by Elizabeth J. Coleman


In the spring of 2001, I received an unpleasant surprise: a diagnosis of endometrial cancer. The good news was that the disease was caught in the earliest stage, and surgery was a "complete cure" (knock wood, of course.)

While I was recuperating from life-saving surgery, I received a second most agreeable surprise — and, in its own way, a life-saving one: A friend brought me a brochure for a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction seminar at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

I smiled when my friend Judy handed me the flyer, and thought, "This is the gift I am going to give myself for what I have been through." I did, and it has truly been "the gift that keeps on giving."

I attended the eight-week program and was entranced. I was taught a skill that would not only help me maintain and protect my health, but would also help me communicate better at work and at home, and help me know myself in a new and profound way.

In a sense, mindfulness (which has been defined as "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally") might be thought of as the opposite of therapy. In therapy, you tend to look at what is wrong with you and try to fix it. In mindfulness, you accept things as they are and begin to focus on what is right with you. I believe that this allows an individual to see her strengths and to live with weaknesses that may not be "curable."

Mindfulness is as simple (and as difficult) as living in moment-to-moment awareness. It is invoked by tuning in to our breath and to every other aspect of our lives. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) seminars provides training in meditation, mindful yoga, and relaxation to mobilize mind/body resources to work with stress, pain and illness in ways that promote growth and healing.

Mindfulness reduces future and past-oriented thinking, thereby opening up more options for dealing with the present. In doing so, it enables a more realistic assessment of what is happening now. Mindfulness also helps us recognize that thoughts are not facts and allows the development of reliance on inner wisdom — which, in turn, creates self-empowerment and improved relationships.

This information and this way of seeing the world has been revolutionary for me, as it is for so many people. It allows me to look objectively at who I am, at my strengths and weaknesses. It helps me to look realistically at my life and assess how I want to spend the remaining years on this planet. For me this has meant making some fundamental changes. Now I am a classical guitarist, a poet, a painter, the president of a family foundation for environmental and social justice and, yes, a teacher of MBSR.

After five years of intense study, I trained to teach this course and have been working with lawyers, judges and others who are interested in learning it, both in and out of various workplaces. As someone who practiced law for many years, and has served as both a corporate CEO and the executive director of a non-profit, I have an understanding of the legal profession and of office dynamics, competencies and stresses.

I want other people to have the tools I have acquired; I want to share my knowledge. And now I am proud to be doing this work with my friend Pat Vroom, a clinical psychologist and director of integral medicine at Capital Health Systems. The MBSR course that Pat and I teach uses mindfulness meditation to teach people how to take better care of themselves and live healthier and more adaptive lives.

Now, every week, Pat and I settle into a comfortable loft in Tribeca and work with a group of 10 or so individuals on learning MBSR. Each course we teach is a wonderful voyage of discovery — for the participants, and for us.

People who have participated have found help with a range of stress-related problems, such as anxiety and panic, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, high blood pressure, sleep disorders and physiological conditions including cancer, heart disease, AIDS and chronic pain. Participants have also found that the MBSR program increases focus and concentration, work performance and overall satisfaction with their lives.

But the work Pat and I do also extends well beyond the loft: One of the exciting things about MBSR is that it can be done in any setting and tailored to suit the needs of any group or individual — from the corporate board room to the law office to the needs of veterans to the chronically ill. Our mission is to provide help and guidance in learning mindfulness and all the benefits it can bring wherever and however it is needed.

Elizabeth J. Coleman is president of Professional Stress Management Solutions, Ltd. She has worked extensively on issues related to stress in the workplace. For more information, visit www.prostressmgmt.com or call Elizabeth at (212) 625-1471.

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