Beating Radiotherapy for Cancer with Mindfulness

Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul.” – Jim Valvano


About one in every eight women will develop breast cancer during their lifetimes. About 40,000 women die from breast cancer every year in the US.  Radiation is frequently used as a component of the treatment package for cancer with nearly two thirds of all patients receiving radiation treatment. Although it has been shown to be effective in treating the cancer it has very difficult side effects as patients experience increased pain, difficulty sleeping, much greater fatigue, problems thinking clearly and paying attention, and physical issues such as heart problems and nausea. All of this leads to a marked decrease in the patients’ quality of life.


Hence it is important to develop methods to assist the cancer patients in coping with the treatment side effects. One promising technique is mindfulness training. It has been found to be helpful in coping with cancer especially in dealing with the psychological consequences of a cancer diagnosis.


In today’s Research News article another contemplative practice, yoga, is evaluated as an adjunctive treatment. In the study “Randomized, Controlled Trial of Yoga in Women with Breast Cancer Undergoing Radiotherapy”

Chandwani and colleagues compare six weeks of yoga practice or stretching exercises to control patients who did not receive yoga or stretching but were placed on a waiting list to receive future treatment. They found that the breast cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy who practiced yoga had improved quality of life including clinically significant improvements in overall physical health and physical functioning, significantly greater decreases in fatigue, and positive effects on stress hormones.


These are encouraging results that suggest that the practice of yoga may be beneficial for breast cancer patients undergoing radiation treatment. How can yoga practice be so helpful? One way that yoga may help is that it is a form of exercise and exercise has been shown to decrease fatigue in cancer patients. Also yoga can improve coping with cancer treatment by relaxing and calming the mind. Worry and rumination about the treatment side effects can act to amplify these effects. Yoga practice by increasing mindfulness may reduce rumination and worry and thereby reduce the experience of the side effects and improve quality of life. Finally, the practice of yoga may make the patients feel that they can still function physically and that they can be active participants in their treatment and recovery helping them to feel more in control of their health and lives.


I’m happy to tell you that having been through surgery and chemotherapy and radiation, breast cancer is officially behind me. I feel absolutely great and I am raring to go.” – Carly Fiorina
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

Forget the Bad Stuff with Mindfulness

“Suffering is not holding you. You are holding suffering. When you become good at the art of letting sufferings go, then you’ll come to realize how unnecessary it was for you to drag those burdens around with you.” – Osho


Mindfulness has been found to have great psychological benefits. It improves mood, reduces stress (see, depression (see, anxiety (see, worry (see, anger (see, and fear (see It allows for efficient and realistic regulation of emotions (see and improves emotional intelligence (see, improves attention (see, and even heightens creativity


There are a number of ideas as to why mindfulness is so beneficial, but one idea that has not been previously tested is that mindfulness may alter memory. In today’s Research News article “The Effect of a Brief Mindfulness Intervention on Memory for Positively and Negatively Valenced Stimuli”

Alberts and  Thewissen investigate the effect of the induction of mindfulness on the memory for words that are rated as feeling emotionally either positive or negative. They found that mindfulness did not improve or impair memory overall. But, it altered what tended to be remembered. The mindfulness group had significantly poorer memory for those words that were emotionally negative.


This suggests that mindfulness impairs negative memories. It makes us better at forgetting and letting go of troubling memories. This may be one of the ways that mindfulness improves mood, by focusing on the good things in life and forgetting the bad things. Negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, anger, worry etc. all rely on a memory process. It is troubling memories of real or imagined past events that create these emotions. Being able to better forget them should reduce these negative emotions. In this way mindfulness may have great psychological benefit.


Mindfulness training emphasizes non-judgmental awareness. We are instructed when memories intrude on the present moment awareness to not judge them as either good or bad, just to see them as memories, nothing more, nothing less, and let them pass away. Mindfulness, by making us less judgmental about past memories they may be neutralized and become less troubling. This could help to control negative emotions. So, mindfulness may be improving our psychological makeup by helping us focus of the positive memories and let go of the negative memories.


