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Recently I was fishing in the White Mountains of northeastern Arizona with my husband, Carl. I leaned against the bench on the lake dock breathing deeply and quietly drinking the last sips of my coffee, as Carl prepared my fishing pole. I am spoiled that way. The smell of the coffee mixed with the smell of the garlic power bait on my fingertips created quite an unusual aroma.
I cast my pole like a dancer doing a glissade. Plop. The sun peered from the clouds that joined me in dancing through the sky. It was a particularly windy day and the howling of the wind mingled with the chirping of the birds and the rustling of the leaves. Every once in a while I would hear a quack as a family of ducks swam under the dock avoiding my line.
A blanket of swallows dove into the lake gobbling up insects. I heard the honking of barnyard geese and glanced up. A perfectly formed “V” darted trough the air. And then an osprey hovered over the water, spreading his talons open, and snatching a trout. I believe he stole MY fish, since I didn’t even get a nibble that day, but I did not care at all. I was fishing for mindfulness.
I am a cancer patient. I am in clinical complete remission, but I am not cured. Four times a year I fly from Arizona to the East Coast to pick up my drug that was experimental, but is now FDA approved. This keeps the cancer at bay.
Mindful meditation has helped me to keep my sanity. It has helped me to be grateful for every day. It has helped me find peace and love in the chaos of a cancer diagnosis.
Mindfulness is a special awareness and art of being still. My father, who was Japanese, encouraged the ancient technique of passing thoughts clearly through the mind through meditation.
Meditation (dhyana) is a specific scientific technique of clearing and quieting the mind, focusing inward, and arriving at a place of inner consciousness different from the normal waking state. The purpose is to experience peace and gratitude. Our mind is often wild and uncontrollable. Negative self-talk often causes anxiety and self-doubt. Meditation is a way I use to calm myself emotionally and physically. Meditation rewires your brain to be more positive.
It begins with the body. Sit in a comfortable posture in a quiet place. Close your eyes and straighten your back. Relax all muscles except the head, neck and back. Inhale through your nose sticking out your belly using your diaphragm. Breathe out slowly through your mouth. Focus on the sound that your breathing makes, a short prayer, a word or phrase. Repeat it as you inhale or exhale.
Let go of the tension. Don’t let your mind wander. If it does, take a deep breath and say to yourself, “thinking, thinking’’ and refocus.
Begin by practicing five minutes. Then 10 minutes. You will be surprised how even 10 minutes a day can help you relax and be calm. Twenty minutes of mindful meditation is ideal. Be patient. It takes time to learn.
Scientific research has backed up the findings of the good health benefits of mindful meditation. Practicing the art of being still and focusing on the here and now has been proven to:
• Help with your psychological well being
• Reduce psychological stress and pain
• Improve your sleep.
Help with your well being
A couple years ago, Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, examined the benefits of mindful meditation using brain scans.1 Because of her running injuries during the training for the Boston marathon; she began to do stretching exercises through yoga as a form of physical therapy. Lazar was very skeptical of the claims made by her yoga instructor about how yoga “increases your compassion and opens your heart.” Since mindful meditation is an important part of yoga, Lazar decided to compare participants who practiced mindful meditation to a control group of those who did not.
The results of her scientific studies using brain scans concluded that people who meditate have enhanced senses. The gray matter in the insula, sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex of the brain are increased, as is the gray matter in the area of the brain (frontal cortex) which directly affects executive decision making and working memory.
Reduce psychological stress and pain
Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland identified 47 well-designed scientific trials with 3,515 participants that addressed the role of mindful meditation in easing mental stress, such as anxiety, depression and pain. Their findings, published in JAMA Internal Medicine2 found that mindful meditation programs had moderate evidence of improved anxiety, depression, and pain.
Improve your sleep
A randomized clinical trial3 was conducted at the University of California, Los Angeles from January 1 to December 31, 2012 using 49 adult participants with the mean age of 66.3 years, who had trouble sleeping. Half of the adult participants completed a mindfulness awareness program. The other arm of the study completed a sleep education class on improving sleep habits. The researchers were aware that sleep disorders are often connected to stress.
The results showed significant improvement on insomnia and depression symptoms, as well as validated measures of fatigue severity and interference in the mindfulness awareness program arm.
A relaxation response through mindful meditation shifts the body into the opposite of the stress response. For 10 to 20 minutes a day mindful meditation can improve your psychological well being, reduce psychological stress and pain, and improve your sleep. And it does not cost you anything.
Love & Gratitude,
Dr. La Verne
1Schulte, B. (2015, May 26). Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain. The Washington Post. Retrieved from
2Goyal, M. et al (2014). Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine; 174(3):357-368. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018.
3 Black, D. et al (2015). Mindful Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults with Sleep Disturbances: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Internal Medicine;175(4):494-501. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.8081
Dr. La Verne Abe Harris was a tenured Associate Professor at Purdue University in Computer Graphics Technology and the director of the Idea Laboratory, a creative thinking, interactive media, and animation research and development laboratory. Prior to that she was an Assistant Professor at Arizona State University (ASU). She received her PhD from the University of Arizona and her Master’s and bachelor’s degrees from ASU.
Before coming to ASU, Dr. Harris was the owner and creative director of Harris Studio, the art director of The Phoenix Gazette, the computer graphics production manager of Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., an editorial illustrator for the Arizona Republic, and the art director of an advertising agency.
That was B.C. – before cancer. She left Purdue University at the height of her career when she was diagnosed with a very poor prognosis of CLL: 17p deletion, TP53 mutation. She was the recipient of the ugly side of a common cancer. Diagnosed in 2009 she was chemo-resistant, had less than a 1% chance for a bone donor match, and could not find a clinical trial in which she qualified at that time. She is alive today because of an experimental drug (PCI-32765, scientifically known as ibrutinib, and branded as IMBRUVICA) that is now FDA-approved.
Today she is a cancer survivor, artist, patient advocate, political activist, blogger (www.DrLaVerne.blogspot.com), and occasionally a stand-up comedian for cancer patients.
In January 2018 she will officially be a Clinical Professor at Arizona State University (ASU). And life goes on…
Originally published in The CLL Tribune Q4 2017.