In the late 1970s, before mindfulness exercises caught on in psychotherapy, meditation was making inroads into the medical community. This was largely through the efforts of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who, beginning in 1979, had adapted ancient Buddhist and yogic practices to create Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester.
This standardized course couched meditation practices in Western, scientific terms, and its working definition of mindfulness—“the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment”—made the concept readily accessible.
In its early years, MBSR was used primarily to augment the treatment of stress-related medical disorders, and was of particular interest to clinicians working in behavioral medicine. However, it wasn’t considered a form of psychotherapy, and MBSR teachers weren’t necessarily psychotherapists. Even so, MBSR helped bridge the gap between the therapy and meditation communities.
In the ’90s, Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale—cognitive psychologists in the tradition of Aaron Beck—were working on treatments for depression. They came across mindfulness practice through Jon Kabat-Zinn and MBSR, and were struck by its power.
This led them to formulate a treatment, eventually called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which combined elements of an 8-week MBSR course with cognitive therapy interventions designed to help patients gain perspective on their thinking and not identify with their depressive thoughts.
The first results of their work, published in 2000, were dramatic: for patients who’d suffered three or more major depressive episodes, attending an MBCT group cut their relapse rate by 50 percent over the next year. This caught the attention of the Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) community and piqued interest in mindfulness practice.
In part, we have MBSR to thank for bringing scientific terminology to practices with Buddhist origins. Nowadays, the task of introducing meditation to secular, scientifically minded clients is getting easier as the body of neurobiological and clinical research we can refer to grows. For secular folks who’d be disturbed by the Buddhist roots of these practices, we can follow the lead of John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Mark Williams, who initially simply called what they were offering Attentional Control Training.
Ronald D. Siegel, PsyD, is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, where he has taught for more than 25 years. He is a longtime student of mindfulness meditation and serves on the Board of Directors and faculty of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy. He teaches internationally about mindfulness and psychotherapy and mind/body treatment, has worked for many years in community mental health with inner city children and families, and maintains a private clinical practice in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Dr. Siegel is co-author of the self-treatment guide Back Sense, which integrates Western and Eastern approaches for treating chronic back pain; co-editor of the critically acclaimed professional text, Mindfulness and Psychotherapy and author of the new step-by-step comprehensive guide for general audiences The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems,