Try as best you can to be present in yourself when you are around them.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Helané Wahbeh Director of Research at the Institute of Noetic Sciences.
Helané Wahbeh, ND., MCR., is the Director of Research at the Institute of Noetic Sciences and an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Neurology at Oregon Health & Science University. She completed her undergraduate degree at University of California Berkeley in Anthropology and Pre-Medicine. She obtained her clinical doctorate at the National University of Natural Medicine. She obtained her Master of Clinical Research from Oregon Health & Science University where she has been on faculty in the department of neurology since 2006. She also completed two post-doctoral research fellowships.
Noetic Sciences, a term coined by the Institute’s Founder Dr. Edgar Mitchell, is a multidisciplinary field of study that brings objective scientific tools and techniques together with subjective inner-knowing to study the nature of reality. Over the last 20 years, the Institute of Noetic Sciences, or IONS, has become the world’s most foremost authority in the study of human consciousness.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I was named after my great grandmother, a herbalist and midwife, and my family always assumed I would get into the health profession. As I grew older, my curiosity for how the body worked and specifically how the mind affected the body increased exponentially.
I decided to go to medical school and found naturopathic medicine, which focuses on the body’s innate ability to heal itself and prevention and the interaction between the different parts of the body. I went to naturopathic medical school and became a general practitioner. I heard my first introduction to formal meditation in medical school. After a few practices, I was hooked. I’ve gone through several meditation training programs, including mindfulness-based stress reduction, which I’ve also taught. I included these in my practice for my patients. It was incredible to me the transformations patients experienced by bringing awareness to how their mind and thoughts affected their physical bodies.
After some time in my private practice, my curiosity got the best of me, and I wanted to learn more about how mind-body medicine worked. I completed several postdoctoral fellowships to gain research training and begin my path as a clinical researcher evaluating mind-body medicine and specifically mindfulness meditation.
My National Institutes of Health study with combat veterans with PTSD focused on the question: how does mindfulness work and help people. Exciting findings emerged from the study. First, we learned that sitting quietly and relaxing for 20 minutes helped combat veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder whether or not they were officially meditating. We also saw that the people in the meditation groups were able to shift their relationship with their trauma symptoms, such that it didn’t trigger them as much as it used to. They were very grateful for the training and felt the tools would support them in their lives. Since my study, there have been many studies using mindfulness meditation for trauma with positive benefit.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
While I was working at an academic university on meditation studies, a friend shared that the Institute of Noetic Sciences was hosting a focus group with expert meditation researchers on the future of meditation. Some might notice that when you look at meditation research, it’s focused on physiology and clinical benefits — things that are non-spiritual or secular. However, meditation’s spiritual background has been mostly excluded from mindfulness meditation’s explosion in the West.
IONS gathered expert meditation researchers to talk about that topic and how we could potentially re-introduce the spiritual aspects to meditation research. We published a paper on the results of that focus group. One thing led to another, and from my connections in the focus group, I ended up getting a position at IONS, and I’m now the Director of Research. I also met Frederick Travis with whom I wrote a paper on transcendent states during meditation. We had a fascinating finding that the way we breathe is the most indicative of whether we are in a transcendent state or not when we are meditating.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
We start every one of our meetings with a five-minute meditation. It supports people getting in the present moment, paying attention to their breath, body sensations, emotions, thoughts, and the sounds around them. Allowing people to be fully embodied and present for a brief moment supports their health. I also believe it increases productivity because it gives people a rejuvenating time out. We know that meditation increases parasympathetic activation, which is the “rest and relax” part of our nervous system; as a result, it reduces stress and supports our health. I believe it is essential to foster a work culture that allows time for these micro-meditations.
It doesn’t take much to incorporate mindfulness practices into the day. You can invite your team members to choose one daily activity each day to focus on, like washing their hands, opening doors, or hanging up from a telephone call. As they engage in the activity, they take a deep breath and breathe into the present moment paying attention to where they’re.
We also know that mindfulness meditation improves the ability to be more responsive rather than reactive. This can reduce work environment conflict because people think more about the other person‘s perspective. They may also develop more profound compassion for others because they are cultivating deeper compassion in themselves.
We’ve done many studies at IONS on a program called the IMMI, Internet Mindfulness Meditation Intervention, a six-week self-directed online course. We’ve done numerous studies in multiple groups, including older adults with depression symptoms, and saw improvements in their well-being.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Two books made a significant impact on my life personally and professionally. They’re both by Leslie Temple-Thurston, my spiritual teacher at Corelight. The first is called The Marriage of Spirit that presents efficient tools to help clear layers of the ego and personality. The second is called The Seven Keys to Ascension (the new edition includes an eighth key). I recommend this book for everybody who is beginning a spiritual path and interested in getting a very accessible primer with direct experience tools to help them explore the path of Awakening.
Each chapter in The Seven Keys to Ascension talks about our energetic body and chakras and how blocks in those areas can affect us. The end of each chapter provides a practice to explore each area. I have personally found these tools profoundly transformative in my life; they enable me to clear my personality layers and become more aligned with my higher self. I taught a course on this material and was always amazed at how quickly people shifted from pain and suffering to a more effortless and fulfilled life.
I have certainly seen this in my life. For many years, I would go into retreat and do all the chapters of the seven keys book in three days. At some point in the retreat, I would enter an incredible transcendent oneness state where I felt interconnected to everything and filled with love and bliss. We actually did a study on this transcendent state in meditators at IONS to see any similarities across multiple traditions. We did find that the descriptions of this experience were the same across traditions.
I know there are multiple paths for people’s awakening. The materials in those two books are essential tools on my path.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?
