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Posted By Opening the Heart

Herb Benson is a Harvard-trained cardiologist who is presently the director of the Mind Body Institute at Mass General in Boston. He tells an anecdote about a very beloved obstetrician in a small New England town who had been practicing so long that he was now delivering babies for mothers that he had also delivered. He was a highly respected legend. At one time in his practice he was surprised at the high number of pregnant women who presented with gastrointestinal distress. He decided to try an experiment. (This was before the days of ethics committees who oversaw such "experiments"). This obstetrician decided to give these women some medicine and he told them that this would help them feel better. In less than two weeks, a high percentage of his patients reported that, in fact, they were feeling better.... If you guessed that he gave them a placebo (a sugar pill), this would be a good guess. But he didn't. He gave them Ipecac, a medicine designed to induce vomitting!

How would one explain this extaordinary result: that a high percentage of his patients not only did not experience vomitting, but felt significantly better? Dr. Benson explains the result by proposing that the women's belief system overrode an induced physiological response to the medicine. The women so loved and trusted him that they believed what he told them, that they would "get better".

Both CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and the neuroscience underlying complementary and alternative medicine speak to us about the critical importance of our thoughts, or beliefs and how these beliefs determine our perceptions, and, therefore how we feel about our lives. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., at the Center for Mindfulness at UMass Medical Center in Worcester, and Dr. Benson have shown us how negative thoughts, and, therefore, negative emotions cause stress on a cellular level. And stress will exacerbate both acute and chronic illness by producing increased inflammation in the body- whether the illness is cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes or autoimmune process.

"To be in relationship to what you are going through, to hold it, and, in some sense, to befriend it-that is where the healing or transformative power of the practice of mindfulness lies.... Coming to terms with things as they are is my definition of healing". (J Kabat-Zinn).

Daniel Siegel, M.D. is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine. He talks about some amazing research being done by Drs. Richie Davidson and Kabat-Zinn showing that after only one 8 week MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) course, a "left shift" is enhanced in the brain's left frontal cortex. Such a shift reflects the cultivation of an "approach" state in which we move toward, rather than away from a challenging (read scary or stressful) external situation. In other words, this "approach state" can be seen as the "neural basis for resilience"!

Mindfulness is defined by Kabat-Zinn as "seeing things as they are and then being in wise relationship to them, even if they are painful or difficult". Using the neuroscience of integrative medicine, we are beginning to learn about the brain mapping of things like love, resilience and wisdom.

Wouldn't it be transformational to really be able to learn, for example, how to experience the pain that is inevitable in life, without actually suffering so much - to learn how to watch the parade without marching in it. I believe it's when we march in the parade that we experience the suffering and the drama of our life. Mindfulness practice has profound implications for healing even without curing.

With Love and Respect, Jon

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