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Jon Kabat-Zinn

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Mindful living

Jon Kabat-Zinn visits the U to put us back in touch with our senses

By Martha Coventry

Published on January 14, 2005

Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and best-selling author of Wherever You Go, There You Are and Full Catastrophe Living, has spent much of his career bringing the medical world's attention to the wisdom of the body and the healing that can happen when we get in touch with our senses and our mind.

"You really can't do anything effective in medicine or science unless you pursue a path of tremendous intellectual inquiry and rationality. But that is just not the end of the story about human beings," says Kabat-Zinn. "There are larger ways of being human that need to be taken into account or we're really not doing a service to our patients. It's not even good medicine."

Kabat-Zinn showed a way into those "larger ways" twenty-five years ago when he founded a stress reduction clinic in the basement of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. His focus was mindfulness--a Buddhist meditation practice that can be most simply described as awareness--of your senses, your body, your mind--and through that awareness, learning to open up new dimensions of well-being and integrity, of wisdom and compassion and kindness in yourself.

"The irony is that meditation isn't about giving anyone anything, it's about reminding them that they have everything they need already. People just sometimes need permission to befriend themselves."

Kabat-Zinn formalized the mindfulness practice into a standardized program called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) that could be reproduced all over the world. Having an MSBR program in a hospital gives a physician who may have run out of treatment options for his or her patients a place to send them where they can "roll up their sleeves," as Kabat-Zinn says, and learn to create their own healing.

Kabat-Zinn will bring this practice of mindfulness, and talk about its ramifications, to the University on Monday, January 17, in an already sold-out workshop for 450 people, and on Tuesday, January 18, in a public talk called "Coming To Our Senses" at the Ted Mann Concert Hall on the Twin Cities campus. Kabat-Zinn is donating all proceeds from his visit to support the Center for Spirituality and Healing's MSBR program.

"Jon was groundbreaker," says Karen Lawson, a University physician and director of integrative clinical services at the Center for Spirituality and Healing. "MBSR was the first time someone brought the mind/body practice into an academic setting." The University began using the program a year-and-a-half ago. "The program works in a way that is a comfortable fit in a scientific and medical setting and can be used both for patient care and for research," says Lawson.

In 2003, the center received a $2.3 million National Institutes of Health grant to study MBSR for use with solid organ transplant patients. And, as well as having classes for the general public, next week the center will begin an eight-week session just for obstetrics and gynecology residents. "We're offering it in partnership with their department along with a research project to see how it might affect their own quality of life, their satisfaction with their job, and their stress levels over the next five years," says Lawson.

Mindfulness practice is not reserved for medical settings, for physicians, or for those in the throes of illness or a chronic condition. Simply being alive in today's world can offer challenges that we must learn how to handle if we want to make the most of our lives and stay healthy.

"On Tuesday night, I'm going to speak to the real sense of rending that we often live with day to day. It erodes the quality of our life and is very often driven by huge undercurrents of anxiety and disquietude," says Kabat-Zinn. "Mindfulness practice is about caring about your life and your relationships. Often we sacrifice what we love the most because we feel driven by ambition, by what other people think of us, by career ladders we need to climb. All of this can be rationalized, but 20 years later we may look around and wonder why we're living a life more empty than full, no matter what we've accomplished."

For Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness meditation is like "living our life as if it really mattered." It is about caring enough about yourself to honor your senses and to use them to stay deeply in touch with the moment in which you find yourself. One reason Kabat-Zinn wrote his new book, Coming To Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness, is to show that meditation can take many forms--you don't need to be sitting in a quiet room, legs folded. Even having a conversation can be a form of meditation. "For instance, what if I were talking to someone on the phone and answering my e-mail at the same time? says Kabat-Zinn. The person on the other end would know it. Not only would he hear my keyboard clicking, but he would just feel like I really wasn't present. People think nothing of doing that, like why not get two things done at once? But that's like saying, you're not important enough for me to give you my full attention."

And not only would that have an effect on the other person, it would be a lost chance for you to be in the present moment. "Mindfulness is a certain way of paying attention that is healing, that is restorative, that is reminding you of who you actually are so that you don't wind up getting entrained into being a human doing rather than a human being," says Kabat-Zinn. "The irony is that meditation isn't about giving anyone anything, it's about reminding them that they have everything they need already. People just sometimes need permission to befriend themselves."

For more information on Jon Kabat-Zinn's visit, see the Center for Spirituality and Healing Web site.

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