I appreciate Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness, which is “the awareness that emerges by way of paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” It sounds quite simple when you define it like that. And it is pretty simple. However, in practice, it can feel challenging, especially for beginners.
Imagine yourself doing the dishes. You hear the water running. You feel the water running over your hands and the dishes. You see the water and soap suds with your eyes. Your body feels relaxed and calm. Your mind is completely absorbed in the sensations of doing the dishes. If your mind wanders from doing the dishes, you notice that it wandered and what took you away, and then gently and lovingly, you guide it back to what you are doing at that moment — doing the dishes. This is an example of an informal “mindfulness of daily activities” exercise.
We can apply mindfulness to any activity we are doing. Sometimes people say that they don’t have time to practice meditation. Mindfulness of daily activities is a great way to incorporate it into our busy lives. Formal practice entails more extended periods in the present moment, working with our minds to stay present and train our attention. Mindfulness training supports people to be more aware of their thoughts, emotions, and body sensations to be more responsive rather than reactive in their lives. At IONS, we have an online beginner course to teach people the concepts of mindfulness and practice they can incorporate into their lives. Our studies and those of other researchers have shown incredible benefits on multiple levels from this work.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?
There are hundreds of studies that have shown the positive physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful. At IONS, our studies have focused on older adults with mood symptoms. In those studies, we observed improvements in quality of life, mood, pain, and sleep. Some of these studies were even conducted during the California wildfire season when people were losing their homes, being displaced, and in a great deal of fear. Many participants mentioned how the tools they were learning supported them in dealing with stress more easily.
I’ve also done mindfulness studies with combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), where we saw improvements. Interestingly, many veterans did not have significant improvements in their PTSD symptoms per se, but their relationships with them changed. For example, if something triggered them before the study, they would become very angry with themselves, increasing their anger, anxiety, and fear. After the study, if they were triggered, they could be more compassionate and loving with themselves, accepting that they were triggered, staying in the present moment, and not letting it ruin their day.
Numerous meta-analyses combine the results of multiple studies showing that meditation in general and mindfulness meditation specifically decreases pain, anxiety, and depression and increases the quality of life across populations and health conditions.
The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
As I mentioned above, you can choose one daily activity you would like to do. Some examples are brushing your teeth, having a shower, washing your hands, or eating a meal. You can choose something you do multiple times a day and bring your mindful awareness to it.
Set a timer on your phone to ring every couple of hours. When it rings, take 30 seconds to 1 minute to breathe mindfully.
Put sticky notes up around your house. Every time you look at one of the notes, take a mindful breath and check in to your emotions at that moment. Try your best to name any emotions you are feeling in that moment, allowing whatever they are to be ok.
Play a song you love. Sit quietly and bring all your attention to the sounds you are hearing.
Join a community like IONS which is focused on this work. We have regular free offerings on Friday at 11 a.m. Pacific time.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Try as best you can to be present in yourself when you are around them.
Allow them to be anxious, reminding yourself that you are not responsible for their emotions, that you do not need to fix them.
Invite them to remember that their anxiety is a transient emotion. If it feels right, invite the person to breathe into the feeling. Often, if we bring our attention into how we feel the emotion in our bodies, the mind quiets its negative churning about whatever is making us anxious.
Invite them to take deep breaths, feeling into their bellies.
Remind them that they are not alone. Inviting them to reach out to a community or program that can support them, like IONS direct experience offerings.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
I think our Internet Mindfulness Meditation Intervention (IMMI) is a wonderful introduction for someone to learn mindfulness and apply it in their lives. We even have a program that is specific to pregnant women and mothers. If you are research-minded, you can also review the multiple studies that we have published on the topic (use the keyword “meditation” to find a huge collection of resources).
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is “live one day at a time.” I believe the origins of this quote are from the 12-step programs. This quote can be a simple mantra to support me and others throughout our day.
Our mind is an incredible tool but can be very focused on the past or future. I have learned repeatedly on my path that if I keep my mind grounded in the present moment, my future unfolds with greater ease. Staying in the present moment allows me to be more creative and insightful about the next best steps to take in my life.
Once, I was applying for a loan for our farm. It was a unique property, and the banks were not very excited about lending on it. I was very stressed and anxious about the whole situation. I realized my stress, over-thinking, and manic searching for a lender was not serving me. I remembered and practiced my mindfulness tools, staying in the present moment. I acknowledged and actually felt my anxiety and fear in my body. Incredibly, those feelings passed through me pretty quickly, and I was brought back to a place of trust. I took thoughtful action to apply for loans but then let it go and stayed in the moment of whatever I was doing. Of course, a loan eventually came through. While I waited, my well-being and health did not suffer from the self-imposed stress I was putting on myself by future-tripping about not getting a loan and all the things that could happen if I didn’t.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I believe my work at IONS is a movement that will bring the most good to the most people. Through our research, we are facilitating a movement away from the materialistic paradigm, which states that “all there is, is the physical material world.” In its place, we are moving toward a post-materialistic paradigm through which we understand what quantum physics and cosmology is showing us, that we are more than our physical bodies. We are, ultimately, all interconnected.
Our world is entrenched in a paradigm that is on its way out. Of course, that paradigm has taught us so much about the physical world and how we interact with it. However, it is not the whole story. Our research has shown that we are more than the material and that our consciousness can actually expand beyond time and space (non-local consciousness) and affect the physical world. Our science continues to ask courageous research questions about non-local consciousness and offers direct experiences for people to know it first-hand. This is a movement to change the world.
Imagine a world in which everyone understands that we are all interconnected, where we knew in our bones that our actions affect other people in a very real way. I feel it would be very difficult to be divisive, racist, and violent with this embodied knowledge. It would support each individual to be more compassionate, thus rippling out to families, communities, and the world.
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