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Posted March 15, 2023 by Shannon Speaks, MSSA, LISW-S
Listen to this episode of the Healthy Vitals Podcast.
In this episode, Certified Mindfulness Teacher and Life Coach Shannon Speaks leads a discussion focusing on the practice of mindfulness, and the many health benefits of this practice.
Scott Webb: You may have heard the term mindfulness and wondered what does that mean exactly, and me too, honestly. And I'm pleased to be joined today by Shannon Speaks. She's a certified mindfulness teacher and certified life coach, and she's here today to explain mindfulness, meditation and to help us understand the value of being present both physically and mentally.
This is Healthy Vitals, the podcast from Summa Health. I'm Scott Webb. So Shannon, thanks so much for joining me today. We're going to talk about mindfulness and meditation and all sorts of good stuff today. But before we get there, maybe just tell listeners a little bit about yourself, how you do what you do, what your approach to all of this is, and maybe what your goals are for the podcast.
Shannon Speaks: Thanks, Scott. It's a real delight to be sharing and learning about mindfulness together today. Yeah, so I'm Shannon Speaks and I'm a social worker, a certified mindfulness teacher and certified life coach. And with Summa Health, I've had the wonderful privilege of recently pivoting my role from outpatient oncology work with patients and families to serving our very dedicated, hardworking employees, and supporting them with mindfulness.
Scott Webb: Yeah. And you know, there are some buzzwords, Shannon, in the media and social media and everywhere else. Mindfulness comes up a lot, you know? And I think a lot of us, including myself, I think we think we know, "Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I get that, being sort of present and mindful of things." But I'm sure there's a little bit more to it. So, it's great to have your expertise. And let's just start here. What exactly is mindfulness?
Shannon Speaks: I love that you said expertise because that very word had me thinking last night like, "Oh, no. How could I possibly be an expert in this?" So, I wonder if I might even, before we officially begin, kind of embody a mindful approach to this conversation with you. And if it's okay with you to even begin by grounding this with my intentions for the conversation and maybe even a few mindful breaths. How do you feel about that?
Scott Webb: That sounds great. Breathing is good. My watch is always reminding me to breathe and a lot of times I ignore the watch, but I probably shouldn't.
Shannon Speaks: Yes. We'd be like, "I don't have time for that watch."
Scott Webb: Not now, watch. I don't have time to breathe.
Shannon Speaks: I'm too busy.
Scott Webb: But Shannon, we do have time to breathe here today. So, I'll let you do your thing.
Shannon Speaks: Wonderful. Yeah. So just a great grounding practice that can bring us all to the present moment is just to examine our intentions. And so, I just wanted to share with you and with the listeners how it's my intention for this conversation to hold myself this topic and every listener with kindness and compassion and curiosity today, and I'm letting go of any expectation that I have all the right answers or that I'm some sort of expert in all the ways of mindfulness and meditation, and I'm just also so grateful for the opportunity to explore this dynamic and meaningful way of being in relationship with the present moment, which is one way to look at mindfulness.
And so, another way is to kind of land also in the body. And so, thanks for giving me a chance to settle and maybe it's an invitation to anybody listening because I know I feel a little nervous this morning. So, just on purpose, even just three breaths in a row, and to go ahead and notice the fact that we're breathing, and maybe even follow a breath from the beginning and where the exchange happens, between the in and the out, and then an easy exhale.
Scott Webb: I exhaled, Shannon, and I just did it off mic.
Shannon Speaks: Ah, yes.
Scott Webb: I just moved away from the mic, but I was breathing along with you for sure.
Shannon Speaks: Thank you. It makes such a difference. And it's a beautiful thing too, when you can practice something like that together. So, thanks for giving me that opportunity.
Scott Webb: Yeah, definitely. And this is going to be a fun conversation. So, let's talk about that. When we think about mindfulness and meditation, maybe you can sort of define each one for us and maybe give us a sense, like do you think of those as the same thing? Are they synonymous with each other or are they really different things?
Shannon Speaks: That's a great question. And you know, defining something as big as mindfulness can be really hard. I'm going to borrow from Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn who took this what's rooted in Eastern practices and brought it over here to the west and even brought it into hospital systems. So, it's so fun to be talking about this in relationship with Summa Health.
