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posted: 3/31/2014 5:45 AM

Mindfulness meditation strives for living in the moment

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Q: I've heard a lot about "mindfulness meditation." Does it really help relieve stress and anxiety?

A: Mindfulness meditation has become quite popular in recent years. The practice involves bringing your mind's attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future.

Many people practice it hoping to stave off stress and stress-related health problems. As with other practices that are labeled "alternative and complementary medicine," there is increasing research into the effects of mindfulness meditation.

As a Western scientist and physician, I believe treatments and practices need to be validated by the scientific method. At the same time, I think it is foolish for physicians to dismiss out of hand Eastern treatments and practices that people have found valuable for thousands of years.

Researchers recently reviewed 47 meditation trials that met their criteria for well-designed studies. Their findings suggest that mindfulness meditation can help ease anxiety, depression and pain.

Other research has found that mindfulness meditation may help treat heart disease and high blood pressure. It may alleviate chronic pain, sleep problems and gastrointestinal difficulties. And it may help prevent relapse in people who have had several episodes of depression.

Mindfulness is the practice of focusing attention on what is happening in the present. And -- importantly -- accepting it without judgment. One of the goals of mindfulness is to enhance your appreciation of simple, everyday experiences.

By learning to focus on the here and now, you are less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets over the past.

Mindfulness is often learned through meditation. That is a method of regulating your attention by focusing on your breathing, a phrase or an image.

To get started with mindfulness meditation, sit on a straight-backed chair or cross-legged on the floor. Focus on an aspect of your breathing. For example, the sensation of your belly rising and falling as you inhale and exhale.

Once you've narrowed your concentration, begin to widen your focus. Become aware of sounds, sensations and ideas. Embrace and consider each without judgment.

If your mind starts to race, return your focus to your breathing. Then expand your awareness again. Most of my patients (and friends) who engage in mindfulness meditation try to meditate for 20 minutes each day.

You can also take a less formal approach to mindfulness. Choose any task or moment to stay in the present and truly participate in your life. Eating, walking, or playing with a child or grandchild, for example, are all good opportunities.

I'm not a practitioner of mindfulness meditation, so I can't speak about its virtues from personal experience. However, I have been greatly impressed by the accounts of my patients and friends who practice it. Almost to a person, they believe that it has brought balance and peace into their lives.

So I'm considering it. I'd like to transition from a life constantly living simultaneously in many moments to a life of truly "living in the moment."

• Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com.

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