Thirty years ago Jon Kabat-Zinn ran the first Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course in the basement of the University of Massachusetts’ medical school.
He noticed that myriads of patients were not being helped by regular medical treatment. While modern medicine had discovered cures for numerous illnesses, it was confounded with the management and healing of many others. These included chronic pain, anxiety and depression, allergies, skin conditions and headaches. I doubt that Jon Kabat-Zinn ever imagined the wave of mindfulness that would ripple out from this small beginning; there are currently over 500 similar programmes running globally.
Jon Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as the practice of paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment without judgement. We tend to spend most of our lives lost in thought, disconnected from our bodies, and out of touch with our emotions. Mindfulness helps us to use our bodily senses to anchor our attention in the present moment; and to observe our thoughts and emotions with patience, openness, acceptance, gentleness, curiosity and kindness. Mindfulness is about purposefully cultivating a way to quieten our minds, connect with our bodies and open our hearts.
There is a great deal of confusion about mindfulness.
It is not emptying the mind. Anyone who has tried meditation will very quickly discover that when one becomes quiet, you become aware of your chattering, busy mind. Mindfulness is about observing our thoughts, noticing and labelling them, and then returning to the present moment using our bodies as an anchor.
It is not a religion. It is a technique, a way of being present to our lives instead of living on automatic pilot. The practice has been informed by Buddhist meditative practices, but is also present in the contemplative Christian and Jewish traditions. This often enhances, enriches and expands your spiritual experience, but it isn’t a religious teaching or doctrine.
It is not easy. People often equate meditation with a sense of blissfulness and peace. However, mindfulness is about becoming present to ourselves. Often when we are quiet, we become aware of our distress, grief, fear and pain. Mindfulness is about compassionately engaging with whatever we find, not running away from it. It takes commitment and perseverance, deciding to put aside time to be present to ourselves.
It is not selfish. Mindfulness is about healing ourselves, being present, open and gentle to ourselves, so that we may go out into the world as centred, compassionate, present people, able to be powerfully loving presences in the world.
It is not a New Age fad. Mindfulness is one of the currently most extensively researched fields in neuroscience and psychology. Some of the benefits are:
- The brain is modified to perform better. After an 8 week mindfulness programme, the regions of the brain which are important for learning, memory and decision-making thicken, while the amygdala, the area of the brain which is involved with hyper-responsiveness is down-regulated.
- After an 8 week programme, salivary cortisol levels were 4 times lower. Cortisol is a stress hormone.
- Mindfulness improves problem-solving.
- Insomniacs sleep better after meditation.
- Studies have shown that long-term practice of meditation can lead to physical changes in the brain that affect the perception of pain.
- Meditation seems to ward off chronic inflammation which is known to play a part in ageing, obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Researchers have shown that meditators were less anxious and less likely to have relapses of depression.
- Meditation can help fight addiction.
- Meditation improves concentration and attention.
There are many well-researched modalities:
- Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Programme is the original 8 week programme devised by Jon Kabat Zinn. Hundreds of similar programmes are run globally.
- Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy is based on the MBSR, but has been tailored to help those with recurrent anxiety and depression.
- MB Eat is for those with eating problems – too much and too little.
- There are programmes for mindfulness in education, both with younger children and adolescents.
- Dialectical Behaviour Therapy has been developed to help those with borderline personality disorder.
- Compassion Cultivation Training was devised at Stanford University to enhance and cultivate kindness and pro-social behaviour (altruism). This is especially helpful for those in caring professions, but is also being investigated as an important subject in education.
Mindfulness will change your life. Beauty, joy, gentleness, the extraordinary miracle of life is available to us 24 hours a day. How often are we available to it?
For more information about mindfulness in South Africa see IMISA at www.mindfulness.org.za .