Sometimes, the stress of working as a nurse in the OB gets to Jill Kieffer, so she’ll steal away to a back room and close her eyes for a few minutes of meditation.
During that time, she can lower her blood pressure from 150/100 down to her normal range of 100/60, simply by focusing on her breathing and practicing awareness.
“It’s like giving yourself an Ativan,” she said.
She emerges focused and thinking clearly. “I’m calmer; that calms down my patient, that calms down the doctor I’m dealing with — everybody calms down.”
Kieffer has studied meditation since the 1970s, and was particularly drawn to a type of meditation, called mindfulness meditation, that was created some 36 years ago for use in a medical setting to ease symptoms in cardiac patients.
Simply put, stress is a killer, and meditation is its powerful antidote. Ample evidence backs up the efficacy of meditation in combating everything from chronic pain to insomnia to high blood pressure. Kieffer herself has seen people use mindfulness meditation to defeat chronic pain and get off blood pressure medicine.
She started it herself because it wasn’t a rigid format like other forms of meditation. “This one is do what you can, do a little bit every day.”
Her own job was stressful. “My stomach hurt. I didn’t like feeling anxious. I felt awful. It was like drinking 16 cups of coffee in a row.”
She was an ER nurse, then went to film school and worked in commercials, music videos and documentaries. She found the bigger the project, the bigger the stress. She went back to nursing and landed at Mid-Columbia Medical Center, which sent her off for training with the founder of mindfulness meditation, Jon Kabat-Zinn.
She’s been teaching mindful meditation for eight years now.
Mindfulness meditation — based on Buddhist principles — is used in all kinds of settings, from the United Nations to corporate boardrooms to kids in schools, she said.
Mindfulness is simply paying attention to what you’re doing in the moment in a particular way. “You’re not judging things as pleasant or unpleasant, as good or bad, or wanting more or wanting less,” she said.
All types of meditation have in common the notion of being in the moment and focusing on one thing to help keep you in the moment, such as breathing or looking at a flower.
“Anything can be meditating,” she said. “It can be crocheting, it can be walking, it can be making a strawberry rhubarb pie.”
Many of us live our lives on autopilot. “So we have all these reactions to things that happen in life and a lot of our reactions cause us stress, and that affects our health.
“Just about everything can be traced back to stress: heart problems, cancer, diabetes. So many things are not benefited by stress. So stress is a leading cause of disease.”
The University of Massachusetts, where mindfulness meditation was pioneered, has done studies that show meditation “boosts your immune system, brings your blood pressure down, calms an upset stomach.”
Mindfulness meditation is not about turning off the mind, “it’s about noticing what your mind does,” she said. It’s becoming aware of the stress “toggle switch,” and choosing not to activate it.
“Every time you become aware of what you’re doing as you’re doing it, you’re not in stress mode, you’re in relaxation mode. There’s a whole different chemical response in your body. It shuts off the adrenaline. ‘We don’t need to be jacked up here, let’s turn off the adrenaline drip and mellow.’”
“The biggest thing is you don’t have to shut off your mind. It’s not about stopping your mind for doing its beautiful thinking and wandering, it’s just noticing that that’s what our minds do, and getting back to what you were doing.”
Mindfulness meditation starts with becoming aware of breathing and then moves on to awareness of sounds and sensations of the body.
Meditation is free, she said, all it costs is your time. “You don’t have to belong to a fancy club or wear spandex,” she said.
Being mindful means catching yourself when you’re slipping into autopilot, or worrying about the future, or ruminating about the past, and bringing yourself back into the moment.
Time crunch is the biggest complaint she hears. “We have tight schedules and tight clothes, and we’re not breathing properly,” she said.
Multi-tasking is something that “puts your brain in distress mode. It’s thinking about one thing and then the next and then the next and then the next.” The brain’s automatic response to stress is to think quickly. The brain gets trained to be stressed.
“When you practice medication regularly you get so you can focus on one task really, really well and you actually get it done quicker,” she said.
As she goes about her busy job, she’s still apparently multi-tasking, but “The biggest thing is, outwardly, it might not look very different, but inside I’m very calm and focused,” she said. She’s not going into stress mode, which damages the body.
“I am feeling energized, rather than depleted. That’s what stress does, it exhausts you.”
Meditation also translates to relationships, where a slammed door won’t trigger a “reaction, but a response,” if the person is mindful of what is going on, and thinking clearly, she said.
Kieffer teaches two eight-week mindfulness meditation courses each year at Water’s Edge. She’s in the midst of one session now, and will do another in September.
She also does free classes once a month. The next is June 12 from 7 to 8:30 in the meditation room at Water’s Edge, and it focuses on the benefits of breath and meditation to help with pain and insomnia. For more information or to register, call 541-296-7319.
Students in her current class are about halfway through the course, and some have reported that others are starting to notice something different about them.
“They’re sharing how the people around them were saying, ‘Hey, what’s different? You’re not reacting the way you used to.’”