I just came back from a 7-day retreat with Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleague Saki Santorelli. They were teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for healthcare professionals at the Omega Center in Rhinebeck, New York.
The program consisted of an intensive version of the 8-week MBSR curriculum, including a 30-hour silent retreat in the middle of the week. The schedule was pretty grueling: we started each day at 6 am with 90 minutes of meditation practice. Meditation was followed by a 3-hour workshop/meditation session before lunch, with a second 3-hour session after lunch. Most days also ended with a 2-hour evening workshop/meditation session! The silent retreat day was the most demanding—and the most rewarding—part of the week, with a total of 9.5 hours dedicated to practice, including yoga, sitting, and walking. I was tired but felt great at the end of that day!
Overall, the retreat was an excellent experience for me. I had been working long, intense hours in the weeks leading up to it, and was feeling exhausted and emotionally drained. It was great to be in the country, soak up the peace and quiet, and not have to think about meetings, deadlines, and email. Believe it or not, I was able to go a full 7 days without connecting to the Internet! You can’t imagine the loose, light state of mind that a “connection holiday” brings.
More importantly, though, the many hours of meditation reconnected me with a more open, peaceful, and compassionate version of myself that sometimes gets buried in my busy professional life. In the silence of meditation, I was exposed to the mental habits that subtly shape my interactions with the world. The exposure allowed me to see through the distortions that usually shape my experience, and connect with some truths about what’s important to me and how to move forward. It definitely wasn’t easy, and I was grateful to go through the experience with a community of 200 other healthcare professionals. The emotional rawness that arises with increased mindfulness forges strong bonds, and I had the pleasure of connecting with some outstanding people.
The week was also excellent in terms of professional development. Jon Kabat-Zinn was amazing to watch. He has a titanic intellect, dynamic energy, and a deep sense of compassion. Aside from leading workshops and meditations, he stuck around after each session to chat with participants one-on-one, and ate his meals at the communal tables in the dining room. The guy never stopped! Not bad for a guy who celebrated his 69th birthday that week.
Kabat-Zinn told us the complete story of how he developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and it’s as intriguing as he is. As a young biology professor at the University of Massachusetts, he started teaching mindfulness as a side gig in the basement of the Medical School. His vision was to help people who had fallen through the cracks of the health care system by teaching them the Buddhist tradition of mindfulness—but translated from the Eastern tradition into mainstream medical culture. He invited doctors to refer anyone they were having difficulty treating, including patients suffering from depression, chronic pain, and other chronic illnesses. He wasn’t sure what to call the program so he picked something generic and non-threatening: the Stress Clinic. That was in 1979—before the Internet; before cell phones; before answering machines; before I was born!
The results spoke for themselves. Stress Clinic patients’ lives improved and doctors began referring more and more. Researchers began studying Kabat-Zinn’s program and establishing a solid evidence base. The clinic grew and the name MBSR was adopted, highlighting the ‘M’ at the core. Over the next decade, a few scientific trends accelerated the expansion of MBSR into the medical establishment: 1) The medical and science communities began recognizing the serious impact of stress on health; 2) the emergence of brain imaging research and the discovery of neuroplasticity allowed Kabat-Zinn and his team to demonstrate measurable changes in the brains of MBSR participants; and 3) more recently, epigenetics researchers have been able to begin identifying changes in gene expression as a result of MBSR. What Kabat-Zinn created is nothing short of a revolution in health care.
At the heart of MBSR is the notion that we can find a new way to relate to our pain, whether it’s physical or emotional. Instead of focusing on finding solutions to our discomfort, we can learn to befriend it, and to open up to it as part of our experience. This means that rather than thinking of discomfort as a drag on our quality of life, we observe it—and our reactions to it—with awareness and with the knowledge that both comfort and discomfort are transient. In so doing, we become less attached to having every little thing just the way we like it.
Cultivating this relationship to our experience requires training in mindfulness meditation. Practicing meditation helps us slow down and lets us see how our minds create “stories” about our experiences, distracting us from experiencing the moment as it is. Some of that mental busy work is harmless, but much of it contributes to unhelpful attitudes toward ourselves, our bodies, and our relationships. Learning to pay attention and cultivate awareness in this way is a powerful tool for improving overall health and well being; it creates a small psychological space in which we can evaluate our moment-to-moment impulses, choose our actions, and remain in contact with what truly matters to us at any given moment.
The Center for Mindfulness recently graduated its 20,000th participant and there are now over 740 MBSR programs in hospitals, clinics, and health centres worldwide. Mindfulness is now being taught not only in health care settings, but also in corporate wellness programs, in the armed forces, and in training programs for elite athletes. Health care professionals, teachers, and mainstream media are following the growth of MBSR closely. In fact, during last week’s retreat, a photographer from Time magazine was on site shooting photos for an upcoming story about Jon Kabat-Zinn. Not bad for a guy who started teaching meditation in the basement of a hospital 43 years ago!
Dr. Joe Flanders is a Psychologist, Mindfulness teacher, and Director of the Numinus Clinic