What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness and/or mindfulness meditation can be intimidating to many people. They’re not sure if they’re doing it correctly — or at all. People worry they can’t completely clear their minds and become frustrated. While mindfulness can’t make cancer or other chronic illness go away, it can help people with a disease have better quality of life by easing pain, stress, and worry.
Listen to the podcast to hear Laura explain:
exactly what mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are
where mindfulness started
some common myths about mindfulness
For the last 5 minutes of the podcast, Laura leads a short, guided mindfulness meditation so everyone can experience mindfulness.
Laura Cohen Romano is director of spiritual care and mindfulness for the Einstein Healthcare Network. She first came to Einstein in 2009 as director of chaplaincy, language and culture, and volunteer services. Laura began her own journey with meditation 25 years ago, and with evidence-based mindfulness meditation and practices 12 years ago. Following her growing passion to share the many benefits of mindfulness, she pursued training as a mindfulness teacher, first through teacher training at the Mindfulness Institute at the Jefferson Myrna-Brind Center for Integrative Medicine, and then receiving her teacher qualification through the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine Center for Mindfulness.
— Last updated on May 5, 2022, 6:35 PM
Jamie DePolo: Hello, everyone, I’m Jamie DePolo, senior editor at Breastcancer.org. Our guest today is Laura Cohen Romano, director of spiritual care and mindfulness for the Einstein Healthcare Network. She first came to Einstein in 2009 as director of chaplaincy, language and culture, and volunteer services. Laura began her own journey with meditation 25 years ago and with evidence-based mindfulness meditation and practices 12 years ago. Following her growing passion to share the many benefits of mindfulness, she pursued training as a mindfulness teacher, first through teacher training at the Mindfulness Institute at the Jefferson Myrna Brynn Center for Integrative Medicine, and then receiving her teacher qualification through the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine Center for Mindfulness. But to Laura, the most important part of her bio is having everyone know that she loves to help others find new ways to relate to the difficulties that life can present, allowing for more moments of peace and contentment and for enjoyment of life’s lovely moments.
Now, we’ve been told people have written in on our Discussion Boards, and people have told me personally, that mindfulness meditation can be intimidating. People are not sure if they’re doing it correctly or if they’re even doing it at all. People worry they can’t completely clear their minds and they get frustrated. So while mindfulness can’t make cancer or other chronic illnesses go away, it can help people who’ve been diagnosed with a disease have better quality of life by easing pain, stress, and worry.
So today, Laura joins us, and she’s going to explain exactly what mindfulness meditation is, dispel some common myths about it, and lead us all through a short, guided meditation so we all have an idea of what it might be like. Laura, welcome to the podcast!
Laura Cohen Romano: Thank you! I’m happy to be here.
Jamie DePolo: So to start, can you tell us what exactly is mindfulness meditation and where did it start?
Laura Cohen Romano: Yeah, sure. Mindfulness is actually a way of being, and it’s a way of being that comes from consistently practicing paying a deep attention to whatever is here in the moment. Whatever is here — in our bodies, in our minds, our emotions, and our immediate surroundings. So it can actually sometimes be a little counterintuitive, right, because if we have physical pain or emotional pain, our whole instinct is, “I want to get away from this; I want this to go away.” I know that feeling well [laughs]. In mindfulness, we do the opposite. We actually turn toward it and explore it a little bit in a particular way. It turns out that that’s healing. We might not guess that.
Jamie DePolo: So where did it start? Did somebody come up with this idea? My sense is that it’s a very old practice.
Laura Cohen Romano: Yeah, so mindfulness goes back thousands of years ago, and it can actually be found, elements of mindfulness can be found in every single major religion — Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism. It is most prominent in Buddhism, so many people hear much more about that. Even in the early 1800s of our country it’s found in some of the transcendentalists, like Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, so that’s kind of interesting, I think.