But here's how he defines mindfulness. Okay, so if we just defined it in one word, we would say that mindfulness is awareness, just awareness, but it's a special kind of awareness that arises when we do the following things, okay? So when we pay attention on purpose in the present moment, non-judgmentally, and all of those things are super easy to say and not so easy to do. For example, paying attention, Scott, I don't know if you've ever experienced this or any of the listeners, have you ever been driving somewhere and you arrive at your destination, you put your car in park, and suddenly you wake up? You're like, "What in the world? How did I even..." You don't even remember driving there. Has that ever happened to you?
Scott Webb: "How did I get here?" Yeah, I have had that experience. I'm like, "Wait, where am I? Why am I at Target? Why did I come here? Am I shopping?"
Shannon Speaks: Yes, exactly. And you just sort of wake up and, you know, there was this whole journey between when you left and when you got there. And you got lost along the way and we're really accustomed to paying just enough attention to get where we're going, but we tend to lose track of everything that happens in between. And so, that's the paying attention on purpose part.
And then, there's the present moment part. I mean, how often have you ever been in a conversation, maybe even this conversation right now, where you're time traveling at the same time and you're thinking about, "Oh, I forgot to do that thing. I meant to do this thing from the past," or the thing that's on your plate next. It's like, "Okay, I better make sure I do that all at the same time." And so when we can pause the time travel and really land right here on purpose in this moment, this one, the one you and I and the listeners are in right now, it's really something else.
And then also, the last one of judgment, non-judgment. It's really just acknowledging that we are judging people. It happens all the time. It's not just like when we think," Ooh, that's bad." Judging is also when we think, "Hmm, that's good." So, when we're bringing mindful attention to the judging mind, it simply means we notice the judge and we try not to judge the judge.
Scott Webb: "Wait, judging? Wait, I'm judging. Should I be judging? Is this positive or negative judging?" Totally. You know, I was thinking, talking about Target, you know, and one of the things that I do is I sort of peek into other people's carts. And I think, "Ooh, that looks good. You know, salmon, that's a good idea for dinner tonight."
Shannon Speaks: Right. Yes, I know it's easy to do, that's for sure. We're always sort of looking over our shoulder. And so when we notice we're doing that, that's like comparison. Anytime we notice we're doing a comparison like, "Oh, I'm comparing. Okay. What's here?" And there's so much there. There's so much there. There's so much in the moment that we can explore with curiosity and kindness.
You had brought up the difference between mindfulness and meditation, and such a great question. As a matter of fact, I'm currently in a course, I love taking courses and I'm in one right now with Dr. Christopher Willard, who is many things, one of which is a professor at Harvard Medical School and he's teaching a course on Growing Up Mindful, is what it's called. And it's specifically to help us share mindfulness with children and teenagers. And that's a new skillset for me. So, it's been really great, and I'm newly in the class.
And so when I thought about this question, I actually reached back out to the class last night because I went in a rabbit hole of like, "Oh, my gosh, what's the real answer here?" And how can I share this with the listeners? Because it's such a great question. And I got some good feedback. For example, the teacher, Dr. Willard himself, let me know that one of the way he sees how we might differentiate meditation and mindfulness is that you might think about meditation as you would just exercise in general. And that when you think about exercise, there are many types of exercises you could do. You could do yoga, you could do weightlifting, you could do running and all the things. And so, mindfulness is truly a type and/or form of meditation. So, there's loads of similarities, but they don't always have to look the same. Because for some people when they hear meditation, they instantly think of a person sitting cross-legged on a cushion, you know, with incense burning. And that could very well be meditation for many people. But when it comes to practicing mindfulness, it doesn't always have to look like that.
And furthermore, one more thing is for when people are just sort of listening to this and trying to figure out what mindfulness is. For many, mindfulness is a way of being in your life in the world. And so if you think of meditation more as like a formal practice, mindfulness trains us to bring this present moment non-judgment awareness to our whole life. So, I don't know if that shines a light for you,
Scott Webb: Yeah, it does, because it feels like. We can be mindful anytime, any place, it can really sort of guide us in our journey through life, you know, in specific moments or just this sort of overarching sort of narrative to our lives. Whereas, as you say, for some, meditation is a sort of a formal thing where they have a blanket and some tea and some music. And yeah, my wife did a lot of that during COVID. She found meditation online and found different things on YouTube and things like that. So, she was always sort of snapping at me saying," Not now. I'm meditating." And I said, "Oh, I'm so sorry." But she's like, "I need my space. I need my meditation space, and I need you to stop talking to me."
