Flipping through the television channels on a Sunday evening, I was surprised and delighted to discover Jon Kabat-Zinn on 60 Minutes talking about mindfulness. Correspondent Anderson Cooper participated in a mindfulness meditation retreat and interviewed Kabat-Zinn. I attended a Kabat-Zinn Professional Training Retreat in 2009, an experience that continues to reverberate in my professional and personal life, and was the foundation for my own practice of mindfulness.
After completing his Ph.D. in molecular biology at M.I.T. in 1972, Kabat-Zinn studied meditation and Buddhism around the world, and in the late 1970s developed a proposal for a Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School where in the windowless basement of the hospital, he began to teach patients with chronic pain and illness mindfulness, quietly bringing Buddhist meditation and psychology into Western medicine and patient care.
According to Kabat-Zinn in an interview for the Eckhart Tolle website: “The whole idea was to see whether we could use these meditative practices, including mindful hatha yoga, to help medical patients to mobilize their own interior resources for learning, growing, healing, and transformation, starting from wherever they were at, and the medical conditions they were dealing with, as a complement to whatever treatments they might be receiving.” The Stress Reduction Clinic and its work grew and developed into Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society.
The 60 Minutes piece enters mindfulness by acknowledging the ubiquitous presence of the internet, email, texting, and social media in our every day lives, and the ways these digital distractions and their devices pull us away from ourselves, others, and the present moment. I am well aware of this pull with my iPhone, seemingly always near my grasp, and often enlisted to cope with everything from boredom to stress.
One of my psychology trainees shared this fabulous piece by the comedian Louis C.K. With humor and poignancy, he captured this issue about our phones, about our growing inability to be with ourselves, alone, not doing anything, especially when we experience sadness, the sadness of life, and how our ability to be with that sadness can be poetic and beautiful. This is one of the key elements in mindfulness, cultivating our capacity to be with ourselves, to stay, accept, and work with our experience as it is, without trying to distract ourselves or prematurely change it.
What drew me into mindfulness was a growing awareness of burnout I was experiencing after 5 years of working with combat-related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at the Veterans Health Administration and a growing discontent with traditional models of psychotherapy and mental health care.
According to Kabat-Zinn, now the classic Western definition of mindfulness, “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.” This is the foundation upon which the practice of mindfulness is built and in Kabat-Zinn’s model, made manifest in MBSR groups through instruction in Buddhist psychology without the Buddhism, sitting meditation, walking meditation, the body scan, and basic hatha yoga. The 60 Minutes piece also features Congressman Tim Ryan who works to bring mindfulness to Capital Hill and authored A Mindful Nation; psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Judson Brewer, to address the fascinating topic of meditation, mindfulness, and neuroplasticity; and Google’s Jolly Good Fellow, Chade-Meng Tan, who developed a mindfulness-based course for Google employees, “Search Inside Yourself,” showing how innovative companies incorporate mindfulness into their company culture. I am an avid reader of the magazine Fast Company, a “progressive media brand” devoted to innovation and creativity in design, business, and leadership.
In the 60 Minutes piece, Anderson Cooper suggested that this mindfulness thing potentially sounds like a kind of New Age gobbledygook, to which Kabat-Zinn noted the research basis, the science behind the positive impact of mindfulness on health and well-being. Daniel Siegel organizes the science of mindfulness under the emergent field of interpersonal neurobiology integrating the effects of mindfulness practices on the domains brain and immune function as well as the psychological and interpersonal domains. My own take is that mindfulness has invariably been co-opted by certain strains of New Age gobbledygook, but at its best, mindfulness is rooted in an ancient tradition for which the Western world is discovering and making their own, to address some of the limitations and challenges of Western medicine and mental health care.
Some years into working for the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System, a colleague recommended Kabat-Zinn’s classic book, Full Catastrophe Living. At the time, I was struggling with the intensity of my work with combat veterans, with the fog of war and post-deployment adjustment, and the impact of this work on my own life. I was looking for a more wholistic model of care, health and well being, and, I was also beginning to explore Buddhist psychology, drawn into the incisive idea in my own life and my work with patients of how we often contribute to our own suffering. The first book I read in this realm was Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering Into Peace, Joy & Liberation. It is still a favorite text that I often revisit. Thich Nhat Hanh, born in Vietnam, is one of the central figures in bringing mindfulness to the West.
In June of 2009, I was fortunate to attend Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in Mind-Body Medicine: A 7-Day Professional Training Retreat with Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli at the Omega Institute, a beautiful 200 acre campus in Rhinebeck, New York with over 200 participants from all over the world.
I was greatly moved by this experience, struck by the setting; the genuineness and grace of the presenters; meaningful connections with other participants; and the compelling and central idea that one has to develop his/her own mindfulness practice to teach mindfulness. And so I learned in an intensive setting mindfulness based perspectives and practices that included alternating periods of sitting meditation and walking meditation, a most memorable experience was learning walking meditation on a vast grassy field in my bare feet on a summer day; the body scan technique and basic hatha yoga, practices that reestablish contact and connection with our bodies; and, a 24 hour period of silence, a practice used in mindfulness meditation to facilitate quiet ways of being with ourselves and others, to deepen the inner work of mindfulness.
After the retreat, I cultivated my own practice, often in starts and stops, reading and finding my way with the practices that worked for me, mostly sitting meditation. And then, almost a year later, with the assistance of several psychology trainees, we developed a 10-session Introduction to Mindfulness group for veterans and ran our first group at the Austin VA Outpatient Clinic, a group I continue to develop and still facilitate to this day. It is remarkable what happens in these groups.
As part of my own mindfulness practice, recovery from burnout, and making more mindful decisions about my career and career longevity, I made the decision to leave the PTSD Clinic after 8 years, moved into a part-time VA position, and started my own private practice, where one of my areas of specialization is mindfulness based perspectives and interventions.
I revisited the Omega Institute in the Fall of 2011 for a 5-day Mindful Self-Compassion Training with Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer. This is in my opinion, one of the most important developments in mindfulness; it has greatly impacted my own work and practice, and has deeply resonated with many of my patients. Self-compassion pratice grows out of the metta or lovingkindness tradition in Buddhism, which is about an intention of good will to self and others. According to the Dalai Lama, “compassion is a sensitivity to the suffering of self and others, with a deep commitment to try to relieve it” with kindness, warmth, and a certain friendliness. It is about cultivating a compassion and kindness towards ourselves as we struggle with our flaws and inevitable suffering versus the more common and painful reactions of what Germer calls the “an unholy trinity” of self-criticism [and self-judgement], self-isolation, and self-absorption. According to Mark Leary, self-compassion is strongly associated with well-being.
I will be returning to the Omega Institute in August of 2015 to attend a 5-Day Professional Training in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). I am looking forward to returning to Omega, revisiting mindfulness, and learning new perspectives and applications for depression.