But more recently, this more recent wave of mindfulness I think really goes back to in the late 70s. A man called Jon Kabat-Zinn, who was working at UMass Medical School and Medical Center, started an 8-week mindfulness-based, stress reduction program specifically for patients who were experiencing chronic pain, cancer, other conditions where they were being told by their doctors, “We’ve done everything we can for you, there’s nothing more we can do.” And he felt, “I think there is something more we can do,” and this should not be where their journey stops, it really should be where it starts, right? Because now they’ve had this diagnosis, they’ve had treatment. Now how do I live the rest of my life with all that this means? So he developed this 8-week program, and then it started to be studied like crazy. There’s hundreds of studies now, and now with much more scientific rigor, too, than there used to be. And the studies show all these positive results in terms of physical health, mental health, stress, even workplace results. Just so many different positive things that come out of this.
Jamie DePolo: Excellent. And you know, I’ve seen some of these studies. There really aren’t any downsides or risks to mindfulness meditation, are there? I can’t recall any off the top of my head.
Laura Cohen Romano: You know, there’s not much. I mean there are, when we are teaching mindfulness we do a little bit of screening. If someone has just had a major huge trauma, if someone has particular psychiatric diagnoses or is actively suicidal, this is not the time then to start a mindfulness practice. It’s the time to go see other types of help. So we would refer somebody elsewhere. But for the most part, exactly, it’s one of the beauties, right? All these medications have all these long lists of side effects and mindfulness? Not really.
Jamie DePolo: So what are some of the myths about mindfulness that you’d like to bust for us? Because I talk to people about this and they say, “Oh well, I can’t do it, blah blah blah.” So you are the expert. Let’s bust those myths.
Laura Cohen Romano: Yeah, well thank you first for that great question! You might have to stop me because I can get actually very passionate about myth-busting. The more popular mindfulness has gotten, the more myths there are. So although we’re all thrilled — those of us who’ve been in this for a long time — we’re thrilled that it’s gotten so popular, but the myths can drive us a little bit crazy.
I would say the first one I’ll talk about is that mindfulness is the same thing as relaxation, because I think that’s a little part of what gets in people’s way. They’re trying to relax. They sit down. They start a, maybe, meditation. I’ll talk in a moment there are other forms of mindfulness practice. And then, you know, their minds are driving them crazy so they feel like they can’t do this because they’re not feeling relaxed and blissed out after a few minutes. So the good news here, I think, is that there is no goal to relax. So that means if you’re not feeling relaxed, you’re not doing it wrong. That wasn’t the goal to begin with! And it is a little paradoxical because if you practice mindfulness over time, you will very likely have more times of feeling relaxed in your life. But when you actually sit to do the practice of mindfulness, you have to put goal that aside and just be with whatever is here, moment to moment to moment.
So I’m thinking of an example we all probably know. At 3:00 in the morning, you’re trying to fall asleep, but you’ve just woken up and your mind is racing about something and you can’t get back to sleep. And the harder you try to fall back to sleep, the more sleep is going to not be there for you. So this is very similar. If you try, start trying to relax, then that is not going to be what happens, and it’s not the point. The point is to learn how to be in a new way with whatever it is that’s here, even if what’s here might be some worry or fear or physical pain.
Jamie DePolo: I don’t mean to interrupt, but I have to ask. So there’s really not, well, there’s a goal, but the goal is really to just be with yourself and be with your feelings, your emotions. And I think that’s sometimes hard for people, especially in today’s society, it’s very goal-driven and focused and achievement and we have to do this and we do something because you want to get to a goal. You want to get to this thing at the end. And from what you’re saying, that’s not really what mindfulness is. You’re just being with yourself.
Laura Cohen Romano: Yes, exactly, and being with yourself as fully as possible. So, for example, if I’m feeling afraid about something. So fear is what’s here. Usually the feeling, the emotion, or just the thought associated with it, whatever I’m afraid about, kind of takes over and I’m not even in touch with what’s happening in my body in that moment. So if when fear is here, instead of trying to cover it up or pretend it’s not here “because I should be stronger than that,” you know, whatever, I just say, “Oh, fear is here. Let me look at that. What else? What is with that?”
