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Clearing out the season's stress with 'mindfulness'

It was only 6 p.m., but the stingy winter sun was long gone when a dozen middle-aged men and women arrived at the Penn Medicine outpost in Radnor.

Steve Scarfone closes his eyes in meditation during a session at Penn Medicine's Mindfulness Center in Radnor on Thursday night, December 18, 2014. (Laurence Kesterson/For The Inquirer)
Steve Scarfone closes his eyes in meditation during a session at Penn Medicine's Mindfulness Center in Radnor on Thursday night, December 18, 2014. (Laurence Kesterson/For The Inquirer)Read more

It was only 6 p.m., but the stingy winter sun was long gone when a dozen middle-aged men and women arrived at the Penn Medicine outpost in Radnor.

They gathered in a wood-paneled conference room and settled into comfortable office chairs arranged in a circle.

Ranging from their late 30s to early 60s, most were strangers and professionally had little in common. One was a fund-raiser for a private foundation, another a pharmacist who works with terminally ill children. There also were a couple of psychologists, a lawyer, a banking software consultant, and a few retirees.

What they shared, however, was profound and deeply personal - a belief in the power of mindfulness, a form of meditation that had helped each of them shed the nettles of daily life and find some measure of inner calm.

On this cold, rainy night in late December, the group spent three hours practicing an ancient technique to cope with modern vexations. For they all agreed that if there was any time of the year when they needed to zen out, it was now, in the mind-messing midst of the holiday season.

"Let's think about the holiday season a little bit. It does seem especially frenetic now," said Michael Baime, an internist and director of the Penn Program for Mindfulness at the University of Pennsylvania Health System. Baime, 59, a Buddhist of Jewish heritage, has been meditating since he was a child and began teaching meditation more than 30 years ago.

A trim man, dressed in black trousers and a black crew-neck sweater, Baime said his "life's mission" is to help as many people as possible find peace and compassion through mindfulness.

"Let's practice," he said. The participants closed their eyes, rested their hands on their thighs, and allowed their jaws to go slack. With a single twinkly strike of finger cymbals, Baime signaled the start of meditation.

He encouraged everyone to focus on their breath, to balance on the narrow ledge between memory and projection. "The past is gone," he said. "Try not to lean into the future."

Although research into the medical benefits of meditation tends to yield results that are more suggestive than conclusive, studies overall leave little doubt that the practice is good for you.

Meditation may help "reduce blood pressure, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety and depression, insomnia, and the incidence, duration, and severity of acute respiratory illnesses (such as influenza)," reports the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Having trained thousands of people to meditate, Baime said, he has seen how the practice can transform troubled lives.

"If we're going to actually make this world a better place, it's not going to happen because someone from the top legislates it, but from the bottom up. People will connect with . . . their own gentleness and compassion. It will spread out from person to person."

He smiled a Dalai Lama-ish smile. "I know it's a pipe dream," he said. "But you have to believe in something."

Between waves of silence, during the 30-minute meditation, Baime riffed on the miseries and joys of Christmas and its denominational kin.

"This is a time when we get to relax and be with family, but it's also a time when things get crazy," he said.

"No holiday can live up to the expectation of a 6-year-old. . . . None of us are completely grown up," he said, noting that old grudges, unhealed wounds, and dashed dreams abide among the cracks in the attic.

When he returns to visit his family in Pittsburgh for the holidays, he said, "I feel like I regress about 40 years. When we go back home, we go back and back and back and back to when we were too little to understand. We don't just go through our neurotic twists and turns, we re-experience them."

Instead of blaming and bemoaning, Baime said, mindfulness offers the opportunity to step back. "We can view the old struggles that haunt us as an opportunity to forgive."

That forgiveness, he said, should be internal as well. "Nobody knows better than us how to give ourselves a hard time."

Around the circle, several heads nodded.

Although many in the group had mastered the ability to maintain serenity despite itchy elbows and scratchy throats, sometimes the body can disrupt the focus of the most experienced practitioner. And so it was that retired lawyer Marie Fritzinger had to slip out to the ladies' room part way through to tend to a bloody nose.

When the meditation ended, Baime clinked his cymbals again and invited the group to share thoughts on the season's challenges and reasons to be grateful.

They spoke of painful childhoods, loneliness, and regret. Of longing for grown children who had moved away and parents living in other countries.

One mother said that at this time of year, she used to worry that her cooking would not be good enough to please. Practicing mindfulness, she said, helped her focus instead on the pleasure of her family's company.

"For me, it is hard to see young people at this time of year who may not make it to Christmas," said Maria Foy, a 52-year-old pharmacist who works in pediatric palliative care. "But I am grateful," Foy said, "that I'm able to make their lives more comfortable."

In response to Baime's instructions to "blurt out whatever you're thinking," a few participants remarked that for all the comfort mindfulness has brought them, nirvana it isn't.

"When someone's not where you are, you want to put a gun to your head," said one.

"Nobody in my family would get what I'm talking about," said another.

When it came Heather Green's turn to speak, she sighed.

"Hmmm," she said. "The difficult time of the holidays is finding myself getting drawn into the negotiations, and strategizing." Green, 38, is a psychologist, juggling responsibilities for three young children and aging parents.

"This will be my first holiday with mindfulness as part of my life," she said.

Baime predicted that for her and most of the others, meditation might make all the difference.

Apologizing for "the sappy language," he said, "By leaning into our heart, we are drawn to what matters."