So, be mindful and forget the bad stuff.


“Let go. Why do you cling to pain? There is nothing you can do about the wrongs of yesterday. It is not yours to judge. Why hold on to the very thing which keeps you from hope and love?” – Leo Buscaglia


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

Headaches are a Headache – Reduce them with Mindfulness

“To diminish the suffering of pain, we need to make a crucial distinction between the pain of pain, and the pain we create by our thoughts about the pain. Fear, anger, guilt, loneliness and helplessness are all mental and emotional responses that can intensify pain.” ~Howard Cutler


Headaches are a headache and can be disruptive to our productivity and happiness. The most common form of headache is tension headache constituting 90% of all headaches. Occasional headache is a common ailment but when it becomes chronic it can be quite disruptive to the sufferer’s life. Chronic tension headaches affect about 3% of the population.


It has been demonstrated that mindfulness training can help with a wide variety of types and sources of pain, for example it has been found to be effective for fibromyalgia pain, a particularly difficult pain to treat. It has also been shown to be effective for migraine headaches.


In today’s Research News article “Effect of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on Pain Severity and Mindful Awareness in Patients with Tension Headache: A Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial”

Omidi and Zargar test the application of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for chronic tension headache pain. They found that MBSR produced a clinically significant reduction in pain and also increased mindfulness in these patients.


There are a number of ways that MBSR training could be producing the reduction in tension headache pain. MBSR was designed for the reduction of stress and has been shown to be very effective. Since, tension headaches are often precipitated or amplified by stress, the reduction in responsivity to stress produced by MBSR would be expected to help reduce pain.


Pain itself can amplify pain by producing a fear of pain which can cause the individual to not only suffer from the current pain but add to it with worry about future pain. Many pain patients ruminate about their past pain which can also produce worry and stress and make pain worse. Indeed, meditation has been shown to reduce pain by decreasing catastrophizing. (see By helping the individual focus on the present moment mindfulness training can reduce the rumination about past pain and the expectation of future pain, reducing currently experienced pain.


Mindfulness is known to affect the brain’s processing of pain stimuli, blunting the neural activity associated with pain. This by itself could be responsible for the reduction in tension headache pain. Mindfulness also increases relaxation and reduces activity of the segment of the peripheral nervous system that’s responsible for activation and tension. This reduces the response to pain allowing greater relaxation and less pain. Mindfulness also increases awareness of one’s internal state. This self-monitoring could lead to better self-care and early intervention for a tension headache. Finally, mindfulness improves emotion regulation. It allows the individual to more effectively respond to emotions. This would include the emotions elicited by pain and those that can precipitate a tension headache. In this way, responses to pain and the intensity of the pain can be mitigated.


Regardless of the mechanism, mindfulness training is clearly an effective strategy for dealing with chronic tension headache pain. It remains to be seen if a simpler mindfulness training than MBSR might also be effective. MBSR requires a considerable commitment of time and energy and the presence of an instructor. This is not always practicable with the busy lives that many people lead. So, it would be better if a simpler training would be equally effective.


So practice mindfulness and make a headache less of a headache.


“When our pain is held by mindfulness it loses some of its strength.”Thich Nhat Hanh


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

Let Spirituality Help You through Tough Times

“My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.” ― Albert Einstein


Bad things happen even to good people. These negative life events and the distress that comes with them can damage mental health unless the individual has a means to cope with the distress. Religion/spirituality is often used as a refuge during challenging times. Does it actually help? There is some evidence that it does. It has been shown that spirituality works with mindfulness to relieve depression (see and can improve end of life (see


In today’s Research News article “The effect of spirituality and religious attendance on the relationship between psychological distress and negative life events”

Kidwai and colleagues investigated this very question. They studied the relationship between attendance at religious services, spirituality, and distress in an urban population. They found that people who were high on spirituality were less likely to be distressed following negative events as compared to those who were low on spirituality. They also found that high levels of spirituality were associated with attendance at religious services and that religious attendance was associated with lower distress. So, spirituality seemed to work indirectly on distress through increasing religious attendance that in turn reduced distress.