Maybe I notice I’m contracting my stomach muscles, and I hadn’t even noticed I was doing that. So by noticing what’s here, that opens up a moment of choice, right? If I didn’t notice I was tightening them then I can’t let go a little bit. Now that I see it, oh, I can actually relax my stomach muscles a little — even though fear is here, I can still make a choice to relax the stomach muscles. Well, first of all, that might help any stomach thing that’s happening along with the fear, either just short-term or even longer term if I had stomach issues, by starting to notice it. Also, sometimes by just making that little shift with the body, I’ll find that something shifts in the thoughts or in the emotions as well, and maybe it lessens a little bit. Maybe not, and if not that’s okay, too.
But we just continue that exploration of being with all that’s here about it because you know what? We spend a lot of energy fighting it. Right? We try to fight things we don’t like. We push them away, we try to resist them. Listeners can’t see me right now, but I’m literally taking my hand and pushing away, because that’s kind of what we do in our bodies when we don’t like something. And that takes energy, and that’s energy that we could be spending on healing, right? If we just stop the struggle a little bit, put down the fight just a little bit, even, then that opens up energy that wasn’t available to us before.
Jamie DePolo: So I interrupted you. What are some other myths you’d like to bust about mindfulness?
Laura Cohen Romano: So one other myth is that you have to do everything super slowly [laughs], right? People have these images of, “Oh, my gosh, if I’m going to, for example, do mindful walking, I’m going to get maybe three steps per mile.” And it is true that in doing the practices we sometimes slow way down, because it helps us notice more. It helps us train the mind’s attention. So just like if we’re training our bodies to be stronger with strength training, it takes some training of our minds to be able to pay attention, to concentrate. So in some of the practices, we do things slowly, but we can bring a mindful awareness to anything at any pace.
So mindful eating is another example where people think, “Oh I don’t have time to eat mindfully. Oh my gosh, it would take me 2 hours to finish up the meal and I barely have 15 minutes.” And again, doing mindful eating slowly, when you have the time, can be a wonderful practice. And you can also bring some mindful awareness to just regular-paced eating. Noticing the smell, noticing the flavor and the taste. Noticing what the food looks like. Noticing everything there is to notice about it. So that’s another myth.
Another favorite of mine is that if you practice mindfulness you’re going to be some kind of a zombie, or — maybe that’s a little exaggeration — but you’re not going to care as much about things, right? Because you’re going to be so mellow that you’re not going to get angry when something really is wrong, like a social injustice issue or even something in your personal life, in order to take action to do something about it.
I find the complete opposite to be true. I find that for both myself and other people I’ve seen, that by practicing mindfulness, making those choices of when to take action and what action to take, just come from a more centered place and therefore end up being more effective. So the caring does not go away. My husband would actually be the first to tell you that you don’t become this calm, mellow person all the time, right? [laughs] If you were a passionate person before, you’re still going to be a passionate person. There’s just more choice available when you practice mindfulness about when to express, what to express, how to express, right? I think we all know that feeling of blurting out something we wish we didn’t, or pressing send on that email or that text. So with mindfulness practice comes more moments of actual conscious choice, of, eh, maybe this isn’t the right moment, or not quite how I want to say it.
Jamie DePolo: Now, I actually have a question, because I think this is a myth that a couple folks have asked me about, that if you do mindfulness meditation you have to sit in a darkened room by yourself in the lotus position on the floor and stare at the wall. I, myself, believe that’s a myth — and I’ll let you explain further — because I find my best mindfulness comes when I’m walking my dog, as I’m just in the moment. I’m looking at all the things going on around us outside. I’m noticing my dog and what she’s interested in, so to me, that’s my favorite way to do it.
