In 1979, a 35-year-old avid student of Buddhist meditation
and MIT-trained molecular biologist was on a two-week meditation retreat when he had a vision of what his life’s work---his “karmic assignment”---would be. While he sat alone one afternoon, it all came to him at once: he’d bring the ancient Eastern disciplines he’d followed for 13 years---mindfulness meditation and yoga---to people with chronic health conditions
right here in modern America. What’s more, he’d bring these practices into the very belly of the Western scientific beast---a big teaching hospital where he happened to be working as a post-doc in cell biology and gross anatomy. Somehow, he’d convince scientifically trained medical professionals and patients—ordinary people, who’d never heard of the Dharma and wouldn’t be caught dead in a zendo or an ashram—that learning to follow the breath and do a few gentle yoga postures might help relieve intractable pain and suffering.
Not exactly a modest scheme, and in retrospect, it seems astonishing that this nervy young guy---Jon Kabat-Zinn, the originator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)---would manage to pull it off. And yet, as the now oft-told origin story goes, he convinced the Department of Medicine and hospital administration at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Medical Center that this idea was worth trying. With a core body of “interns”---anybody on staff who wanted to learn about meditation---he set up shop and began putting patients through an intensive 10-week (now 8-week) program of weekly classes, yoga postures, 45-minute guided home-meditation practice six times a week, and an all-day retreat during the sixth week. The idea was to teach a set of active self-regulation skills that patients could practice by themselves to help them cope with medical conditions---chronic pain foremost---for which standard medical remedies, such as drugs, rehab, and surgery, had proven useless. The program was, Kabat-Zinn recalled later, “just a little pilot on zero dollars.”A Movement Is Born
Thirty-five years later and my, how that “little pilot” has grown! Today, more than 20,000 patients have participated in the UMass program, which has produced 1,000 certified MBSR instructors and MBSR programs in about 720 medical settings in more than 30 countries. MBSR---or, more generically, mindfulness training---and other forms of meditation are now used for an almost unimaginable range of medical conditions, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, brain injuries, fibromyalgia, HIV/Aids, Parkinson’s, organ transplants, psoriasis, irritable bowel syndrome, and tinnitus. Mindfulness has become central to the mental health profession and is commonly used in the treatment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, personality disorders, substance abuse, and autism.
Mindfulness has also spilled (or poured) out of the healthcare/psychotherapy world and into the rest of society. It’s migrated to schools, with training programs and curricula for K-12 teachers and students sprouting up like mushrooms. It’s in universities and often, but not always, attached to medical schools or psychology departments as mindfulness research and teaching centers.Mindfulness Goes Mainstream
How did this all happen? In the popular mind, about the only people really interested in meditation during the 1970s were New Age hippies, Asian studies scholars, and a small population of home-grown seekers.
But the medical profession badly needed help with its “problem patients.” In a 2010 interview, Kabat-Zinn explained that before opening his clinic, he asked doctors, “What percentage of your patients do you feel like you help?” and was stunned by their answers. At most, they thought they helped only about 10 to 15 percent, while the other 85 to 90 percent either got better on their own or never got better at all.
The McMindfulness Backlash
The explosive growth of mindfulness in America has inevitably triggered a backlash---a low, rumbling protest, particularly from Buddhists claiming that mindfulness has increasingly become yet another banal, commercialized self-help consumer product, hawked mostly to rich and upper-middle class white people who still wouldn’t be caught dead in a real zendo. While few critics quarrel with using MBSR as a way to alleviate suffering in mind or body, they’re disturbed by how much meditation in America appears to have been individualized, monetized, corporatized, therapized, taken over, flattened, and generally coopted out of all resemblance to its noble origins in an ancient spiritual and moral tradition.
In short, while meditation has been acclaimed and sold as a quick, no-risk, easily mastered technique to achieve just about any conceivable desired goal---health, happiness, freedom from physical or mental pain, relaxation, self-confidence, career success, sexual success, inner peace, world peace!---it’s, in fact, a far deeper, more complex, and less well-understood process than many people realize.What Purity?
To the outpouring of complaints by some Buddhist practitioners that secular mindfulness is basically a fraud dressed in bodhisattva clothing, the response of many others is essentially “Chill out, people.” Meditation, these critics of the critics say in effect, is a good discipline that’s helped suffering people all over the world. And if it isn’t always done in a perfect spirit of selfless “right mindfulness,” or doesn’t always produce better, more compassionate, wiser human beings, well, this is Planet Earth, inhabited by the same imperfect human race that lived here 2,500-plus years ago, when Siddhartha Gautama wandered around India preaching the Dharma. To the accusation that Buddhism has lost its purity to the crass ravages of modern corporate America, for example, antipurist critics respond cheerfully, “What purity?”This blog is excerpted from “The Mindfulness Explosion” The full version is available in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue. To subscribe, click here. >>Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!>>