It appears that spiritual/religious coping is a powerful coping mechanisms that has the potential to buffer the damaging effects of negative life events on psychological functioning. There are a number of processes that could account for this. But, from the results it appears that religious attendance is primary and spirituality works by encouraging religious attendance.


It is possible that religious attendance provides social support when traversing difficult life situations. The common belief system connects individuals and promotes support and understanding during problems. In fact, this is precisely what Kidwai and colleagues found. Religious attendance was associated with higher social support which in turn was associated with lower distress. Hence, religious attendance can go a long way toward relieving distress directly and also by recruiting social support.


Regardless of the mechanism it is clear that spirituality and religious attendance can be helpful to the individual in difficult times.


So, be spiritual to help get you through life’s challenges.


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies




Look Inside


The following story was used as a teaching by the great Sufi teacher, Nasrudin.

His friend, Mansour, comes to visit him and sees Nasruddin on his hands and knees, crawling on the sidewalk under the street lamp, obviously searching for something, appearing frustrated.

 Concerned for his friend, Mansour asks, “Nasruddin, what are you looking for? Did you lose something?”

 “Yes, Mansour. I lost the key to my house, and I’m trying to find it, but I can’t.”

 “Let me help you,” responds Mansour. Mansour joins his friend, kneels down on his hands and knees, and begins to crawl on the sidewalk under the street lamp, searching.

 After a time, having looked everywhere on and around the sidewalk, neither Nasruddin nor Mansour can find the lost key. Puzzled, Mansour asks his friend to recall his steps when he last had the key, “Nasruddin, where did you lose the key? When did you last have it?”

 “I lost the key in my house,” Nasruddin responds.

 “In your house?” repeats the astonished Mansour. “Then why are we looking for the key here, outside on the sidewalk under this street lamp?”

 Without hesitation, Nasruddin explains, “Because there is more light here . . . !”

 The great teaching contained in this story is that we are constantly looking for what is important to us outside of ourselves. It is easier to see outside and so this is where we look for happiness, truth, understanding, and love. We believe that we will be happy when and if we can obtain something, be it a promotion, raise, or new position, an object such as a new car or house, or an experience such as a travel or a vacation. We believe that we will find the understanding and love that we seek with a new relationship, or once we change a significant person. We believe that we will find the truth by following a particular religion or spiritual teacher, or by studying what great thinkers and scientists have discovered.

All of these things can be beneficial, good, and useful. But, after a while after obtaining them we discover that they were not the answer. They may have been briefly satisfying, but that satisfaction did not last. So we seek something else outside of ourselves leading to the same outcome. So we try again on what psychologist’s term the hedonic treadmill. It’s amazing that many people never realize that this strategy is simply not working.

The problem all along has been that we’re looking in the wrong place. Like Nasrudin we are searching outside when the key can only be found inside. We can only find happiness, truth, understanding, and love within ourselves. Contemplative practice is the means for internal exploration. It allows us to carefully view our mental and emotional landscape seeking the keys.

With practice we can begin to see that happiness is a choice that we can make. It’s everywhere around us and in us if we only appreciate life for what it is and cease to fight against it. If we accept things as they are and then look deeply at them we will see the splendor and glory of life as it transpires moment to moment.

The more we engage in contemplative practice and the deeper we go, the more the mind begins to quiet. Once settled, we can begin to see that the love we’ve been seeking is already there within us. When we learn to love ourselves first we will see that others love us but it has to be viewed through a compassionate understanding of the emotional upheavals within them. Eventually we may even have the revelation to see that love is the substance of the universe.

All of this can lead to understanding that life is to be experienced not opposed, that the truth of existence is always present inside us if we only allow ourselves to see it, that heaven is not a place but is everywhere, and that ultimate truth was there all along.

These revelations do not come easily. They require often years of dedicated practice. But, they are there. If we’re looking in the right place we can find them. If we’re looking outside, we’ll never find them. If we’re looking inside we’re on the right track. The keys are there.


