BY MARK MORAN
Mindfulness — the practice of training the mind to be fully attentive to the present moment, without judgment — has in the last two decades entered the lexicon of medicine, psychiatry, and social work with the potential to transform the way we think of mind, body and healing.
That’s what Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., Professor of Medicine Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, told psychiatrists Saturday during a presidential symposium on “Mindfulness-Based Practices in the Treatment of Stress and Psychiatric Illness at APA’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia.
“We are at a momentous crossroads in all of the various medical disciplines that have to do with the mind and brain and how we understand the brain in relationship to what we call the mind and what we call the body, and what we call community and how we relate to each other,” Dr. Kabat-Zinn said. “There are remarkable studies going on [with subjects] across the age span in which learning how to be more present and more accepting and clearer about our own experience and not being caught in the usual traps can be profoundly liberating and preventative.”
Dr. Kabat-Zinn, a renowned author and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has merged his early interest in and practice of Zen Bhuddist meditation with Western medicine to help people cope with stress, anxiety, pain, and illness. During Saturday’s symposium, Dr. Kabat-Zinn spoke on “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR): What It Is and Its Clinical Applications for Stress, Pain, and Chronic Illness.”
Other speakers included Peter Beiling, Ph.D., director of mental health and addictions at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Ontario, John W. Denninger, M.D., Ph.D., director of research at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Sara Lazar, Ph.D., neuroimaging researcher at Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Kabat-Zinn spoke at length about what mindfulness is — and what it is not — and he cautioned that what it is not is merely another form of cognitive therapy. Rather, it is a “way of being,” a practice of being fully awake to the present moment that is ultimately very hard to learn and quite at odds with the distracted multi-tasking culture of western society. “…It’s easier said than done. The first thing you notice when you cultivate mindfulness is how mindless we are,” he said. “This turns out to be the hardest thing for us to do — to be present and to string moments of presence together.”
But he said that the understanding and practice of mindfulness has begun to transform Western society and healing practices in a way that could not have been imagined 50 years ago. “Carl Jung said the methods and philosophical doctrines that have developed in this regard simply put all Western efforts to shame,” Dr. Kabat-Zinn said. “So he was very impressed by [Eastern concepts of mindfulness], but he also said that there was no way a Westerner could ever understand this. He said there was a cultural divide between what we quaintly called the East and West…But if he came back now, he would be completely mind-blown. Today you can say there is more interest in mindfulness in the West than there is in the East.”
He added, “I think it is diagnostic that APA is having this presidential symposium and what would be really fun is to come back in 10 years and see how it has all unfolded.”