogis and monks. In this “Five Questions With” segment, we talked to Clinical Social Worker and Mindfulness Expert Marc McDowell about some of the misconceptions about mindfulness and meditation and found out how we can apply this practice in our daily lives. 

1. What is mindfulness? 

I start with telling people what it’s not. Mindfulness is not the practice of sitting in a lotus position and turning your mind off to stop your thoughts. Many people try it and get frustrated because they closed their eyes, maybe engaged with their breath for 15 seconds, and then start thinking about their grocery list and things they need to do throughout the day. That is exactly the starting place for mindfulness and meditation; it’s impossible to completely slow your mind down. Mindfulness is a form of meditation and it is becoming more aware of where your thoughts go and then bringing the focus back to the breath. 

2. What effects can mindfulness have on a cancer patient? 

Mindfulness is helpful in teaching patients to tolerate difficult emotions. Cancer treatment is very difficult, for staff, patients and caregivers. It brings about big lifestyle changes. Mindfulness has been found to build emotional resiliency and emotional intelligence. Meditation seems to slow people’s reactivity down where something difficult happens and they don’t have a knee-jerk reaction, they take a longer time to process and don’t become as upset about the information. 

3. What are key points in teaching people how to practice mindfulness in their daily lives? 

Mindfulness meditation can happen in two ways: formal and informal. Mindfulness meditation is a formal way of practicing mindfulness; informal mindfulness can take form in activities such as washing the dishes, folding laundry, personal grooming and mindful eating. Any concrete activity where you are in the moment just with the single task is mindfulness. What typically happens after performing the activity for 10-15 seconds your mind goes someone else, being aware of that shift in thought and coming back to the activity is an easy way to practice mindfulness at home.  

4. What is the most challenging part of practicing mindfulness and how can someone overcome those challenges?  

The misconceptions that go along with mindfulness. When I talk to people, nine out of 10 of them said they tried it, got frustrated with it and don’t want to try it again. Mindfulness isn’t the act of forcing yourself to clear your mind. A lot of people think they’re forcing themselves into something that doesn’t fit naturally and the thing is, clearing your mind isn’t natural. Mindfulness is building a relationship with yourself. For really busy people, it can bring integrative qualities into their life.  

5. If someone has a busy schedule or thinks they can’t practice mindfulness, what would you advise they do to get the benefits in a short amount of time? 

Research shows on MRI scans that mindfulness benefits people even if it is just five minutes a day. An early caveat that people with busy minds find is that it improves your thinking throughout the day as well as their problem-solving. You’re building up good health over time. If being mindful is difficult or a little bumpy, that is okay. Just by trying to be mindful, it can allow you to function better. No one can stay completely present and that is normal. 

Patients and their family members are invited to the “Meet the Experts” sessions on the first Tuesday of every month led by Marc McDowell. Also learn more about yoga by visiting the schedule of classes at Moffitt. 

Five Questions With is an occasional series featuring Moffitt team members, patients and volunteers.