Yeah, So I think I get it, and I'm sure listeners do. And it makes me wonder, Shannon, maybe you can give us some examples of some ways that mindfulness can really help someone. And you know, I just spoke with a heart doctor the other day. And in the course of talking about medications and therapies and things like that, towards the end, And he said, . You know, one of the best things that we can do for our hearts is just to breathe. And it was, a particular kind of breathing, resistance breathing. And I won't bore the listeners with all the details. But essentially, that's something that we could do. That's a real positive. So, I want to ask you, from your perspective, are there any medical benefits to practicing mindfulness?
Shannon Speaks: Yes, there are many, and it's a really great question. I'd love to first couch the fact that I will highlight those benefits. But I want to also take an approach to this particular question that embodies like all of us, all of humanity, because the truth is though, for many, mindfulness and meditation can bring about these beautiful benefits, there are also many people due to life circumstances and potential trauma that they've experienced, when they sit down or when they tune in, it can be very troubling and difficult. And so, it's really important that though I'll highlight these beautiful benefits, that it's not to say that this is the answer to all things for all people. Where in fact, we're all so unique and our life experiences are so different.
And so, the best test is for a person to just gently and carefully and kindly approach mindful practice or even meditation and determine what feels safe and comfortable and move along at a pace that works for them, knowing that they're always in choice. And so, I just wanted to mention that at the front.
But for those that it does feel safe and it works for them, I think of Dr. Dan Siegel, who Practices out of UCLA. And he also is in charge of the Mindsight Institute. And his research talks about how when our practice, our mindfulness practice, can be supported by three pillars, and I'll quickly describe those, that's when we get the amazing benefits that they've proven. And I'm dangling these six benefits out here still.
So, the three pillars that our practice can be supported by are focused attention, open awareness and kind intentions. So when our practice is held up by those things, we are more likely to get these research-based benefits, which are, number one, better brain integration. Like our brain works better when we practice mindfulness like this. We have reduced stress hormone. And these days that cortisol all of the hormones in our body that sends us sort of raging sometimes, mindful practice can kind of bring those down. Even for me this morning, as I was feeling nervous before our conversation, I was probably feeling hyped up inside my body. And so I did some practices, which . Has sort of helped settle my molecules a little bit. Also, our immune function is improved. And these days, who doesn't need a better immunity than now? So, it helps with that. And I'm so glad you mentioned heart health because it turns out that practicing mindfulness can improve our risk factors related to cardiovascular issues also.
And I've got two more, reducing inflammation. And many times a lot of the diseases that we deal with are exacerbated by inflammation in the body. And so, we can actually reduce inflammation when we practice mindfulness. And I think about this one, not just on the inside, but on the outside, if you think about how inflammatory we tend to get in our behavior lately. And so when we can practice mindfulness, we calm down some of those reactionary responses that we have after something has happened in our life.
And then, the last one has to do with genetics, and I always struggle over pronouncing this word, but it helps us optimize our telomerase. I I could be saying it wrong, but it's a gene associated with aging. And so, it helps optimize that too. I wish I could unpack that further, but that's way outside of my scope. But those are some of the amazing, medical-proven, science-based benefits to practicing mindfulness.
Scott Webb: That's awesome. One of the times, Shannon, in life that I try to practice mindfulness is when I watch my daughter, she plays varsity basketball. And when I watch the referees, and I'm not a fan of their work, I'm not a fan of their calls, I try to just close my eyes, take a deep breath, remind myself that it's just a high school basketball game, win or lose. And that getting inflamed, as you say, getting upset with them, yelling at them is not going to change anything and it's just going to ruin the whole experience for me and potentially my daughter if she can hear me.
So, you know, it's one of those things, because I was going to ask you about sort of where and how often we should practice mindfulness. But I'm just thinking about my own life that I don't think to myself, "Oh, Scott, time to be mindful." But I know that I'm doing that, I know that I'm making time, even if it's just sort of subconsciously. I know I've heard mindfulness enough. I've spoken to enough people about this that I know I'm doing it even if I'm not consciously doing it. So, I think the question here is sort of, and we know that there's no judging involved here is, if we think about where and how often or sort of consciously or subconsciously we think about people, you know, practicing this in their everyday lives, what are your thoughts on that? Because I know for me, I don't think, "Oh, time to be mindful." And yet, I know that I'm doing that, and maybe that's been your experience too.
