UC San Diego doctor says mindfulness can ease the pains of aging: ‘There is a power in being present for your life!’


How present or “mindful” are you for this very moment of your life? Are you all here for it? Or is your mind clouded, wandering off on tangents into the past and the future in a hundred different directions all at once?

Dr. Steve Hickman, a clinical psychologist at UC San Diego, who is an associate clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Department of Family Medicine & Public Health, would like to help you become more mindful because that can lead to peace of mind, and improve your health and well-being.

Hickman is also the executive director of the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness, which he founded in 2000. The Center offers programs to help people cope with the challenges of stress, pain, illness and aging. Hickman himself has been mindfully meditating for some 18 years and is living proof of the its power to put you in a good space.

He gave a well-received lecture July 18 to a packed house of mostly older adults in Garren Auditorium at the UCSD School of Medicine, which was sponsored by the UCSD Center for Healthy Aging. Hickman surprised all by starting off with a long, closed-eyes guided mediation, which relaxed everyone and brought on smiles, as the energy in the room grew peacefully tranquil.

After the meditation, he asked everyone to consider how wide awake and present they were for what was right in front of them? He asked them how often they found themselves worrying about the future or fretting over the past.

“Suffering arises when you are not present,” he told the audience. “There is a power in being present for your life!” He defined “being present” as “moment to moment nonjudgmental awareness.”

According to Hickman, mindfulness is a fast growing, well-researched aspect of psychology based on the practice of meditation and present moment awareness. Mindfulness was developed as a way of coping, healing and living with the challenges and opportunities of daily life. Meditation is used to develop mindfulness in the same way that an athlete uses weight training to better his sport. Meditation makes mindfulness more possible.

Through mindfulness, which is best, first learned in a group setting, you practice moment to moment awareness. You focus on your breathing and then encourage a kinder, more compassionate way of relating to your mind and body.

“Developing mindfulness helps us to better see those moments when we are not aware of how our habits are overriding our deeper intentions,” Hickman said. “We also better see how our emotions may be leading us astray or if we are making choices that are not in our best interests.”

He was careful to point out that mindful acceptance of what is, is not resignation or giving in, but rather “letting go of judgment.”

“You may have an illness or pain going on, but you don’t have to make it worse by judging it, saying it’s bad, or stressing needlessly about it,” he advised. “Don’t add an emotional reaction and negativity to what is already there. Just say, ‘Here it is. This is going on now. How can I best deal with this in a productive and positive manner?’ ”

Hickman, whose specialty is mindfulness training for people in pain or fighting cancer, said that the stresses of life are a lot like a Chinese finger puzzle — the more you struggle and try to pull your finger out, the tighter it entraps you. It’s best to relax, stay present, and begin to take steps in a positive direction.

“The problem with most people is that they are too often looking for a problem or what is wrong or what needs fixing. It’s better to let go and look for the possibilities that are always there,” he said.

Some of the older adults in the audience expressed concern about cognitive decline and memory loss, but Hickman countered by saying that new aging research reveals people of any age can learn new patterns and habits. “It’s been shown that even though our brains may have aged, they can still change! You are never too old to get a fresh perspective on life,” he expressed exuberantly.

Another audience member said it was hard for him to appreciate a walk around a beautiful place like La Jolla Cove because of the pain in his body.

Hickman advised him to take a deep breath and broaden his perspective on the situation: “Pain is there, but it is not everything. There is also the sky, the ocean breeze, clouds, sand, waves and rocks. Don’t look at your pain with a microscope, like you were looking at the date on a rare coin. Put your pain into a larger perspective of a mindfulness of the panoply of the life that is all around you.”

Hickman teaches classes at The Center for Mindfulness in the Center for Integrative Health at 5060 Shoreham Place, Suite 300. (858) 334-4636. For more details, visit and