When Sylvia Tate, a stressed-out 39-year-old physical therapist, consulted her doctor about her dangerously elevated blood pressure, she was surprised when he didn’t prescribe medication first. Instead, in addition to regular medical therapies, her doctor recommended a combination of meditation and breathing techniques designed to encourage one simple thing: mindfulness. Within just two weeks of incorporating these exercises into her daily routine, Tate’s blood pressure returned to normal, and she could better handle her work-related stress.

High blood pressure isn’t the only condition for which Tate’s doctor, Jay Winner, MD, of Santa Barbara, California, prescribes mindfulness techniques. Heart disease, fibromyalgia, eczema, acid reflux, insomnia, and irritable bowel syndrome are among myriad conditions that mindfulness can help treat, according to Winner, author of Stress Management Made Simple (Blue Fountain, 2003). “Almost every physical ailment is made worse by stress, whether or not stress is at the root of the problem,” says Winner. “And being mindful is one of the most powerful stress-management techniques.”

In Chinese, the character for mindfulness is a combination of the characters for “now” and “mind” or “heart.” With roots in the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness means bringing attention back to the present moment—to the meal, the child, or even the traffic jam in front of you—without judgment. Without mindfulness, “life becomes less satisfying,” says Victoria Moran, a New York City–based life coach and author of Younger by the Day (HarperCollins, 2004). “Relationships become sour. We have a lot of acquaintances but few friends. Food doesn’t taste as good. There’s a longing for what’s not there. But what’s not there is you.”

Although mindfulness is a Buddhist concept, other religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, also promote developing centered awareness during prayer. The Bible’s Psalm 46, for example, reads, “Be still and know that I am God.” But mindfulness isn’t just for those who belong to a particular faith; everyone can benefit, says psychotherapist and longtime New York City–based Zen practitioner Brenda Shoshanna, PhD, author of Zen Miracles (Wiley, 2002). Shoshanna helps her patients integrate Zen principles, including mindfulness, into their everyday lives. “When you’re in present-moment awareness, life changes dramatically,” she says. “You see the fullness of what is, not what is lacking.”

Today, more than 200 U.S. hospitals use mindfulness training to promote healing. At the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester, founded by mind-body pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn, more than 13,000 people have attended workshops in mindfulness training since they began 25 years ago. In a recent study modeled on the workshops, subjects who completed the eight-week program had significantly better immune responses to influenza and showed an increase in brain activity associated with positive moods (Psychosomatic Medicine, 2003, vol. 65, no. 4). Those with chronic pain, anxiety disorders, and breast cancer also have shown notable pain and stress reduction after receiving mindfulness meditation training (Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 1985, vol. 8, no. 2; American Journal of Psychiatry, 1992, vol. 149; Families, Systems & Health, 2004, vol. 22, no. 2).

Cultivating mindfulness isn’t always easy. Our “monkey minds,” as Buddhists call them, are in constant motion—stuck in stale patterns of dreaming, scheming, or fretting. Our fast-paced, multitasking age drives us to distraction and ill health, but as Tate (who asked that we not use her real name) learned, some simple things can bring us back to the present moment.

Meditate regularly
It may seem daunting, but a daily meditation session—being still and watching your breath, becoming aware of the mind and body, or reciting a prayer or mantra—is the cornerstone of any mindfulness training, says Shoshanna. “Many people think that zazen [sitting meditation] is about zoning out,” she says, “but it’s really about zoning in. What you’re doing is learning to make friends with yourself, to live in your own center, your own heart.”

The result is that you’re calmer, clearer, more focused in your life, and more available to others, she says. “When you get off the [meditation] cushion, you take that mindfulness with you, and the day takes on a different quality.”

Winner, whose stress-management program includes regular meditation, suggests practicing for at least ten minutes every day and viewing your session as “a reward, not a chore.” For those who are new to meditation, Shoshanna recommends formal instruction and finding a meditation group or friend to support your practice. Whatever your approach, it’s the regularity that counts, says Moran. “It’s like lifting weights—you have to do it more than once to get results.”

Practice nonjudgment
Another key to mindfulness is the practice of nonjudgment, which means allowing moments to arise as they are, without adding thoughts about them to the experience. “A big part of stress is wishing that the present moment were different,” says Winner. “During peak experiences—the moments we seem to be most happy and alive, such as walking on the beach with a loved one, enjoying a sunset—we’re not thinking, ‘Oh, I wish there was a little more pink in that corner.’”

In more difficult circumstances, Winner explains, it’s often the thoughts or judgments about the situation—not the situation itself—that makes us unhappy. “It’s not that we shouldn’t have thoughts, or that we should be happy all the time,” he says, “but resisting life creates a lot of stress.”

Breathe
The Greek word for breath, pneuma, also means “spirit.” Breathing mindfully—paying attention to the most basic of the body’s activities—is a simple way to cultivate mindfulness, and it can be done at any time, anywhere. “Particularly when you feel stressed out and your mind is wandering, pay attention to the way the breath feels in the nostrils, the lungs, the abdomen,” says Winner, who emphasizes deep, diaphragmatic breathing in his stress-reduction program.

Cultivate body awareness
Any physical sensation—butterflies in the stomach, a tiny itch on the end of your nose, your face flushed with joy—can be a ticket back to the present moment, as long as you feel the sensations fully, says Winner. This is especially important to remember when you’re feeling uncomfortable, he says. “Notice where you become tense—often the shoulders, neck, or lower back—and consciously relax those places.” Resisting unpleasant sensations can often make them worse, he explains. Instead, by relaxing into the feeling, states like anxiety may actually be transformed into excitement, Winner suggests. For example, by not resisting stage fright, performers can channel nervous energy into a dynamic, positive experience.

Enjoy what you eat
“Pay attention to what you’re eating, to every step of the process,” says Moran. “No scarfing down lunch, no eating in the car, no working at your desk while you eat.” The benefits are doubled—not only are you training yourself to be mindful and truly enjoying the feel and taste of food, you are better able to digest and know when you are full. Mindfulness might even be beneficial in weight management, Moran says, because it is easy to overeat when you’re not paying attention. Plus, when you eat mindfully, you are more likely to chew well and digest your food properly, leading to a feeling of satisfaction after the meal.

Give attention to others
In the teachings of the Buddha, the practices of “right mindfulness” include giving your full attention to others. “When someone says, ‘Have a minute?’ give them that minute—or five,” says Moran. Resist the temptation to jump in with your own experiences, she advises, and look into their eyes and reflect back what you hear them saying. “Let the phone ring and go unanswered. Let the interruption go because, at this moment, you are completely focused on this person,” she says, and know that “there is nothing more delicious than feeling that someone is truly paying attention to you.” Your friend won’t be the only person who benefits; focusing allows your mind and body to relax, too.

Devote yourself to the task
“Whatever comes up,” says Moran, “do it with complete devotion.” This is an especially helpful technique at work or with household chores, she suggests, because we judge so many responsibilities as unpleasant, or they simply become meaningless. When you’re focused, “there’s no room for judgment,” she says.

“Take charge of your focus,” encourages Shoshanna. “When you wash the dishes, pay total attention to what you’re doing and fully complete the task.”

You can only remember and learn from the experiences you are truly present for, reminds Moran. “The saddest part of never learning to be mindful,” she says, “is that you live only a portion of your life. Being mindful means getting 100 percent of life.”

Radha Marcum is associate editor of Delicious Living.