Laura Cohen Romano: Yeah. I love that you’re asking that question. It certainly is a myth. First of all, this body sitting here has never been in a lotus position [laughs] and would not be able to get into a lotus position no matter how hard I tried. Look, for people who do that, that’s great. It’s absolutely not a requirement of mindfulness practice. And in fact, that itself is one of the myths, that mindfulness and meditation are synonymous, right? So again, mindfulness meditation is one form of practicing mindfulness, and it can be done just sitting on a chair. It can even be done lying in a bed or standing up, but that’s just one form. There’s hundreds of types of meditation, and mindfulness meditation is just one of those.
But right — there are so many other kinds of practice, and we like to talk about both formal practice and informal practice. So formal practice might be when you sit to do mindfulness meditation, or there are certain other types of, like, mindful walking meditation, mindful movement, like gentle yoga or just stretching, gentle stretching, but doing it mindfully with that full awareness. But those can be very formal practices that you decide every day I’m going to do this for 10 minutes or 20 minutes or whatever.
But what you described about walking your dog, which I love, that’s the informal mindfulness, and you can bring mindfulness to absolutely anything in your life. And that’s the whole point, right? Even if you choose to do meditation as your practice, you don’t meditate to become a great meditator. You meditate so that in your life, when a loved one is talking to you, there’s more of a chance that you’re going to be paying attention. Or you meditate so that when you have pain you don’t tighten and tense all around it, therefore making it worse. So there’s the original pain, but then there’s the extra that we put on it that can sometimes make it worse.
So even if we do meditation, we’re doing it so that mindfulness shows up in our life, as you described with your dog. And you can do that with anything. So walking the dog is one great example, and so is drinking a cup of tea or coffee. Or, in our classes, we sometimes invite people to mindfully brush their teeth — it’s something we’re doing anyway, right? So what would it be like to use it as a way to train our minds to pay attention, so really notice the flavor of the toothpaste and the temperature of the water and what the brush feels like against our gums?
And the practice then just becomes when we notice our mind has wandered off to the to-do list or to a difficult conversation we had yesterday with somebody, it’s not a problem that that…That’s just going to happen. It’s what our minds do, and we bring the attention back over and over again. So whether it’s to what you’re seeing as you’re walking the dog, or the sensation of that brush on the gum, or the flavor and the smell of that coffee or tea, or anything else that you do all day long, that’s mindfulness. That’s the whole point of any of the practices, is so that when we’re doing activities all day long in our lives, we start to bring a more mindful attention to them.
Jamie DePolo: That’s really wonderful. So if someone wanted to start putting more mindfulness in their lives but they’re worried they’re not doing it right or they’re not sure how to start, is that how you suggest that people maybe start, with things that they do every day? Like you said, brushing their teeth or having their coffee or tea in the morning, or something that’s there every day and you bring mindfulness to that little chunk to start with and then you kind of expand it out? What do you suggest?
Laura Cohen Romano: Yeah, you know, there are so many doors in, right? The one you described is one possibility. I would suggest rather than saying, “I’m just going to do this whenever,” you know, that can be a wonderful intention but it can also easily go out the window in the midst of our busy lives, where practicing this mindfulness thing has just become one more thing on the list. So what I suggest is rather than keeping it very vague, is pick one particular activity and say, “This week, I’m going to turn walking the dogs or drinking my cup of tea or brushing my teeth or taking my shower or brushing my hair into my mindfulness practice,” so that there’s a particular moment in your day that you’re aware you’ve made that choice. Mindfulness is a lot about setting an intention, it’s really setting an intention to pay attention. So that’s absolutely one way to get started.
Another way, if someone wants to take a little bit of a deeper dive, taking a class with a teacher can always be helpful so that when doubts and questions come up, of course, there’s someone there to guide you through those.