“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” – Carl Jung
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Go to College with Mindfulness

Many people have fond memories of their college years. It is likely, however, that they forgot about the stress and angst of those years. The truth is that college is generally very stressful for most students, from the uncertainty of freshman year, to the social stresses of emerging adulthood, to the anxiety of launching into a career after senior year. Evidence for the difficulties of these years can be found in college counseling centers which are swamped with troubled students. In fact, it’s been estimated that half of all college students report significant levels of anxiety and depression.

To make matters worse, many college students do not get sufficient sleep. In one study only 11% of college students reported getting sufficient sleep while 73% reported sleep problems. In another study it was found that about 27% of college students have overt sleep disorders such as narcolepsy or insomnia. These sleep problems are associated with lower grades. Many students attempt to combat this problem with heavy use of legal and illegal stimulants which further disrupt sleep and produce other problematic side effects..

So, it is important to find a safe and effective way to reduce stress, depression and anxiety and promote sleep in college students. Mindfulness training has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress and to reduce depression In addition, it has been shown to improve sleep quality So, mindfulness training would appear to be well suited to deal with the problems of college students.

In today’s Research News article “A Randomized Controlled Trial of Koru: A Mindfulness Program for College Students and Other Emerging Adults”

Greeson and colleagues test the effectiveness of a mindful meditation program with college students. The found that the student who participated in four 75-min meditation training sessions reported lower perceived stress and fewer sleep problems while having higher levels of mindfulness and self-compassion. When the wait-list control group was later provided with the meditation training, they evidenced the same improvements.

The improved sleep quality was positively associated with increased levels of mindfulness and self-compassion. In turn, the improved self-compassion after meditation training involved increased kindness toward both themselves and humanity in general, and decreased self-judgment, social isolation, and a lower tendency to over-identify with their problems. All of these changes after meditation training had moderate to large effect sizes which suggests that the training effects are of sufficient magnitude to be clinically useful.

These are exciting findings. A simple, relatively brief training is shown to be a safe and effective method to address the stress, mood problems, and sleep disturbance occurring in college students. This, if implemented widely, could greatly improve both the college experience and academic performance.

So, go to college with mindfulness. It will produce even fonder memories of the college years.

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Keep up Yoga Practice for Anxiety and Depression!


The medical literature tells us that the most effective ways to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and many more problems are through healthy diet and exercise. Our bodies have evolved to move, yet we now use the energy in oil instead of muscles to do our work.David Suzuki

Chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes are not only physically difficult but also very frequently associated with emotional challenges, being frequently accompanied by anxiety and depression. The presence of a chronic disease makes it three times more likely to have a major depression. About 15% of patients with diabetes are depressed while about 20% of patients with coronary heart disease evidence depression.

The comorbidity appears to be bidirectional. The presence of depression nearly doubled the likelihood that diabetes would occur and there is a 50% greater likelihood that a depressed individual will have a heart attack than matched individuals without depression. So, chronic disease tends to predict anxiety and depression and these psychological disorders tend to predict chronic disease.

Dealing with mental health issues with a background of chronic illness presents a complex picture for treatment. One option is yoga practice. It is known to have both physical and mental health benefits, so it would seem to be well suited to dealing with the combination of the two. In fact yoga has been found to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and stress and improve distress tolerance as well as improving the immune response to combat disease It can even help protect the brain from aging degeneration

In today’s Research News article “Influence of Intensity and Duration of Yoga on Anxiety and Depression Scores Associated with Chronic Illness”

Telles and colleagues test not only the effectiveness of yoga practice for anxiety and depression in chronically ill patients but also investigated the amounts of practice that are effective. They found that the more months that yoga has been practiced the lower the levels of both anxiety and depression. In addition, the amount of daily practice in minutes was also associated with lower levels of anxiety associated with chronic illness.

