“Life is what happens to you while you are making other plans.” –John Lennon.
There is a sentence in the novel The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Tousaint where his protagonist says, “I am compromising the quietude of my abstract life for what?” This sentence resonated with me so deeply that I have had it posted above my desk for many years. All of us are continually compromising the quietude or calm of our lives for so many things. Many are probably doing it right now! Things such as relationships, money, jobs, status, things that other people do that we don’t like, things that we have to do but do not want to do, the state of the world, the state of our situation in the world and on and on. One word that is often used to describe what happens when we compromise our quietude is stress.
Chronic stress is mainly caused by a mind that wanders. Our brains are not well-tuned mental machinery as much as we might wrongly believe they are. Instead, they wander off into reactive territory at the slightest trigger. Most of us tend to be lost in random thoughts all day long, unfocused on whatever it is that we are doing as we are doing it. Some of you may have heard about the psychologists at Harvard who started the Track Your Happiness app. What they found was that a wandering (unfocused) brain was the cause of unhappiness. What people were thinking was the cause of their stress/unhappiness not what they were doing (even if what they were the most unpleasant situations or performing boring chores).
Make no mistake about it, chronic stress is the cause of more illnesses (mental and physical) and early deaths than anything else on planet earth. As science becomes more and more conclusive with regards to the serious effects of chronic stress on the human body and brain, we will have doctors prescribing meditation (relaxation-responses) in the same way that they currently prescribe medication. Chronic stress is no joke. It is not to be taken lightly and it is important to realize that it is almost always the result of a wandering brain that is not focused in the present moment. Chronic stress literally turns off the switch that illuminates our lives.
In scientific terms that switch that illuminates our lives is referred to as telomeres. Telomeres are the stretches of expendable DNA at the ends of chromosomes. Telomeres act like the stiff plastic sheaths that prevent the ends of shoelaces from fraying. Over the course of a lifetime, cells divide so many times that telomeres wear down to such an extent that the integrity of the genes carried by the chromosomes is threatened. To protect our bodies when undergoing various stresses, the cells stop dividing and gradually undergo apoptosis, otherwise known as cell suicide. Telomere length is thus an effective measure of a cell’s biological age, and people with shorter telomeres seem to have a lower life expectancy.
There is currently solid evidence that chronic stress shortens telomere length and accelerates everything that comes along with the aging process. Conversely, there is also solid evidence which shows that mindfulness meditation (or any kind of daily relaxation response) rebuilds telomeres and combats the effects of aging at the cellular level by promoting the activity of a gene that makes an enzyme called telomerase. By ramping up the activity of telomerase, evidence suggests that we can slow down cellular aging. Still more research and evidence is needed, but once this happens (which, I think it certainly will within the next decade) doctors will be recommending meditation as a way to keep the Grim Reaper at bay.
The single reason why mindfulness techniques (or anything that promotes a relaxation response) are so effective at combating the negative physiological and psychological effects of stress is because it interrupts the train of our regular thoughts. Mindfulness tempers the stress response in our bodies by breaking the chain of everyday thinking (the wandering mind) and aligning the mind with what is happening in the present moment. As a result of being able to remain more present and focused with whatever we are doing as we do it, the adverse clinical effects of stress are counteracted and possibly we can end up saving our own lives.