The Mind-Body Magic of Jon Kabat-Zinn

One Man's Quest to Bring Therapeutic Mindfulness to Medicine

Richard Simon and Mary Sykes Wylie

In 1966, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a graduate student in molecular biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was walking down one of MIT's endless, pallid-green corridors when he spotted a flyer advertising a talk about Zen mindfulness. Kabat-Zinn was a very bright, hard-driving, 22-year-old kid from New York City, the son of a distinguished research immunologist, who was just starting out on his own promising scientific career. He had no idea what Zen mindfulness was, but in a sea of notices posted on one of the huge bulletin boards lining the corridor, this flyer somehow called out to him.

Today, nearly 40 years after that portentous afternoon talk, Kabat-Zinn is acknowledged as one of the pioneers in mind-body medicine---a field that integrates ancient spiritual traditions like yoga and meditation with mainstream medical practice. In 1979, Kabat-Zinn established the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, the first center in the country to use meditation and yoga with patients suffering from intractable pain and chronic illness. Since then, the clinic---now housed in the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society (CFM) in the Department of Medicine---has treated about 16,000 patients and trained about 5,000 medical professionals, 30 to 40 percent of them M.D.s.

At least 1,000 research studies on mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) are in print in peer-reviewed journals, showing it can reduce chronic pain, high blood pressure, serum cholesterol levels, and blood cortisol, and alleviates depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and eating disorders. MBSR can also change the way emotions are regulated in the prefrontal cortex and alter the immune response to an influenza vaccine. In short, Kabat-Zinn has been instrumental in bringing a body of practices and beliefs, once the considered a fetish of spiritualized hippies, right into the mainstream of contemporary medical practice.


Finding A Calling

Like thousands of other students of the era, Kabat-Zinn was deeply embroiled in the movement opposing the Vietnam War then beginning to inflame campuses all over America. And, like them, he was becoming disenchanted with what the best scientists of his era were actually doing with their sharp intellects---creating the next generation of highly sophisticated and lethal weapons systems. He was dismayed that the world's most brilliant scientists, many of whom were on his own campus, could be so sophisticated about science, yet so unsophisticated about the nature of the mind that produced the science.

By the time Kabat-Zinn finished his dissertation, he'd been studying Buddhism and yoga for about four years and knew that the standard life of an academic scientist wasn't for him. The answer finally began to come to him while he was working in the U-Mass anatomy department, where he had the opportunity to talk to doctors and go on rounds with orthopedic surgeons. What did the surgeons do to help their patients deal with intractable pain that drugs didn't help, he wanted to know. Send them for physical therapy, was the answer, though it didn't usually work very well. Patients tended to passively accept physical therapy, the way patients generally accepted drugs or any other medical treatment, as something being done to them to make the pain go away. In difficult and longstanding cases, when these interventions didn't work, patients felt themselves progressively ground down by their chronic pain. And Kabat-Zinn soon found that most of the doctors, of whatever specialty, had patients they could no longer help, didn't know what to do with, and secretly hoped would just go away.

At about the same time that he was discovering this little-advertised fact about the limitations of high-tech medicine, Kabat-Zinn embarked on a two-week Vipasana meditation retreat getting up to practice in the cold at 3:00 a.m., suffering the all-consuming discomfort of sitting cross-legged and motionless for hours and days. One morning, an idea serendipitously struck him.

"It was on the 10th day," he recalled. "After all of those years meditating on what my job on the planet was, I suddenly thought, 'Oh my God, I could bring all this stuff---meditation, mindfulness, yoga---into the hospital!'" In a sudden epiphany, Kabat-Zinn could see the entire plan unfolding in his head---how these techniques could be taught to chronic-pain patients in a hospital setting and to healthcare workers from other hospitals and clinics, who could teach them to their own patients. Mindfulness training wouldn't necessarily relieve pain, but it could transform the experience of pain, help people change their relationship to it and thus soothe their suffering, even when no drug or medical treatment made any real difference.

Soon after Kabat-Zinn began his one-man, two-day-a-week program in an office borrowed from a physical therapist, the chief of medicine came down and asked him if he wanted to run the program through his department---a vote of confidence, if there ever was one! Kabat-Zinn soon began gathering together a pool of "interns"---anybody in the hospital who wanted to learn about this new thing---developing in the process a small core team to run the rapidly expanding program.

This blog is excerpted from “The Power of Paying Attention.” Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Mind/Body | Anxiety/Depression | Mindfulness | Trauma

Tags: center for mindfulness | chronic illness | chronic pain | depression | drugs | eating disorder | eating disorders | emotion | Jon Kabat Zinn | mbsr | meditating | meditation | meditation mindfulness | meditation retreat | mind-body | mindful | mindfulness yoga | practices | science | stress disorder | stress reduction | technology | therapist | therapy | traumatic | traumatic stress | traumatic stress disorder | yoga | yoga and meditation

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