On stage at the Annenberg Center’s Zellerbach Theater in Philadelphia, Jon Kabat-Zinn was playing to a rapturous sellout crowd. They were there to absorb, even be transformed by, his prescription of hope for a troubled world, and Kabat-Zinn, with his craggy, handsome face, high cheekbones and graying hair, had them mesmerized.
He recited poetry by Emily Dickinson, quoted from Henry David Thoreau and injected some humorous shtick: “Do you know what I’m talking about? Or “Anyone here have that experience?” The audience members laughed, grew silent or nodded their heads in unison.
Kabat-Zinn, 64, is the country’s meditator-in-chief, the molecular biologist who introduced mindful meditation to traditional medicine back in 1979 and who, through the next three decades, ushered it into the medical mainstream. His five books, including Wherever You Go, There You Are, have been printed in 30 languages, and have sold nearly 1.5 million copies in the United States.
The people in this audience, though, were academic types—teachers, principals and administrators, all attendees at a February weekend conference on mindfulness in education organized by the University of Pennsylvania’s Program for Stress Management. Education is only one of myriad disciplines to which Kabat-Zinn has begun to stretch his teachings. In a world that he says is spinning out of control, he considers meditation training essential for anyone seeking clarity and compassion in their lives and relationships.
Mindful meditation, simply, is attending to the present moment. Its practice, rooted in Buddhism, was meant to relieve suffering and cultivate compassion and it is compatible, proponents say, with any or no religion. It begins with the willingness to set aside a half hour or so a day to practice formal meditation—sitting, standing or walking—at first just focusing on your breath. When thoughts of the past or the future intrude, as they inevitably will, subjects are told to return to their breath.
“The present moment, the only moment we have to feel or to think, is a hidden dimension for most of us,” said Kabat-Zinn. “We are so absorbed with planning for the future or blaming people for what is over and done with that we lose the lives we are living. We die a thousand deaths wasting our energy on what was or what will be.”
The key, he said, is that people who meditate handle emotions differently. They are not so judgmental and they learn how to let go of the past, to put aside how “somebody did them in. Stress comes from the way people react to things, and if you’re not cultivating mindfulness, you're cultivating reactivity.”
The real meditation practice is in how we live our lives, Kabat-Zinn said. “It isn’t sitting in a lotus position and pretending you’re a statue in the British Museum. There are a thousand doors to mindfulness. You can cook mindfully, dance mindfully, walk on the beach mindfully, make love mindfully. It’s all about being fully present in what you are doing. Formal meditation practice is merely the launching platform.”
Kabat-Zinn’s interest in meditation may have been hatched during his undergraduate years at Haverford, where he lived in French House opposite the duck pond and majored in chemistry while pursuing as a “sort-of-second major” his interest in German and French literature and Italian opera. His class of ’64 was the last to participate in compulsory Fifth Day Meeting and that is where he learned the power of silence. Also influential was philosophy professor Douglas Steere. “[His] legacy was a kind of ethics and ethos that had to do with truthfulness and authenticity,” said Kabat-Zinn.
When Kabat-Zinn founded his clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School 30 years ago, his goal was to catch people falling between the cracks in the health system. After all, he reasoned, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other chronic illnesses are often caused or exacerbated by lifestyle factors that can be altered. He believed he knew how to make that happen.
His first group included those with stress-related chronic illnesses whose doctors had exhausted their bags of tricks. He knew if he could restore their well-being, he’d be onto something big.
The results were extraordinary. People with headaches didn’t have them anymore. Those with backaches learned to work around their pain. Those with high blood pressure saw the numbers drop. Mindfulness, which swings the body into balance, had led to symptom relief. “Patients told me I had done more for them in eight weeks than their doctors had in eight years,” said Kabat-Zinn.
Kabat-Zinn had been meditating ever since he was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1965. He remembers seeing a sign inviting students to a talk by Roshi Philip Kapleau, author of The Three Pillars of Zen. He knew nothing about Zen and was one of only four students who showed up. But he said, “it took the top off my head. It filled a niche in my assessment of what was missing in our culture, an authentic experience of being rather than doing. I realized you could learn how to be in a relationship with your thoughts and emotions. It satisfied something deep in me and I’ve been in love with it ever since.”
Marrying medicine and meditation (despite their shared etymological origin in the Latin word mederi, which means “to heal”) was not easy. Kabat-Zinn encountered what he calls “medical politics,” yet experienced no insurmountable roadblocks. His molecular biology doctorate from MIT helped. “People figured that with that kind of pedigree, I must know something,” he conjectured.
In today’s world, where multitasking is a must, where technology, with its tantalizing smorgasbord of instant messaging, insistent e-mails, and vibrating cell phones, intrudes into each moment, Kabat-Zinn is not sure how people survive without something to ground them. Without meditation, he said, he couldn’t have gotten through eight years of watching his father, a brilliant biomedical scientist, lose his mind to Alzheimer’s disease or tend to his mother, an accomplished artist, who had a stroke from the stress. “There is not a single aspect of my life where I’m not calling on meditation to keep me balanced,” he said.
More than 18,000 patients have participated in stress reduction programs at his medical clinic, often with startling, clinically proven results.
Two studies of patients with psoriasis, a painful skin condition, revealed that those getting audiotaped meditation instructions while receiving ultraviolet treatments saw their skin clear up four times as fast as those who did not participate. In another study, in which influenza vaccine was given to volunteers, those who meditated had more antibodies than those in the control group.
But the focus of the two-day conference in Philadelphia, where Kabat-Zinn was the keynote speaker and also led a day-long meditation session for several hundred educators, was applying meditation to learning. Kabat-Zinn believes that there are dimensions of our being that schools ignore. We are taught analysis, but we are never schooled in awareness. Learning, after all, has to do with perception, those eureka moments that can ignite passion.
If mindfulness were more a part of education, more young people would benefit, Kabat-Zinn believes. Parents are the first and most powerful teachers. They can be mindful by nurturing their children and themselves, by seeing things, as the young do, as if for the first time.
A good teacher will take mindfulness to class. “Imagine the potential for teaching young children if they can inhabit the ‘being’ part of their lives, ask deep questions and maybe love learning,” Kabat-Zinn said. “That’s how kids become emotionally intelligent. They learn that life is the curriculum.”
More than 200 medical centers in the world, 100 in this country, have integrated mindfulness in their curriculums. School districts from Oakland, Calif., to New York City’s Harlem are inviting it into the classroom.
“We need to wake up a little more and liberate ourselves from our self-destructive habits—greed, hatred, racism and selfishness—what the Buddhists call ignorance, ignoring what is fundamental,” Kabat-Zinn mused. “If we learn that when we are young, it can enhance joy and relationships throughout life. There is no reason to starve for well-being.”
This article appears in the Spring 2009 issue of Haverford, the alumni magazine of Haverford College.