There are a number of effects of yoga practice that may underlie its ability to relieve anxiety and depression in chronically ill patients. Yoga practice has been shown to decrease the physical and psychological responses to stress. The stress related to chronic illness can magnify both the symptoms of the illness and also the psychological impact of the illness. By relieving this stress yoga practice can affect both the physical and psychological symptoms of the illness.

Yoga practice is also known to improve mood which could directly affect the levels of anxiety and depression. It may also do so by altering brain chemistry which is known to be associated with depression and anxiety. In addition, the fact that yoga is frequently practiced in a group can provide social support and stimulation that can assist with mental health.

Regardless of the mechanism it appears clear that the more you practice yoga, the better you begin to feel psychologically and physically. So, keep up your yoga practice for physical and emotional health.

“Even if you have a terminal disease, you don’t have to sit down and mope. Enjoy life and challenge the illness that you have.” – Nelson Mandela

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

Heart Health with Tai Chi

“If you want to be healthy and live to one hundred, do qigong.” ~Mehmet Oz

Tai Chi and Qigong are ancient practices of mindful movement. The reason that they have continued to be practiced by millions for centuries is that they have major mental and physical benefits. Modern research is verifying these benefits. Mindful movement practice has been shown to improve balance, self-concept, and attention span, reduce falls, boost the immune system and helps to relieve symptoms of arthritis, asthma, Parkinson’s disease and insomnia. It has been shown to improve sleep in the elderly and even improve cancer recovery

Tai Chi involves slow motion smooth mindful movements. It doesn’t look much like an exercise and so it has the reputation of not being an exercise that improves cardiovascular health. Tai chi “does not supply the cardiovascular component that we’d be looking for in a well-rounded routine. The exertion level, while challenging, is not going to increase your heart rate.” – Jessica Matthews. This notion, however, turns out to be untrue.

In today’s Research News article “The Effect of Tai Chi Training on Cardiorespiratory Fitness in Healthy Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.”

Zheng and colleagues reviewed the literature on the effects of Tai Chi practice on heart and circulatory health in healthy adults. They find that there is considerable evidence that Tai Chi has positive effects on heart and circulatory health.

Tai Chi practice appears to improve blood pressure, heart stroke volume, resting heart rate, cardiac output, lung capacity, and heart and breathing endurance. It appears to do this without any adverse effects. This is remarkable, as all of the drugs used to produce these same effects have major side effects and adverse consequences. Hence, Tai Chi appears to be a safe and effective practice for heart and respiratory health.

So, practice Tai Chi and help maintain heart health.

“Tai chi does not mean oriental wisdom or something exotic. It is the wisdom of your own senses, your own mind and body together as one process.” ~Chungliang Al Huang

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

Learn Less Implicitly with Mindfulness

“The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing.” ― Jon Kabat-Zinn

When people think of learning they’re usually visualizing learning information like historical facts, peoples names, mathematical formulas, etc. But, there’s another very important form of learning, called implicit learning, which is learning how to perform automatic tasks rapidly and efficiently. Things like riding a bike, playing a musical instrument, serving a tennis ball and tying your shoelaces all require implicit learning and memory.

Implicit learning requires the person to actually perform and practice a task to master it. Many athletic skills fall into this category. The skills are mastered with repetition so that they can be performed instinctively and mindlessly when needed. Once you’ve mastered hitting a ball with a bat you don’t have to think about the actual swing. You only need to make the decision to swing or not; the automatic system takes over from there. This is very effective. In fact athletes will tell you that if they think too much about what they’re doing they won’t do it as well.

Implicit learning also involves most mundane tasks that we perform constantly throughout our day. Walking, producing speech, even typing this sentence on a keyboard all involve implicitly learned skills. So, implicit learning is important and helps to reduce the cognitive load on our nervous system for everyday behaviors. We don’t have the think about them so we can devote our brain capacity to higher level thoughts and ideas.

It has been demonstrated that mindfulness helps with explicit learning, such as academic material. For example mindfulness training can improve college entrance exam scores in students. But, does mindfulness also help with implicit learning? In today’s Research News article “Dispositional mindfulness is associated with reduced implicit learning”

Stillman and colleagues tackle this very question; investigating the relationship between mindfulness and implicit learning.