There are a lot of apps out there right now with all types of different guided practices. So apps are a whole other way to go. We have a whole list where we describe different apps and pros and cons. It’s very subjective, but a lot of people have said that they find that helpful. And you can set a timer, 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, sit down and just have the intention to be present to whatever is here. So first maybe just noticing what you’re seeing, what you’re hearing, maybe what you’re smelling, the sense of touch, your hands on your lap, your body in the chair, and then just notice. You know, watching thoughts come and go, not trying to… If there’s any intention, it’s watching it all, kind of like you’re watching a movie in a movie theater, right? Just watching whatever arises and being as non-reactive as possible. If you find yourself judging, then just noticing that, “Oops, judging,” it’s just something we all do, right? So, “Huh, judging.” And then come back to just the actual experience of whatever’s here.
Jamie DePolo: And is it something that people need to do every day, in your opinion?
Laura Cohen Romano: So, consistency is really helpful. And part of the reason for that is that when we’re practicing mindfulness, we’re actually, it turns out, again, studies show, we’re rewiring our brains. So we’re actually creating new neural firing patterns. You could do a whole separate podcast just on this — the brain science of mindfulness —so I’m not going to go too deeply into that. But we are rewiring our brains, because we’re, most of the time, really, on auto pilot. We go through so much of our day on auto pilot. And by paying attention to what’s here, we start to become really, really, intimately familiar with those auto pilots and, again, in a way that starts to open up a little bit more choice.
So in the breast cancer world, for example, I’ll often use the example, maybe start to, when we start to notice all these thoughts and feelings that just keep coming through, we start to really see if our auto pilot is to like push through, push through, no matter what’s going on, right? Go, go, go. And maybe by getting that familiar with, “Oh there that is again,” we start to see it’s just a neural firing pattern that’s developed for many years in our brain. “Maybe I have a choice to do this a little differently. Maybe today it would be a good idea to accept some help.” Or the opposite, someone who ought to slow down, or someone whose brain is more wired to just curl up in a ball, you know, and just stay by themselves and not make contact with anyone. So again, just by seeing that, seeing it can be helpful because it allows other choices to be made.
When we practice — coming back full circle to your original question — when we practice daily — or close to it, everyone’s going to miss a day here and there — but when we practice regularly and consistently, that’s when we start to develop the new brain patterns. We see the old ones more clearly and new ones start to develop. So I actually say I think it’s better to have a practice of doing mindfulness 5 or 10 minutes a day every day, or as many days as possible, than just once a week and sit there for 40 minutes. I think the consistency is what’s going to have the biggest payoffs.
Jamie DePolo: If I remember correctly, studies have shown, research has shown, that as you said, just 5 minutes a day can really help people whether it’s with pain, or stress, or anxiety, it just, like you said, it rewires the brain and allows you to feel things a little bit differently.
Laura Cohen Romano: You know what, this is something where it builds on itself, because you have a few minutes of something feeling a little bit different. When you stop and really pay attention, you start to notice some new things. You start to want a little more of it. So then because you did it 10 minutes this morning, later in the day and maybe in a moment of difficulty, you find yourself pausing and taking a breath and really looking at it rather than zooming on through, which tends to come out sideways later.
Jamie DePolo: So we’ve talked a lot about what it is, how to do it. To help listeners sort of experience that, could you lead us through a short, guided meditation that we can all do together?
Laura Cohen Romano: Sure, I would be happy to do that… taking what, about 5 minutes or so?
Jamie DePolo: Sure!
Laura Cohen Romano: Okay. So I would invite everybody listening to come into a comfortable, seated position. And if sitting up doesn’t work for you, you can do this lying down on your back as well. Maybe if your back has some tightness, with the knees bent and the soles of the feet on the floor. And if you’re sitting, having the feet on the floor and taking a moment to really feel yourself sitting, right? Most of the time we’re sitting but not with awareness. So bringing awareness to where the body and the chair make contact with each other. Feeling the backs of legs against the chair, and the buttocks against the chair. Maybe parts of the hips or back. And as much as possible really feeling yourself supported by the chair underneath you.
