a chapter of Mindfulness Ontario
Mindfulness, and the meditation that cultivates it, is a growing phenomenon in North America and elsewhere due its potential to improve one’s well-being and capabilities. It’s not new in the world - Buddhists have been practicing it for 2500 years. And it’s not necessarily Buddhist - after all, it’s a basic human capacity. But it does play a central role in the Buddhist methods of mental development and purification. And Buddhism has helped to spread its growth in the West. Another major force in the growing practice of mindfulness has been the work of Jon Kabatt-Zinn.
Kabatt-Zinn, an American cellular biologist, developed a program in 1979 – Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). He taught meditation and mindfulness at the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre to medical patients who doctors could help no further. After just a few weeks of daily practice of watching their inner experience, his students reported remarkably positive changes in their relationship to their bodies and minds as well as to other people. Scientist that he is, Jon measured and published the results, and continues to do so.
In 1990, Jon published a book which described in detail the MBSR course and the possible application of mindfulness to reduce anxiety (stress) in many facets of our life – stress in dealing with time, sleep, work, other people, our particular roles, food, and world affairs. It was called Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of our Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness.
In the 1990s, Jon began to train other people to teach the MBSR course. And, he published Wherever You Go, There You Are – an easy-to-read gem of a book designed “to provide brief and easy access to the essence of mindfulness meditation and its applications”. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in this topic.
This was followed by a much more detailed treatment of the subject in 2005 in his Coming to Our Senses: Healing ourselves and the World through Mindfulness. Yes, coming to our senses – "be reasonable, man, come to your senses". In the context of mindfulness, this means making greater use of our sense organs to inform us of the reality of our outer and inner worlds, and becoming more skeptical of our thoughts which can create distorted images of our situation and of ourselves which are not helpful.
I witnessed first-hand the world's greater interest in mindfulness last summer. I had the pleasure and privilege to spend a week with Jon soaking up his gift for communicating mindful meditation, along with 207 other people equally keen to learn how to spread the practice. They came from five continents, and 27 countries. One participant, a delightful older lady, prefaced her first comment to the group by saying, “You might be interested to know why someone from India, the birthplace of meditation, has traveled this far.” All of these peoples’ applications to attend the week-long training course were received and processed the previous fall - in one hour. Several hundred others had been turned away.
In 2010, Jon was interviewed by Shambala Sun who asked him “What are some of the frontiers that mindfulness has entered in recent years?” He replied, “The mindfulness work is spilling into areas way beyond medicine and healthcare and also beyond psychology and neuroscience. It’s moving into programs on childbirth and parenting, education, business, athletics and professional sports, the legal profession, criminal justice, even politics.”
Here are just a few examples of how mindfulness is being used:
• Fiona Jensen, an occupational therapist, was alarmed at the extent of stress and suicide among teens. In 2010, she initiated a pilot program - Calmer Minds - to teach elementary and secondary students about mindfulness. The effects have been impressive. "We've had kids tell us they use mindfulness practices to fall asleep at night", Jensen says. "They use them before a football game or a wrestling match. Instead of punching a hole in the wall when they're frustrated, they sit down and practice their mindful breathing". Calmer Choice is now partnering with Tufts University in Boston to measure the effect of mindfulness on those kids who participate.
• Many U.S. businesses have included mindfulness training in their organizations, including: Facebook, eBay, Target, Sun Life Financial, Hearst Publications, Twitter, and Ford Motor Company.
• Google Corporation has delivered since 2007 two courses for its employees: MBSR and a mindfulness-based emotional intelligence program developed at Google fittingly called Search Inside Yourself. One participant, Bill Duane, Manager of Engineering, said that, as a result of the course, he learned to listen a lot better, gain control over his temper, and understand every situation better by "learning to discern stories from reality". All these make him a much more effective manager to the benefit of the people working for him.
• In March, 12 British Members of Parliament took part in the first mindfulness course offered to government officials in Britain. Chris Cullen of the Oxford Center for Mindfulness helped organize a visit to Britain by Kabatt-Zinn who spent two days talking to officials about integrating mindfulness into education, heath care, and other sectors.
• US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, talking to CNN – “If you are under stress, meditation – or whatever you choose to call it – helps. Very often I find myself in circumstances that may be considered stressful, say in oral arguments where I have to concentrate very hard for extended periods. If I come back at lunchtime, I sit for 15 minutes and perhaps another 15 minutes later. Doing this makes me feel more peaceful, focused, and better able to do my work.”
• Closer to home, Mindfulness Ottawa was formed last year to build a vibrant mindfulness community. It provides a platform for further education, professional development, sharing information, upcoming events, and retreats. It meets almost every month at the Royal Ottawa Hospital. Many of its 60 members are social workers, nurses, and psychologists.
Meditation and mindfulness are growing in use because they represent a mentally healthy way of living. They cultivate:
- awareness in real time of our inner experience - our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations
- insight into how our mind, feelings and body habitually behave
- self-kindness - less self-criticism or pushing ourselves to become something - taking better care of ourselves.
It’s difficult to express in words a somewhat different lifestyle or way of being. Kabatt-Zinn talks about living a life of mindfulness as "akin to the transition from a two-dimensional "flatland" into a third spatial dimension, at right angles (orthogonal) to the other two. Everything opens up, although the two "old' dimensions are the same as they always were, just less confusing". My attraction to mindfulness is that it has made my experiences more understandable, more complex and interesting, more contented and joyful. It helps me experience more fully the only moments I have.