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The ‘pandemic within a pandemic’ of COVID-19 and systemic racism has everyone’s emotions rightfully on edge. Mindfulness meditation can help. This is the first article in a series on mindfulness meditation.

By Mario Cosentino

Photo courtesy of Pexels

Setting aside 10 minutes of your day could improve your mental health and better prepare you for crisis-like situations.

This is according to Dr. Richard King, founder of Mindful Pittsburgh. “Mindfulness,” as he calls it, has no set definition, but in simple terms it can be described as putting your attention in the present moment.

“What it does is really trains you to be aware of your thoughts, your body sensations, your emotions. It really reveals what’s going on with you in the present moment,” King said.

King, who studied psychology and psychophysiology at the University of Pittsburgh became interested in mindfulness after reading a book titled “Anger” by his favorite poet, Thich Nhat Hanh. At the time, he had made a habit of “barking” at his kids and he was looking for a way to control this anger. The solution he found was mindfulness.

King has since found many practical uses for mindfulness and has even used it to teach crisis intervention for the Pittsburgh Police. He is currently working on a project with UPMC to teach physicians about mindfulness.

“Everybody is familiar with fight or flight. Mindfulness meditation is the exact opposite of the fight or flight response,” King said. “When I teach first responders, my primary interest is in teaching them to turn off their stress response.”

King explains that the more you practice bringing your attention to your breathing, the more you strengthen your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for increasing digestive juices and slowing the heart rate. This is what allows mindfulness to be effective in crisis situations. This kind of relaxation response is like a muscle: it gets stronger the more you practice mindfulness.

In order to achieve this relaxation response, King explains that there are two ingredients needed.

“You need a mental device and you need a passive attitude. Mindfulness gives you the mental device; the attention on sensation, a passive attitude, and if you just sit and pay attention to your breath, then it activates this relaxation response.”

Through Mindful Pittsburgh, King teaches eight-week workshops on mindfulness periodically throughout the year. To supplement these workshops, King offers mindfulness meditation sessions every Tuesday. These sessions were held in person at the Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church on the Northside, but when the COVID-19 crisis began, they were moved to the online video conferencing platform Zoom.

King says that there are many differences between the online and in-person programs, but the overall structure is the same. Each meeting starts with introductions and a gratitude practice where every participant is encouraged to journal and share three things they are thankful for.

This is followed by a “weather report.” Just as someone may look out the window to see what the weather is, King wants people to gauge their internal climate. This can often be summed up in one word, such as: peaceful, excited, or anxious.

The meeting then closes with a blessing for the upcoming week. Participants are encouraged but not required to share a blessing with the group.

“Those blessings are usually informed by the 50 minutes we just spent together.  [It’s] sort of sharing what our worries might be,” King said.

Social distancing is a great chance for people to start practicing mindfulness. People who were too busy or not able to make the in-person sessions can now join them from the comfort of their own homes. 

“Everyone right now, I think everyone has raw and on-edge emotion and mindfulness really helps soften and gentle and warm our emotions up,” King said.

King went on to say that it only takes 10 minutes a day to remove stress chemicals from your bloodstream and to see the benefits of mindfulness. He believes that it’s a basic life skill that everyone should learn.

“I honestly think it’s more important than reading, writing, and arithmetic: this ability to bring yourself into calm and to have a good relationship within yourself, healing when you’re upset, but also with other people.”

King just launched a new workshop series on May 30 and also pointed out that the meditation meetings will continue to take place on Zoom at noon on Tuesdays. Information on both the workshop and the meditation meetings can be found at mindfulpgh.org. Click below to view or download an introductory article .pdf by Dr. King on mindfulness meditation.

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