They found that mindfulness appeared to interfere with implicit learning, the higher the level of mindfulness the lower the score on implicit learning tasks. But, mindfulness was associated with positive outcomes such as lower depression, better overall health, episodic memory and inhibitory control. So, mindfulness appears to have many very positive effects but there appears to be a tradeoff. As the old saying goes ‘you don’t get something for nothing’. The benefits occur but there’s also a cost, lower ability for implicit learning.

To some extent this result makes sense. Implicit learning involves learning to perform an action without attention. Mindfulness involves learning to pay attention. So, the two would appear to be incompatible. Being better at paying attention in the present moment makes it more difficult to learn to not pay attention and learn implicitly.

There actually may be an upside to mindfulness interfering with implicit learning. There are a number of behaviors that we learn implicitly that we might call ‘bad habits.’ Mindfulness may interfere with the development with these also. Developing an addiction is a good example. It involves learning implicitly a myriad of behaviors elicited by certain environmental conditions. Interfering with implicit learning might interfere with acquiring an addiction. In fact, it has been shown that mindfulness training helps with kicking a bad habit, getting rid of an addiction.

So, be mindful, the plusses outweigh the minuses. You might not be as good at mastering an athletic skill, but your life will be much better in most other ways.

“Mindfulness may help prevent formation of automatic habits — which is done through implicit learning — because a mindful person is aware of what they are doing.” – Chelsea Stillman

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

Age Healthily – Sleep better with Meditation

Aging brings a myriad of physical and mental changes including altered amounts and patterns of sleep. Older people have the same sleep needs as when they were younger but they have more difficulty falling and staying asleep and do not sleep as deeply. In addition, aging individuals wake more often during sleep, tend to go to sleep and wake earlier than when they were younger. There is also an increase in sleep disorders, including insomnia and 44% of the elderly report at least occasional problems with insomnia.

Sleep problems are more than just an irritant. Sleep deprivation is associated with decreased alertness and a consequent reduction in performance of even simple tasks, increased difficulties with memory and problem solving, decreases quality of life, increase likelihood of accidental injury including automobile accidents, and increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. It also places stress on relationships, affecting the sleep of the older individuals sleep partner.

Hence, it is clear that getting a good night’s sleep is important for everyone. But for the elderly it’s more difficult to get it. So, anything that could assist older people to sleep better would help the individual to age healthier with a better quality of life. Mindfulness has been found to be associated with healthy aging (see

Mindfulness can also be helpful with sleep problems. Indeed, meditation has been shown to be effective for the treatment of insomnia in adults (see But, the elderly are different and it is not known if meditation might also help them to sleep better.

In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment among Older Adults with Sleep Disturbances: A Randomized Clinical Trial”

Black and colleagues demonstrate that meditation can improve sleep quality in people over 55 years of age. They found that meditation increased the quality of sleep and the degree of improvement was related to the degree of increase in mindfulness produced. Meditation also resulted in less insomnia, fatigue, anxiety, and depression and less interference in daily living produced by fatigue. These findings are very exciting and suggest that meditation may be an effective intervention to improve sleep in the elderly.

Sleep problems are associated with a high level of physiological arousal. Meditation has been shown to reduce the hormonal and neural systems that underlie arousal and reduces responses to stress (see This could be one mechanism by which meditation improves sleep. Also sleep disturbance is often associated with psychological issues such as anxiety, depression, worry and rumination. Meditation is also known to reduce these processes. Indeed, Black and colleagues demonstrated reductions in depression with meditation in older individuals (see also and mindfulness is known to reduce anxiety (see and worry (see  This may be another potential mechanism by which mindfulness improves sleep.

Regardless of the mechanism, it is clear that meditation improves sleep in older individuals. Since meditation is relatively safe and easy to perform and has become more and more common and acceptable in modern western cultures, it would seem to be an ideal solution to the sleep problems of the elderly.

So, meditate and sleep better as you age.

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies