By Luis S R Vas
Jon Kabat – Zinn… is using mindfulness meditation for stress relaxation and bringing it into the mainstream of medicine and society
Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, is a scientist, writer, and meditation teacher engaged in bringing mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society. He gives public talks and workshops throughout the world on mindfulness and its applications for moving towards greater sanity and balance in today’s 24/7 multi-tasking-addicted, high-speed world. He is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he was the founding executive director of the Center For Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, and founder (in 1979) and former director of its world-renowned Stress Reduction Clinic. He is the author of Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness (Delta, 1991), Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life (Hyperion, 1994), and co-author, with his wife Myla, of Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting (Hyperion, 1997). His work has contributed to a growing movement of mindfulness into mainstream institutions in our society such as medicine, health care and hospitals, schools, corporations, prisons, and professional sports.
“Mindfulness is a certain way of paying attention that is healing, that is restorative, that is reminding you of who you actually are so that you don’t wind up getting entrained into being a human doing rather than a human being,” says Kabat-Zinn.“The practice of mindfulness meditation can be profoundly transformative and healing, and make it easier for one to experience the web of interconnectedness in which we live and work. It can give rise to greater insight and clarity, as well as greater empathy for oneself and others.”The most recent study using the pioneering work of Dr Kabat-Zinn comes out of the US, where researchers associated with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre showed chronic lower back pain can be eased by meditation.“At the conclusion of the eight-week programme, those with chronic lower back pain noted a decreased amount of pain and a slight improvement in physical function,” the researchers said in an article in the journal, Pain. John Coolidge was alone with his mind. Paralysed and rendered deaf by a disease that had attacked his nervous system, Coolidge’s eyes were his one link with the world. Now to protect his eyes, the doctors had decreed that each night they must be covered with gauze. He was left totally isolated – unable to feel, unable to move, unable to hear, unable to see, unable even to breathe without the respirator, which kept him alive. “The good news was that my mind worked fine. The bad news was that my mind worked fine,” says Coolidge, looking back on the experience.
Through the long hours of the night, Coolidge lay awake and alone, too terrified to sleep. For some, it would have been a prescription for panic. However, John Coolidge knew to seek refuge in the one physical sensation he had left – his breath.“I had been taught a meditation technique in which you watch your breath–in goes the good air, out goes the bad. The ventilator was moving my chest up and down, and it was the one solid thing I had going for me,” he recalls. For Coolidge, the simple act of concentrating his awareness on the flow of air into his body provided the anchor that kept his mind under control.
In the two decades since Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness Center, more than 10,000 patients have been through his stress reduction programme –almost all referred by physicians and other health care professionals. Thousands have taken classes at the more than 240 mind-body stress reduction clinics that have sprung up around the world, many created on Kabat-Zinn’s template. Dramatic reductions in physical and emotional symptoms are common among course participants suffering from a broad range of chronic diseases and medical problems, even as their ability to handle pain and stress increases. It was at such an eight-week programme that John Coolidge learned to watch his breath, three years before the auto accident that left his pelvis crushed and triggered the onset of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a trauma-related disorder that causes paralysis by attacking the lining of the nerves.“It felt like I was dying in phases,” recalls Coolidge, shortly after he was released from six months of hospitalisation. “I basically meditated my way all through it. My folks would literally see my heart rate and respiration rate go down on the monitors. You could literally see the relaxation electronically.” Before the ordeal was over, Coolidge would use the techniques for more than just stress management. As feeling slowly began to return to his limbs, the lumbar punctures that tracked his recovery – tests in which electrically charged needles were inserted into the nerves –became increasingly painful.
“It was like getting hooked up to an electric fence for an hour,” he recalls with a shudder. Once more, Coolidge resorted to meditating on his breath.“It absolutely helped to offset the pain,” he says of the breath meditation. “You are still aware of it, but it doesn’t control your thinking. The pain or the fear does not have to be dominant. That doesn’t mean it disappears, but it doesn’t have to be the only thing going on.”
Would Coolidge have survived if he had not gone through the Kabat-Zinn programme? Probably, but he suspects the experience would have been much worse. “The meditation allowed me to concentrate the fight that was in me on productive areas,” he explains. “I was able to fight the disease, the paralysis, the pneumonia, and not at any time fight the fact that I was in those circumstances – not spend any time being angry.” Participants in the stress reduction classes do more than just sit watching their breath. They are taught simple yoga movements and introduced to a ‘body scan’ technique borrowed from Vipassana meditation, in which they are guided through a process of shifting the focus of their awareness to different parts of the anatomy.The point of it all is to “be present in your body,” as the instructors constantly remind their students, in order to “see events with more clarity and directness” and thus consciously “control what is controllable, and release the rest.”
“Most people don’t listen to their bodies at all,” says a medical doctor enrolled in a recent course. “They are so busy doing whatever they are trying to do, they are not thinking about what their body’s telling them they should or shouldn’t do.” Each student in the course, which meets three hours a week for eight weeks, is given a set of guided meditation tapes and expected to do at least forty-five minutes of practice each night.Mindfulness meditation may have its roots in an ancient tradition alien to most westerners, but what Kabat-Zinn and others like him have done is strip it down to an essence everyone can understand. “It’s the heart of Buddhist meditative practices, the heart of Sufi practices, the heart of all spiritual practices,” he says. “We’re pointing to something that lies in the heart, not out there in history.”“You don’t have to go off and retreat to a cave to do this,” argues a practitioner. “It’s very practical.”
“It’s great to have a practice and sit on a cushion and get whatever you can from that,” observes Friedman, a CEO. “But for me, the real value is integrating it into my everyday life.” “I get excited about the fact that breath is something I always have with me,” agrees Janet, a housewife. “That I don’t need an extra bag for it, that I don’t need to pay for it, that I don’t need to ask somebody for it. It’s a tool I just have and I can call on it whenever I need it.” John Coolidge, whose breath helped him survive the isolation of paralysis, can testify to that.
Luis S R Vas has authored over a score of books during a decade long career in feature writing, publishing and corporate communications.
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