Shannon Speaks: Yeah, that's a great question. And actually, the best time to practice mindfulness is on purpose and carving out time if you can, when things are a little bit calmer. So, not necessarily when you're sitting in the bleachers at that basketball game, that's when you might go to a default mode sometimes. And so, the more you practice when things are a little calmer, the more likely when you're in those bleachers and the ref makes a call that you don't agree with, you might more easily reach for this thing that you're so well practiced at.
You know, I think about my son when he was little and when he would come home, we'd come in the house and he would automatically take his shoes off. It was just a habit. It was just a thing that he practiced over and over again. And then, I remember one time we went into a store. And going into the store, he just habitually took his shoes off. And so, I know he didn't even think about it, and that's the beauty of habits sometimes is that--
Scott Webb: I'm indoors. Time to take my shoes off, you know.
Shannon Speaks: You don't even have to think about it. It just happens automatically. But there are things in life that maybe you kind of want to bring in more automatically. And so, the automation of reaching for something supportive when you feel activated could be a beautiful practice. And so when we practice when things are calmer, then we can find it faster or we can, with a little more ease, reach for something that is more helpful. And so, that was one thing I wanted to mention. And then also, it's been proven that practicing mindfulness for just a little bit every day or when you can is actually better than like saying, "Okay. Well, this week I'm going to carve out a full hour of mindfulness on Saturday morning." Like more beneficial would be, "Okay. How about I just on purpose take a few minutes each day."
Scott Webb: Yeah. That's where I was referencing my watch earlier, you know, periodically through the day. And I think you're right, that if you make it sort of a task, like a job and you carve out, you know, a long period of time, most of us probably wouldn't get to it or we would cut it short and then we would feel bad about ourselves. But if we just, yeah, as you say, just a few minutes here, a few minutes there, it's all good stuff. And I've really enjoyed this conversation. It's been really lovely and fun and I think we need to wrap up for and be mindful, if you will, of listeners and their time, Shannon. So sort of as we do that and we wrap up here, are there any last thoughts that you'd like to leave listeners with as we wrap up? Do you want them to breathe some more or go back over mindfulness? This has just been such a helpful conversation, and I'm sure listeners are all, you know, nodding their heads in agreement, but I'll leave it to you.
Shannon Speaks: Well, I guess I would love to say a couple things. One is that there are, and I think you had asked this, and I don't know if I answered it, but there are some different types of mindfulness. If you're thinking to yourself, this sounds interesting, but what might it look like? And there are different ways I think about it, which is like you might have mindful awareness of your breath. You might have mindful awareness of the body, of your thoughts, of emotions, of activity, like mindful eating, mindful walking, mindful listening. Oh, that's a real gift when someone's actually mindfully listening to you. So, there are so many options as far as that goes.
And I wanted to say too how at Summa Health the employees are making the this a priority so that they might better serve themselves and our patients and community. And so, we're carving out time every month to gather together and to have a mindful moment, and that's in service to the employees and to those they serve. So, that's been a real treat.
And some just final thoughts would just be that if you're thinking about exploring this, I just would love you to know, the listener, that there's nothing to strive for, that as you are in this moment right now is already everything, and that you're already whole and you're already complete. And to quote Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, this is such a beautiful thing. He says how if you are breathing, there is more right with you than there is wrong with you, no matter what you think is wrong with you.
Scott Webb: I love it. I sort of drifted off there because I was just sort of closing my eyes and breathing and listening to you, and it was so peaceful and calm. And I'm doing it. I am right here. I am present. I am mindful. I am breathing. Such good stuff today. This is one of those conversations I feel we could go on for hours, but that would be tough on listeners.
Shannon Speaks: Absolutely.
Scott Webb: So Shannon, thank you so much for your time today, your thoughtfulness, your compassion, your expertise. Sorry, I feel like you are an expert, even if you maybe struggle with that concept. Hopefully, we'll speak again in the future. You stay well.
Shannon Speaks: Thank you, Scott, for the opportunity.
Scott Webb: And to learn more about restorative exercise and mindfulness resources, visit summahealth.org/integrativemedicine. And if you found this podcast to be helpful and informative, please share it on your social channels and be sure to check out the full podcast library for additional topics of interest. This is Healthy Vitals, a podcast from Summa Health. I'm Scott Webb. Stay well, and we'll talk again next time.