And then taking a moment to notice whether there are any muscles anywhere in the body working harder than they need to be for what this moment requires. So maybe checking in with some places where many of us habitually hold a little extra tightness — the jaw, the shoulders — and if finding this to be the case for you, seeing if even the slightest bit of release might be possible. The belly, especially for we women, sometimes we’re holding our bellies in without even realizing it. Just in this moment, noticing how it is.
And then bringing a sense of awareness to the entirety of your body sitting here in the chair. So maybe imagining an outline of your body in your mind’s eye. And by the way, your eyes can be either closed — many people prefer — or open, with a soft downward gaze. Maybe even picturing your body sitting here in the chair as if from a couple feet away, or sensing it as if from a couple feet away. Sitting with some sense of alertness. Some meditation teachers say “sitting like royalty.” And it really can create a shift just to take that posture, and yet being relaxed, letting the shoulders be relaxed.
And as you’re ready, bringing the attention without needing to change anything, to the physical sensation of breathing in and out, wherever right now it’s easiest to feel it. As much as possible, letting go of any thoughts about where you should feel the breath or where you usually can feel the breath and really noticing where right now is the breath most easily felt. Is it a little air at the nostrils, or is it the chest expanding and contracting, or the abdomen rising and falling. So not so much thinking about the breath, but really feeling the sensation of it.
And if your mind happens to be very busy with thoughts right now, or it just feels a little difficult to feel the breath, placing one hand on the abdomen or even both hands can be helpful to just really touch into that feeling of the body rising and falling a bit with the breath. And you will likely notice that the mind has a very natural tendency to be pulled away from the breath, whether to a thought or a sound or a bodily sensation. So not a problem at all. No need to push it away. Simply noticing where the mind’s attention went. Maybe giving it a one- or two-word name like planning, daydreaming, rehashing, itch, sound, whatever it might be. And then once having given it a word, coming back again to the physical sensation of breathing in and breathing out. Allowing sounds and thoughts and body sensations all to come and go, just letting them be in the background. But the primary focus right now is on breathing in and breathing out. Knowing that it doesn’t matter if you need to bring the attention back to the breath 50 times or 100 times. You’re not doing it wrong, that’s just part of the practice.
And now expanding the attention to include a sense of the entire body sitting in the chair once again, feeling those places where your body and the chair make contact with each other. Feeling the feet on the floor. Maybe wiggling the hands and feet just a little bit, bring a little movement to the body after relative stillness. And if your eyes have been closed allowing them to open. If you just had a soft downward gaze, then expanding the gaze.
So that, hopefully, gave listeners a taste.
Jamie DePolo: I think so. We all did it, and we all did it correctly. No one did it incorrectly, and we got an idea of how calming, or perhaps not calming because there’s really no goal, but what we might feel when we’re practicing mindfulness.
Laura Cohen Romano: Yeah, and I’ll say one other thing. Some people might have a lot of trouble with the breath, and then sometimes even if we don’t have trouble with the breath, like we might have a bad cold and that day the breath feels like the very last thing we want to put our attention on. So it doesn’t have to be the breath. There’s nothing magic about it. We use it, it’s available to all of us 24/7, it’s free, etc. It’s often a wonderful practice. It can be… One of the things I love to use sometimes is sound. Just sitting and receiving sound and separating out thoughts about sound, right, putting aside what the sound is, “I like the sound, I don’t like the sound.” Just noticing all that. It will happen, but just noticing all that is thinking, and coming back to receiving just the sounds themselves, the tone, the pitch, the volume, the coming and going. And that can be quite lovely. I’ve had times where I hear cars outside on the street where I live and it sounds like the ocean, because I’m not naming them cars, traffic, right? I’m just hearing sounds. You can really pick anything as your central focus to come back to, it doesn’t have to be your breath.
Jamie DePolo: Oh, okay. Laura, thank you so much. I think this will be really helpful to a lot of people, and I know that on your website at Einstein, which we will be so happy to link to, you have a lot of resources available, too, if anyone wants more information. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Laura Cohen Romano: Oh, thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.